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At 75, Southwestern Water Conservation District looks back on lessons

200 gather in Durango for annual seminar
A coordinator with the Animas River Stakeholders Group, Peter Butler credits the Southwest Water Conservation District for supporting the ARSG over more than two decades dedicated to watershed cleanup. Here, Butler walks in the so-called “kill zone” below the Red and Bonita Mine in 2013.

Water – whether it’s supply, conservation or quality – has always been a challenging topic for Colorado, particularly for the southwest.

On Friday, nearly 200 regional officials and water stakeholders convened at the DoubleTree Hotel for the Southwestern Water Conservation District’s 34th annual water seminar, celebrating 75 years of existence and discussing the lessons learned.

“There has always been the problem of not enough money,” said speaker Bill McDonald of McDonald Water Policy Consulting, pointing to the state’s history of water woes.

But when President Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal, there was a heavy emphasis on public works programs.

“In that, Colorado saw real opportunity to get some of the $3.2 billion budgeted for public works administration,” McDonald said. “Two million was earmarked for water projects.”

But the state was unprepared and was divided by “sectional differences” over transmountain diversions between the east and west.

So in 1934, Gov. Edwin Johnson proposed a state planning commission to identify statewide needs for natural resources, highways, recreation and other public works projects, and water development was high on Johnson’s agenda.

In June 1935, the governor convened a meeting of water stakeholders at which an advisory group called the Committee of 17 was chosen to direct the state planning commission, which laid the groundwork for the establishment of conservation districts.

Speakers on Friday credited the Southwest Water Conservation District for providing the support necessary for water quality improvement and local supply projects over the years.

Peter Butler, a coordinator with the Animas River Stakeholders Group, credited the Southwest Water Conservation District for supporting the ARSG throughout its 22 years dedicated to watershed cleanup.

The stakeholders group formed in 1994 to address water quality standards, at which time the Colorado Division of Water Quality had proposed strict standards for the Upper Animas area near Silverton.

“No one knew what was really going on there,” Butler said. “The state knew it was beyond their resources to figure out, so the ARSG was convened by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, which at the time was considering Superfund status for the region, held off on the federal designation as long as the ARSG was making progress.

Since then, ARSG has made strides in remedying mine waste sites in the Silverton area. Butler said the Southwest Water Conservation District helped by funding gauging stations where the stakeholders’ group has gathered data for more than two decades, and helping reduce the ARSG’s liability in cleanup projects.

The Palo Verde Public Improvement District is another local success story.

Palo Verde is a subdivision located at Durango’s eastern boundary, north of U.S. Highway 160 in the Grand View area. There, residents were seeing a decline in the volume and reliability of their water wells.

So the Palo Verde homeowners association struck an agreement with the city of Durango to connect the neighborhood to the city water system by creating a PID.

With PID designation, Palo Verde residents were able to establish a mill levy to gradually pay back a loan from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority to build a $500,000 water line. In December 2014, 3,650 linear feet were completed.

“This type of project could be replicated here and elsewhere in the county,” Assistant La Plata County Manager Joanne Spina said. “And the results speak for themselves. Seed funding made it possible, and we learned from it tremendously. We have an example to use as a spring board.”


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