MVI hears water woes Stockholders have concerns about proposed lease

Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co.’s board of directors attempted to alleviate stockholders’ fears regarding a proposed water lease at a meeting Monday night at the Lewis-Arriola Community Center.

More than 100 stockholders gathered at the rural community center to hear from a panel of experts gathered by the company’s board and MaryLou Smith, a policy and collaboration specialist with the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. Smith was brought in by the board of directors to facilitate a series of conversations after a stockholders meeting in May when the proposed lease was voted down.

The MVI board had proposed leasing 6,000 acre feet of water from Groundhog Reservoir to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to bolster the flow of the Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir. An acre-foot is equal to 325,829 gallons of water, enough to fill an entire football field to the depth of 1 foot.

The lease was proposed by The Nature Conservancy, San Juan Citizen’s Alliance and Trout Unlimited, all of whom would have put money toward the purchase. The three-year lease would have flooded MVI’s coffers with nearly $1.5 million, money the company intended to use to support improvements in the water delivery system.

Monday’s meeting was designed to gather stockholders together and gain understanding as to why the lease failed.

“The board felt they needed an opportunity to find out what the stockholder’s concerns were,” said Smith, opening the meeting. “They made a recommendation that didn’t sit well with the stockholders and they wanted to know what the basis was so they could understand and do a better job.”

Board President Randy Carver addressed the stockholders, noting the board didn’t initially know how to respond to the vote in May since stockholders had directed the governing body to find lease options to increase revenue for the company.

“From the May meeting, the board realized that we left some things undone and that we need to bring our shareholders along with us,” Carver said. “After that May meeting we were really pretty hurt and scared and not knowing exactly what direction to take.”

In nine meetings held throughout Montezuma and Dolores counties in August, September and October, board members gathered information from stockholders to narrow down the concerns over the lease. Monday’s meeting was an opportunity for the board to address those concerns.

Panelists at the meeting included John Porter, president of the Southwest Water Conservation District, Ted Kowalski, from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, John Sanderson, co-director of The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado Center for Conservation Science and Strategy and Carver. Each addressed the primary stockholder concerns which were identified as a mistrust of government and regulation as applied to MVI’s water rights, mismanagement of water that is released below McPhee Reservoir and a fear of a water taking.

Porter attempted to lessen fears of a taking by noting water law in Colorado would prohibit such an action.

“I think there would certainly be pressure at the end of the three years to maintain the flow but that doesn’t mean there would be taking,” Porter said. “Our laws would really have to change for that to be a possibility.”

Another concern addressed at the meeting was the possibility of federal action if the three native fish species located in the Lower Dolores are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“The ESA is one of the key environmental laws out there with real teeth,” Kowalski said. “If those species are listed it could really hurt water users and development if you can’t figure out a way to maneuver through.”

Kowalski encouraged stockholders to consider a partnership with environmental organizations, such as the proposed leases. A partnership could preempt federal action, he said.

“To the extent you can focus on factors that may be threatening to those species, you may be better off as a whole,” Kowalski said.

Stockholders addressed the panel with a range of questions, including how a 6,000 acre foot water lease would impact area farmers and ranchers should Southwest Colorado face extreme drought conditions.

“If the lease was to go forward, and we entered into the drought years, how would the citizens of MVI be protected of running short of water,” said Dolores County Commissioner Ernie Williams. “No one here wants to run short and have water going down the river on a drought year.”

Carver said risk is part of agriculture.

“Inherently with farming you have a risk,” Carver said. “The drought was an expected risk going into the lease. At most it would be two-tenths per share less of water if the lease went through and we had maximum exposure. One watering is two-tenths or three-tenths. So, on my farm, that would probably be an eight-day set.”

Carver also said MVI learned management lessons from the 2002 drought, which left reservoir levels precariously low.

“In 2002 we all got caught unaware. It was bad with the management in place,” he said. “We got hit by a Mack truck and with proper management you can overcome a large part of that fear. If we are in a drought situation, the lease is not the problem, the drought is the problem.”

At the end of the evening, stockholders still seemed leery about leasing water for anything other than agricultural needs.

“A lot of people have a lot of fear,” said local rancher Drew Gordanier. “My direction to the board would be to lease this water to agriculture within our own community. That will create more income in the long run and further economically benefit this community rather than a little bit of water going south. It is a safer lease and a better alternative.”

The MVI board will host another stockholders meeting in December to discuss the needs of the company and whether or not to put the proposed lease to vote again. A date has not yet been set.

For more information, contact the MVI office at 565-3332 or visit the website at www.mvic.info.

Reach Kimberly Benedict at kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com.