Water conservancy weighs ownership of Jackson Gulch

The Mancos Water Conservancy District board on Thursday weighed the consequences of taking ownership of Jackson Gulch Reservoir, the dam, the canal system and the land it sits on from the federal government.

If the district worked with the Bureau of Reclamation to take ownership, the district would have to take over all the contracting and inspections.

"It would be local control," Superintendent Gary Kennedy said.

The Bureau of Reclamation currently budgets $160,000 a year to manage the irrigation project, and and $150,000 a year for recreational use of the lake.

Kennedy estimates that if the district did all the work the bureau does for irrigation and water management, it would cost $20,000 to $40,000 because the district wouldn't have as much administrative overhead. The district doesn't plan to cover any of Mancos' state parks expenses if the board pursues the transfer of ownership.

A major question the board members tried to address at the Thursday workshop was: What value does the Bureau of Reclamation add to the project?

They determined it isn't a reliable source of funding.

"The grant money out there - it's getting tighter and tighter to get," Kennedy said.

Many of the board members expressed frustration that the bureau has been slow to respond to district needs and questions, sometimes taking several years.

"The bureau used to be a friend. Not anymore," Dee Graf, boardmember emeritus, said.

Liability also was a concern, but most of it is already shouldered by the district.

Currently, the bureau would not take legal responsibility for any dam failing unless it was a design flaw, Kennedy said.

Other questions went unanswered.

"Does it benefit or cost our taxpayers?" asked Scott Cox, a new board member.

"At this point in time, I can't answer that," Kennedy said.

If the district took ownership of the project, it would still be subject to some state inspections for dam safety.

Currently, the Bureau of Reclamation does regular inspections, but the district is responsible for maintenance or replacement. For example, the district paid $3 million for the recent rehabilitation project.

There is one exception to the maintenance rule. The Bureau of Reclamation would step in if the dam started to experience a failure. But the agency would also send the district a bill for half the cost, and it would be due in three years.

Board members wrapped up the workshop by agreeing to attend the regular August meeting with more key questions about taking ownership and to talk with boards that have gone through the process.

At an initial meeting about the transfer with James Hess, a bureau representative from Washington, Hess said the transfer process can take years.

Only 27 other water projects in the nation have been fully transferred from the federal government to a local organization.