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Want growth? You need water

Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink. Or, with apologies to Coleridge, nor any unlimited surplus to drink.

Water has always been a primary factor determining the dynamics of life in the West. You have water, you have chips on the table; you’re a player. Without it — you move on.

Cities and industries come into being when water is present; communities and industries grow only when available water allows it.

Contrary to what some believe, water is not available in unlimited quantities. Many people act as if water supplies are inexhaustible.

This is a misconception and, potentially, a serious one.

Water is in reality an extremely valuable commodity, and increasingly rare, with unrelenting demand from urban areas and industries. Water is, as many have said, “the new oil,” and the struggles to acquire, use and sell it are intense.

Take a look at the San Juan River. Where many see rushing water, ready for removal and use, those schooled in the way things work see a limited resource, its use governed by an appropriation system with origins in the mining industry of old. To use that water, you need rights — absolute rights if you are lucky, conditional rights if you can acquire and retain them. You tend and exercise your rights, or you can lose them. Here at the headwaters of a major surface water source, you can look at the water coursing through the channel of the San Juan and rightly imagine a great deal of it making its way far downstream, for use in other places, other states, where the rights are owned.

Many people see a bright future in this community as dependent on growth — growth of business, growth of population. To grow, you must have adequate water. Those who advocate growth must, if they are to remain coherent, support use and protection of the maximum of the water resource allowed.

Which makes us wonder why some folks think waiving fees designed to protect local water resources and allow for their use is a good idea. The recent move to pressure the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District to waive fees that will ultimately help the district build and use a reservoir of not-yet-determined size and cost flies in the face of the link that exists between growth and water. Most of the water that will be available for the growth they desire will come as a result of the maintenance of conditional rights. To retain those rights, diligence must be shown every six years, indicating progress is being made in the plan to use the water. Part of the diligence PAWSD will show — along with studies, surveys, land acquisition, etc. — is the existence of a fund, with fees, dedicated to the reservoir project.

There are those of us who did not agree with the PAWSD plan to acquire the Dry Gulch land and plan a reservoir at the site — who urged further exploration of ideas such as small containments on national forest land, or who were satisfied with the extent of growth that improvements to the PAWSD system already in place would accommodate. We lost the argument but, now, we don’t want to lose the water.

It seems a host of public officials and residents of the county have decided the future requires growth. So be it — at least for now. But, given this is the case, advocates of population growth who champion water fee waivers need to come up with a better way to provide money for a fund that will help secure conditional water rights (short of exorbitant use fees and ponderous, additional debt). Perhaps this will entail effective cooperation on a Community Economic Roundtable, and fee adjustments that come out of it. Regardless, they need to provide alternatives— rather than call for PAWSD board resignations — and do it soon.

Karl Isberg