Eagle water district: Too soon for Gems

Lauren GlendenningVail correspondentAspen, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colo. – The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, the second-largest water supplier on the Western Slope, is opposing the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal as it stands right now.The water district sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis last week stating that wilderness could inhibit future water projects needed to serve growing populations and the ability to manage watersheds as the two biggest concerns over the wilderness proposal that Polis is expected to present to Congress.Wilderness designations prohibit motorized and mechanized uses, such as mountain bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles and chain saws, to name a few, and it takes an act of Congress to create wilderness or to reverse it.The water district sent a letter to the Vail Town Council on Tuesday morning outlining its views on why it wants Polis to wait at least two years before bringing any legislation forward.The Vail Town Council voted to table a resolution stating the town’s support for the proposal Tuesday night until Sept. 21. Council members Kevin Foley, Kim Newbury and Mayor Dick Cleveland expressed opposition to the wilderness proposal, while members Margaret Rogers, Kerry Donovan and Andy Daly expressed support. Councilwoman Susie Tjossem was absent from the meeting.Newbury trusted the “hundreds of hours” the water district has put into researching the matter, while the Town Council has had just a couple of 15-minute sessions on the subject, she said.Rogers said it’s time to protect wilderness now because when it’s gone, it’s gone. She said population growth in the area is one of the biggest reasons she supports wilderness.Several Vail residents and business owners spoke both in favor of and against the town’s resolution Tuesday night. The issue has caused more public input than any other issue has in recent years, Donovan said.

The two-year delay, according to a water district letter to Polis, would allow the water district more time to research the potential impacts of a wilderness designation and identify areas where wilderness could hinder the water district’s efforts.”Since wilderness designation creates the highest level of restriction for human activities, including those aimed at protection and restoration of the land and its natural functions, once this designation is created, it is unlikely ever to be undone,” wrote Linn Brooks, assistant general manager of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, to Polis on July 27. “We believe that it is well worth taking this extra time to understand the consequences of such an action.”Concern with restoration efforts has been heightened in recent years following the Hayman Fire, widespread beetle kill and the emergence of watershed issues related to climate change – all of which have effected peak runoff flows and base flows, presenting a serious threat to the water quality and quantity, according to Brooks.Water districts typically oppose wilderness proposals, though, said Steve Smith, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society, one of the main organizations backing the Hidden Gems proposal.He said the water districts’ needs have always been met throughout the history of wilderness designations in Colorado since the Wilderness Act of 1964.When asked why water districts such as the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District would still oppose wilderness proposals if designations have always worked out in their favor, Smith said he doesn’t know why.He said the Hidden Gems campaign has met with water districts for the past two years and has made every accommodation, which is why he’s not sure why the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District would still oppose it.”Even if we fix everything they showcase right now, they’re worried there’s something they haven’t thought of that could come up in the future,” Smith said. “We first published this wilderness proposal 11 years ago – we do not see the advantage of another two-year delay.”The water district, however, believes two more years would give it enough time to study the potential implications for local watersheds should a wilderness proposal pass.

Diane Johnson, spokeswoman for the water district, said wilderness designations have provisions that claim that things such as firefighting and watershed management are still allowed, but she said those provisions look good on paper but rarely get practiced.The water district’s letter says that administrative-process requirements, such as watershed restoration, are “so much greater for activities that take place in wilderness that managers will generally choose to spend their limited funds outside of wilderness where they can accomplish projects with less cost, time and exposure to litigation.”Johnson said the letter to Polis, as well as other information, was presented by the water district to the Vail Town Council on Tuesday to make sure council members understand all of the concerns.”Do we want our lands protected? Of course,” Johnson said. “But we have an obligation to provide water service and want to continue to be able to do our jobs.”Brooks told the Town Council on Tuesday night that it’s really hard to get permits for anything within a wilderness area, making restoration of watersheds in wilderness areas much harder to perform, meaning a wilderness designation could end up causing more damage to the watershed.”We just don’t know enough about these areas to make a decision that’s permanent,” Brooks said. “Our proposal is to take a two-year period to understand what the watershed values are.”Brooks said the water district’s fundamental disagreement with wilderness proponents is that those proponents think closing off areas is the best way to protect them but that it could take 1,000 years.”Watershed restoration, however, could get in there and make a difference in our lifetime,” Brooks said.Susie Kincaid, the Hidden Gems campaign’s Eagle County spokeswoman, said she expects Polis to submit some kind of bill to Congress by the end of the summer or by the fall.Polis spokeswoman Lara Cottingham issued a statement Tuesday responding to the fact that the water district is opposing the proposal.”We are continuing to work closely with a variety of stake holders as we review the proposal, including Eagle River and other water providers, towns and counties,” Cottingham said in an e-mailed statement. “As a result of these helpful meetings and discussions, we feel strongly that any legislation introduced by Congressman Polis would fit Eagle County’s needs and vision for the future.”