Grand County drill leases halted

October 31, 2007

BLM notes the furor over 31,000 acres with little energy imprint.

By Steve Lipsher
The Denver Post

 The federal government on Tuesday removed 23 oil-and-gas-exploration leases in Grand County from its upcoming sale after residents protested what they considered an unwarranted intrusion into unmarred country.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials announced that they would defer the Nov. 8 sale of 12,802 acres of BLM land and 18,276 acres of “split-estate” property – in which the landowner does not control the mineral rights beneath the ground – including scenic parcels just outside the county seat of Hot Sulphur Springs.

“We acknowledge that, with little federal oil-and-gas leasing in Grand County in recent years, all parties involved will benefit from additional discussions and outreach on the federal oil-and-gas leasing process,” said BLM deputy state director Lynn Rust.

Granby Mayor Ted Wang expressed relief, saying that he recognized a groundswell of opposition to energy exploration in the fast-growing ranching and tourism region.

Wang and officials in four other Grand County towns indicated they had not been aware of the extent of the exploration that could occur and expressed concerns over the impacts to roads, housing, social services and the local economy.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife and environmental groups including Trout Unlimited also protested the leases.

Wildlife officials still harbor concerns about the leases proposed for parcels in Jackson, Routt and Moffat counties that could intrude into big-game habitat and undermine efforts to protect endangered fish.

The BLM plans to continue with sales of 135 parcels covering 129,726 acres across Colorado despite receiving protests on all of them, although no exploration will be allowed until those concerns are considered.

Grand County is not believed to harbor a significant profitable quantity of natural gas, a big reason that records say just one drilling permit has been issued there since 1988.

Wildlife defenders take a stand

October 31, 2007

By Charlie Meyers
The Denver Post

Amid the continuing bad news from the Roan Plateau and other energy development hotspots, one light continues to shine brightly. Even in the face of political sellouts and unbending bureaucrats, defenders of wildlife values keep slugging away with an organized determination that should serve their cause well, now and in future battles.

Following the dictates of their Washington, D.C., masters, regional operatives of the Bureau of Land Management have announced plans to expand leasing beyond these earlier centers to include key parcels that will impact high-country wildlife habitat.

A planned Nov. 8 auction of 189,000 acres in 170 scattered parcels includes public land in Jackson, Grand, Moffat and Dolores counties. These contain big-game wintering range, important sage grouse habitat, and streams that contain wild and native trout populations.

Wildlife proponents, caught by surprise, have been quick to react.

“This lease sale is indicative of the BLM and its mad rush to drill new country, despite the existing values these places harbor,” said Scott Linn of Granby, president of the Colorado Rivers Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “For sportsmen, this sale could be a real mess and the fact that we’re just hearing about it is troubling.”

Even as wildlife advocates fight this new fire, the battle continues on the Roan Plateau, where state officials join conservation groups in trying to limit damage that seems to spread daily. From road kills to outright poaching by energy workers to general environmental degradation, the Roan has become a symbol for all that’s wrong with this push by the Bush administration to give developers everything they want.

As a case in point, the BLM determination to drop the drilling boundaries along three streams – Trapper, Northwater and the East Fork of Parachute Creek – holding remnant populations of threatened Colorado River cutthroat trout down the slopes above the streams.

“We wanted to keep the drilling along the tops of the ridges to reduce sediment going into the streams,” said JT Romatzke, district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “If the leases go through, the wells will be all over it.”

At the same time, the Colorado Mule Deer Association has filed a protest over another BLM ploy to intensify drilling along South Parachute Gap. In conjunction with the Colorado and National Wildlife Foundations, CMDA has appealed to BLM’s state director as part of an action it plans to force all the way to the Internal Board of Land Appeals.

“We hope to force BLM to start managing the land as they’re supposed to do, to get the oil companies to tell us what they propose to do,” said Bob Elderkin of Silt, a member of CMDA’s board of directors and retired BLM employee.

Considering that BLM seems determined to flaunt whatever blurred rules it uses to direct these operations, court action may be required to sort things out. Should proponents choose that alternative, one beneficial result could be a delay in development of certain sensitive areas until the administration changes early in 2009.

Meanwhile, wildlife advocates continue a fight that the wild places of Colorado can’t afford to lose.

Colo. SC rules water district overdid growth estimates

October 31, 2007

From Legal

DENVER — The Colorado Supreme Court has denied water rights for a reservoir to serve a southwestern county by ruling the local water authority over-estimated the area’s future growth.

In Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District et. al. v. Trout Unlimited (docket# 06SA338) the Supreme Court overturned a 2004 water court ruling allowing the Pagosa Water District conditional water rights from the San Juan River. It would have allowed total annual storage of 64,000 acre-feet of water through 2100.

Opponents Trout Unlimited, a fishing advocacy group, argued that the rights were based on unrealistic population-growth estimates for Archuleta County. The Pagosa Water District served 9,500 people with 2,000 acre-feet in 2005; based on 2005 use, capacity of 64,000 acre-feet would serve over 300,000 residents.

The Supreme Court agreed, arguing that water rights cannot be claimed speculatively in Colorado. “The water court must…make factual findings concerning whether the districts can and will place the claimed amount of unappropriated water to beneficial use within a reasonable time,” wrote Justice Gregory J. Hobbs.

The San Juan Water Conservancy District, which fought the suit with the Pagosa Water District, still holds conditional rights to 6,300 acre-feet of water for the Dry Gulch reservoir.

Conserve, recycle

October 29, 2007

TROUT UNLIMITED recently won a major Colorado Supreme Court case that recognizes there are limits to the water municipal suppliers may claim for future population growth.

In 2004, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District and San Juan Water Conservancy District received a Durango water court decree for enough reservoir water for more than 300,000 people – projected out nearly a century to the year 2100.

Yet, in 2005 the Pagosa district served only 9,500 people with a modest 2,000 acre-feet of water (325,851 gallons per acre).

On appeal, Trout Unlimited convinced the Supreme Court that the amount of water claimed, predicted population growth and 100-year time frame were unrealistic. Colorado’s anti-speculation doctrine prohibits hoarding water without a reasonable plan for putting it to beneficial use.

Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs wrote the unanimous decision overturning the lower court.

Justice Hobbs found that municipal suppliers must take into account, among other factors, how water conservation measures and reuse can reduce future municipal water demand.

Closer to home, Colorado Springs Utilities should take notice and seriously undertake conservation and reuse of its existing water supplies to mitigate that city’s Southern Delivery System plan of taking yet more water out of Lake Pueblo to the detriment of Pueblo and the Lower Arkansas Valley.

We congratulate Trout Unlimited for fighting to protect the San Juan River trout fishery and Justice Hobbs for giving judicial weight to the role of conservation and reuse in water law.

Chalk one up for Trout Unlimited

October 29, 2007

By The Denver Post

 Trout Unlimited recently won a major victory in the broad realm of in-stream flow protection when the Colorado Supreme Court clamped legal limitations on the ability of water providers to divert water toward future population growth. The suit concerned a 2004 application filed jointly by the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District and the San Juan Water Conservancy District for conditional water rights for Dry Gulch Reservoir and pump station. The reservoir would store 35,000 acre feet of water obtained by pumping 200 cubic feet per second from the San Juan River to serve population growth in Archuleta County through the year 2100.

TU challenged the application, claiming the diversion would significantly impact the river’s flow. As often is the case, the water court ruled for the developer. TU appealed on grounds that the water was being claimed for speculative purposes.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision and remanded the case, instructing the water court to reevaluate the districts’ future water needs.

Drew Peternell, TU’s attorney, hailed the ruling for its broader implication.

“It establishes a precedent throughout Colorado that municipal water providers cannot claim water rights for which they do not have a demonstrable need,” Peternell said.

“This decision is especially significant in the fact that the Supreme Court recognized the potential of water conservation as a means of limiting water demand.”

Several of the state’s largest municipal providers filed briefs in support of the Pagosa bid, arguing that cities should be afforded broad deference in appropriating water rights. The court rejected that argument.

Nov. 8 energy lease sale prompts protests

October 25, 2007

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Oil and gas leasing where nary a drilling rig has ever touched the ground will exact a tremendous toll on wildlife, tourism and the Colorado River, Grand County officials, environmentalists and wildlife managers said Wednesday.A slate of environmental groups, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., are asking the Bureau of Land Management to either remove thousands of acres of parcels from the agency’s Nov. 8 oil and gas lease sale or cancel the sale outright.

Massive tracts of public land —  including more than 31,000 acres in Grand County and more than 56,000 acres in wildlife-rich Jackson County —  are slated for the auction block next month in Middle Park, North Park, sensitive wildlife habitat in Moffat County and in the Paradox Basin south of Grand Junction.

“North Park, Middle Park, the area around Craig: Those are core areas of most of the greater sage grouse in Colorado,” which could be devastated by widespread energy development, DOW Regional Manager Ron Velarde said.

Habitat damage from energy development, he said, could lead the federal government to list the sage grouse as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

To stop the damage before it starts, the DOW is asking the BLM to remove more than 120,000 acres of parcels in North and Middle parks and Moffat County from the BLM’s lease sale, Velarde said.

Wildlife officials are hardly alone. Udall asked the BLM on Wednesday to postpone the entire 189,000-acre lease sale because local communities and wildlife officials haven’t had enough time to analyze the impact of potential oil and gas drilling in an area that has seen little development.

Udall said he wants the BLM in Colorado to follow the lead of the agency’s Utah office, which canceled that state’s November oil and gas lease sale because of inadequate environmental analysis.

“My impression is everyone was caught a little off guard by this,” Hot Sulphur Springs Mayor Hershal Deputy said. “I’m not sure we particularly saw this coming.”

Neither did the town of Granby, Mayor Ted Wang said.

The BLM announced the sale at the end of the summer, and its details have been available on its Web site,, since then.

“Granby is a cooperating agency with the BLM, and we had no notification about this at all,” Wang said. “My board is not pleased they didn’t let us know.”

BLM spokeswoman Jaime Gardner said the BLM does not communicate with individual towns, but instead relies on county commissioners and the media to spread the word about oil and gas leases sales.

Even though Grand County Commissioner Gary Bumgarner said he thinks there has been adequate communication between the BLM and the county about the lease sale, “We are protesting.”

The BLM didn’t do adequate environmental analysis of the lease sale because it is using a 15-year-old analysis, he said.

“We’d like to have (the BLM’s) management plan updated before they went ahead with oil and gas leases,” Bumgarner said. “They’re in the process of upgrading that management plan now.”

“If it becomes like Rifle and down in that country, it would be a major impact,” he said.

Wang said if such large tracts of land in the county are leased, it could hurt water quality in the headwaters of the Colorado River and send an influx of workers into an area already in a construction boom.

“I think the changes would be really profound,” he said. “We have so little water in the river now because of transmountain diversions. Consequently, the Colorado and its tributaries are in a perpetual state of drought.”

More silt from new roads and new oil and gas well pads and any new interference with an already strained Colorado River “could be disastrous,” Wang said, adding that he expects most of Grand County’s municipalities to join Granby’s protest of the lease sale.

Kremmling Mayor Thomas Clark said his town will not protest the lease sale.

“I think it’s a pretty high-risk area for oil and gas,” he said.

The town board, he said, agreed that the county, state and federal governments have enough safeguards in place to ensure energy development won’t harm the environment.

But he said he understands how Hot Sulphur Springs and Granby are frightened by the prospect of a natural gas boom akin to that in Garfield, Rio Blanco and Mesa counties.

“Looking at what’s going on on the Roan Plateau and thinking that’s going on here, it could really scare them,” Clark said.

In North Park, where there are more state wildlife areas than towns, Jason Bodner of North Park Anglers said he worries energy development could hurt the quality of the area’s fishing.

Oil and gas drilling “is also going to detract from recreation if it screws up the watershed,” he said. “It’s my biggest concern.”

Walden Mayor Dirk Ramsey said energy development is a concern “to a point,” but he needs to “look into it further.”

At least seven environmental and sportsmen’s groups have also filed protests against the lease sale, including the Colorado Wildlife Federation, the Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited, the Wilderness Society, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Colorado Environmental Coalition and the Center for Native Ecosystems, whose objections to Utah’s lease sale proved successful in getting it cancelled.

“This lease sale is indicative of the BLM and its mad rush to drill new country despite the existing values these places harbor,” said Scott Linn, president of the Colorado River headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited. “These areas are extremely important to hunters and anglers. The habitat for fish and game is just excellent.”

Supreme Court denies Pagosa new reservoir

October 25, 2007

Trout Unlimited said projections for population were unrealistic

October 24, 2007

| Herald Denver Bureau

DENVER – The state Supreme Court has denied a large water right for a new reservoir above Pagosa Springs.

The reservoir, which would be called Dry Gulch Reservoir, would meet the future needs of fast-growing Archuleta County. Trout Unlimited appealed, saying the plan was based on unrealistic growth estimates.

On Monday, the Supreme Court overturned a large water right for the reservoir and sent the case back to District Judge Gregory Lyman in Durango. Lyman could order a new trial or accept new evidence and arguments.

“We couldn’t really have hoped for a better opinion. We think the Supreme Court got it right,” said Drew Peternell, Trout Unlimited’s attorney.

The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District provides water to most Archuleta County residents, parks and golf courses.

District Manager Carrie Campbell said Tuesday that she hadn’t studied the 46-page decision, but she hopes for another chance in Lyman’s court.

“I’m hopeful and very optimistic that we’re not going to lose what we’ve applied for,” Campbell said.

The San Juan Water Conservancy District – a partner organization to the Pagosa water district – already has a 6,300-acre-foot conditional right for Dry Gulch Reservoir, and Campbell said water managers plan to build the reservoir in some form.

“We have no choice,” she said.

It’s needed for population growth, and the Dry Gulch site – a mile and a half east of Pagosa Springs – is the best site in the area, she said.

The case began in 2004, when the Pagosa district won a 29,000-acre-foot conditional water right in a trial in Lyman’s court. The water would come from the San Juan River.

The district based its request on population projections to the year 2100. Trout Unlimited appealed, saying the predictions were unrealistic.

In 2005, the Pagosa district served 9,500 people with about 2,000 acre-feet of water, according to the Supreme Court. The Dry Gulch decree included a right to continually refill the lake, bringing the total to 64,000 acre-feet a year.

Based on 2005 water use, 64,000 acre-feet would be enough for 304,000 people, or a city twice the size of Pueblo.

“It was an enormous amount of water for what is currently a pretty small community,” Peternell said.

Trout Unlimited is worried about a wild population of brown trout in the San Juan River.

“We’re not trying to deprive Archuleta County and Pagosa Springs of having a safe water supply,” he said.

In 2003, Pagosa’s water engineer, Steve Harris, estimated Dry Gulch would need 12,000 acre-feet of storage to meet demands by 2040. But the next year, the district’s board asked for a much larger water right.

In the trial, Harris testified the district was worried about a potential recreational water right for a Pagosa Springs kayak park.

“That would essentially tie up a good portion of the river, and if you don’t get in ahead of it, you’re essentially not going to have hardly any water left to use,” Harris testified.

He also worried about future environmental claims on the river by the state or the U.S. Forest Service.

But the state Supreme Court said water rights can’t be used to block other people’s future uses.

The court’s water expert, Justice Gregory Hobbs, wrote the opinion.

Colorado water law does not allow “speculating,” or claiming large amounts of water that might never be used. The system is set up to ensure the best use of the public’s water, Hobbs wrote.

However, “optimum use can be achieved only through proper regard for all significant factors, including environmental and economic concerns,” Hobbs wrote.

In a previous case from the Denver suburb of Thornton, the high court decided 50 years was a reasonable time frame for water planners to use. Pagosa’s 100-year plans doubled that period.

Justice Nathan Coats, however, said the 50-year standard is dangerous.

Cities need to be reined in by proving they can build their systems in a “reasonable” time period. Otherwise, they will claim vast amounts of water based solely on 50-year population projections, Coats wrote in a concurring opinion.