MONTROSE – In a move deemed “somewhat unusual” by one water law veteran, Montrose County this week released the expert reports it commissioned to support its applications for water rights in western Montrose and San Miguel counties. The Montrose water court will hear the application, and the arguments of more than 30 objectors, including the Town of Telluride and San Miguel County, in October.
In an email to The Watch, attorney Jenny Russell, representing Sheep Mountain Alliance, said, “Preparing the reports is a requirement of water court. Releasing them to the public is somewhat unusual.”
In a press release, Montrose County said the goal of filing for water rights on the San Miguel River and some of its tributaries is “to provide a reliable source of water for the West End of Montrose County [and the towns of Nucla and Naturita] in the future…The reports describe the firm yield of 3,200 acre-feet per year that is needed to meet the municipal, industrial, and irrigation needs of the area over the next 50 years. The reports describe in detail the reservoirs and associated facilities that would be needed to provide that water supply, the financial and technical feasibility of the projects, and the possible effect on streamflows and biological and cultural resources in the area.”
Public Works Director for Montrose County, Brian Wilson, is quoted as saying, “The reports are thorough, well-researched, and document our efforts to serve the future needs of the West End…These reports show that Montrose County is looking at all options and seeking a solution that works best for all parties involved.”
In a phone interview, Wilson said that the cost of the reports would be “impossible to break out” from the overall county expenditure on the water filings, but that since 2010 the county’s cost to secure the water rights stands at just over $832,000.
Wilson also said that projected demand and population figures in the reports have come down since they were first reported by legal counsel Charles “Barney” White in February. “You refine your analysis,” Wilson said. He said the projected population for the West End is now estimated at 5,600 by the year 2060 rather than the 9,400 reported earlier. (There are currently about 2,000 people in the region.) Similarly, the amount of water to be stored has come down from 6,400 acre feet as initially reported to “between 3,700 and 4,500 acre feet.
“We can get by with less,” Wilson said. “You had to make sure you didn’t undershoot that firm yield. This has reduced our reservoir costs as well, considerably down from our original $300 million.”
The report states that uranium milling will be the industry needing the most water in the future. Objectors have pointed out that the only mill planned, the Energy Fuels mill at Piñon Ridge, has applied for its own water rights. “Yes,” Wilson replied, but “the report foresees new mill capacity [beyond Piñon Ridge], or industrial use – mining and milling. I don’t know what the future holds. You don’t want to paint with too narrow a brush.”
Objectors to the filings have said that Montrose County’s objectives are speculative, and that claiming water rights for speculative reasons is not allowed. Commenting on the reports, Sheep Mountain’s Russell said, “The biggest issue remains the justification for this amount of water: an unsupported assumption that there will be a number of uranium mills in the County in the next 50 years, and with it significantly increased population, golf courses, etc. The only mill project out there – Energy Fuels – has applied for its own water rights. The county has no contracts with any other uranium producer for water – it's just a pipe dream, pun intended.”
The reports were prepared by the engineering firm Deere & Ault Consultants, Inc., of Longmont, Colo.; by Economic & Planning Systems, Inc., of Denver; Don Conklin of GEI Consultants, Inc., of Woburn, Mass.; Steve Boyle at BIO-Logic Inc., in Montrose; and Jonathon Horn of Alpine Archaeological Consultants Inc., in Montrose.
The complete reports can be read at