Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the San Juan Headwaters Project
- Why Build a Reservoir? – Future Demand in Hotter, Drier Conditions. Water storage to be built as the San Juan Headwaters Project offers some insurance to meet future demand for multiple uses, including agricultural, environmental, recreational and municipal. The land purchased for the new reservoir sits near the headwaters of the San Juan River, a tributary to the Colorado River. Thus, water supply from the San Juan on which the Pagosa area relies is not just a local resource or even a state resource. Our water is part of the fragile supply for a multinational region facing hotter, drier conditions. The reservoir will help us keep water in Archuleta County.
- Why Build a Reservoir? – Resiliency from Wildfire Risk. The new reservoir envisioned by the San Juan Headwaters Project would be a back-up water supply, offering some insurance against wildfire risk. Wildfire debris and sediment that erodes from burned areas are threats to water supply pipelines and the quality of water collected in reservoirs. The Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District (PAWSD) has developed and maintains several reservoirs west of Pagosa Springs. Another reservoir in a different location with a different filling mechanism (as would be the case for the new reservoir) can provide an alternative water supply, making our community more resilient to the effects of wildfire.
- Can More Storage Serve More Water Uses? The San Juan Headwaters Project can store water to serve multiple water demands. The authority to serve a variety of uses is different from water controlled by PAWSD alone. PAWSD exists and operates to deliver water to consumers for household use and to local businesses. In water law, those water uses are called “municipal.” The water rights approved for the San Juan Headwaters Project permits a broader range of uses, including agricultural, environmental, recreational, and municipal.
- Why Build a Reservoir? – Environment and Aesthetics. A reservoir contributes to the environmental and recreational landscape, which supports the local economy and quality of life for residents. The San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) has approached Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) about designating the reservoir area as a state park. CPW has expressed strong interest in a new state park if the reservoir is built.
- What are the property interests of SJWCD and PAWSD? Water rights held by the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) and land jointly owned by SJWCD and the Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District (PAWSD) are valuable assets to make our water supply more resilient and secure. The jointly-owned land, purchased by SJWCD and PAWSD in 2007, is located in an area known as Dry Gulch off of Highway 160 east of Pagosa Springs. The site is near the headwaters of the San Juan River, and the project to develop the reservoir is called the San Juan Headwaters Project.
- What Else Does SJWCD Do? A new reservoir does not substitute for conservation and other measures that keep our watersheds healthy. The San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) will continue to support and promote its broader mission to provide water issues and conservation education, water resources planning, stream improvement, water rights protection, and development of services within its geographic boundaries.
- Who will Pay for the Reservoir? Building a reservoir will take substantial investments of time and money. The San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) recognizes that funding for the San Juan Headwaters Project is beyond the capacity of local taxpayers. SJWCD plans to seek infrastructure grants and partner organizations to share the costs of building and maintaining the reservoir. Positioning the reservoir project for funding will, itself, require SJWCD to make investments in early-stage design, engineering, and related work. Some of this preliminary work has been done, and SJWCD will leverage those prior investments.
- Doesn’t Pagosa Have Plenty of Water Already? Further delay in building the San Juan Headwaters Project risks Archuleta’s water future. Plenty of water today is not a guarantee of plenty of water in ten or twenty years. The foreseeable future continues to look hotter and drier than the past. Building the San Juan Headwaters Project will take several years. When the reservoir is built, it will provide flexibility to manage water flows and new recreational opportunities. We can hope that the reservoir will never be needed to respond to a water crisis. But hope is not a good plan. Like insurance we buy for ourselves and our businesses, the San Juan Headwaters Project is an investment our community will be glad to have made as water availability declines in a hotter and drier future.
- Why Build Now? Planning for a new reservoir began decades ago, and building a new reservoir will take several more years of design, permitting, and construction. Plenty of water today is not a guarantee of plenty of water in ten or twenty years. Moving the San Juan Headwaters Project forward now positions our community for declining water availability in the hotter, drier conditions predicted. Consider the water decline in Lake Mead between 2000 and 2022. In 2000, the water elevation peaked at 1214 feet, just shy of Lake Mead’s 1229-foot storage capacity.1 In 2022, Lake Mead’s water elevation peaked at 1067 feet. Doing nothing risks loss of decreed water rights and water infrastructure inadequate to meet demand in a hotter and drier future. Doing nothing kicks another burden down the road to the next generation.
1 Bureau of Reclamation, Lake Mead Annual High and Low Elevations (1935-2022), https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/lakemead_line.pdf
- Did taxpayers overpay for the Running Iron Ranch? The site for the San Juan Headwaters Project is land in Dry Gulch east of Pagosa Springs known as the Running Iron Ranch. Back in 1989, the boards of the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) and the Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District (PAWSD) considered multiple locations for a new reservoir. Studies accounting for water supply and cost narrowed the site options to two locations. One of those two locations was developed for private use before the boards could act. In 2007, the SJWCD and PAWSD boards moved to secure the other site for the public. That site was the Running Iron Ranch in Dry Gulch. SJWCD and PAWSD purchased it as a long-term investment in the community’s future. The boards negotiated a purchase agreement and obtained financing on terms they determined to be reasonable at the time. The objective of SJWCD is to maximize the value of the property investment, along with decreed water rights permitting SJWCD and PAWSD to fill an 11,000 acre-foot reservoir, for the long-term benefit of residents and property owners.
- What is the San Juan Water Conservancy District? The San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) is a political subdivision of the State of Colorado duly organized as water conservancy district under Colorado’s Water Conservancy Act (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 37- 45-101). The SJWCD was formed on October 22, 1987, by a decree of the District Court of Archuleta County (Case No. 1987CV100) following a majority vote of approval by electors in the boundaries of the SJWCD. The charge of the SJWCD is to provide water issues and conservation education, water resources planning, stream improvement, water rights protection, and development of services within its geographic boundaries. SJWCD is also charged with ensuring the property and residents within its district and the water resources of the San Juan River, and its tributaries will be benefited by these activities.