How unification of the local water authority and water, sanitation district could secure region’s water supply
The process of potentially unifying the region’s two water governmental organizations has begun — with some support and some opposition
The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority have started taking the first steps toward unification — a move that could have big benefits in preventing water shortages in the future.
“The driving force for unifying is water supply,” wrote Diane Johnson, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District’s communications and public affairs manager, in an email to the Vail Daily. “The UERWA has less water to meet current and future demands, have a strategic reserve, and address impacts of climate change. Unification allows UERWA access to ERWSD’s water.”
The first step in the process is receiving consent from the authority’ member boards — which includes the town of Avon as well as the Arrowhead, Beaver Creek, Berry Creek, EagleVail and Edwards metro districts — to proceed with drafting an inclusion agreement. This agreement would outline and address all details surrounding the process and structure of the new unified water district.
On Tuesday, Sept. 27, Linn Brooks, the executive director of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, presented on the unification proposal to the Avon Town Council. Avon was the sixth and final member board presentation, Johnson said.
Five of the member boards have a “head nod,” Johnson said to go ahead with drafting an agreement. The Beaver Creek metro district board of directors requested that the district explore other governmental structures that would give them an appointed seat on the board. However, with majority support, the district is moving forward with drafting an agreement.
District versus authority
Both the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority provide water to Eagle County. However, as it stands, the district provides water to the town of Vail and certain properties in Wolcott. The authority provides water to all areas west of Dowd Junction to Cordillera.
The district provides waste water treatment for the entire service area of both the district and the authority, with the addition of Minturn.
With these differing service areas, the district and the authority also have individual water rights and reservoir storage supplies.
“Both the district and authority have augmentation plans and other types of water use agreements that are backed by various sources of water supply including historic consumptive use credits owned by or leased to each entity and accounts in reservoirs such as Eagle Park Reservoir, Homestake Reservoir, Green Mountain Reservoir, Wolford Mountain Reservoir, and Black Lakes,” Johnson wrote.
The six member boards formed the water authority in 1984. For governance, each of the member boards appoints a representative to serve on the authority’s board of directors. However, since its inception, the authority has been operated and managed by the water district.
As a special district, the water and sanitation district is represented by a seven-member, publicly-elected board.
Benefits of unification
The main motivation behind the unification of these two entities is water supply in the face of growing needs and climate change. In recent years, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District has created a water supply model to understand the availability of water under a multitude of conditions, including multiyear droughts and climate change.
As it stands, according to a presentation of this model by Brooks to the Avon Town Council on April 27, if nothing changes, the authority would have enough supply to meet the anticipated needs of the community in 2050, but with no strategic reserve. A strategic reserve protects against water supply uncertainty.
As a result of this modeling, the district came up with several plans to “reach a secure water future” and have an adequate water supply, Brooks said. The first, of which, is unification. With unification, and the authority’s then given access to the district’s water supply, it would give the combined entity some strategic reserve in 2050 given current projections.
(Additional plans include programs to decrease customer use, the construction of a reservoir in the Bolts Lake area as well as ongoing conservation and efficiency efforts.)
Prior to the currently proposed unification, there have been a number of previous consolidations of water entities in the region. All of which, according to Brooks at a March 23 Avon Town Council meeting, have had significant benefits to the region. This has included centralized water rights administration and strategy, integrated water systems, increased operational efficiency and the ability to negotiate and finance additional storage reservoirs.
The most current unification, however, will extend to additional benefits.
“Unification is the one project that can literally flip a switch for the authority’s service area and get a new water supply available,” Brooks said on Tuesday. “That happens because the district — Eagle River Water and Sanitation District — has a surplus of water, if the two entities combine into one that surplus is then available to both entities and can be shared and used for growth and strategic reserve in both service areas.”
Additional benefits include more availability of water for new uses and new developments, the mitigation of risk of water shortages (particularly in multi-year droughts) and cost savings of $200,000 to customers annually as a result of consolidated operations for both entities.
Both the district and the authority boards have given consent to the unification, supporting it on the merits of the above-listed benefits.
The structure proposed is the authority would be absorbed into the district. The benefit of this absorption — versus the other way around — is that, per state statute, the district is afforded privileges of taxation and condemnation.
Both, Brooks said, “are really important powers” in establishing water rights, acquiring land, securing funding, bonds and more.
As part of this merging, this also means that, when unified as a special district, the new water subdivision would be served by a seven-seat board of directors that are elected to their seats by the public.
In order to maintain representation that the six authority member boards have in the current water authority structure, the proposal also would enable current authority member boards to appoint a representative that would provide input to the board. However, this representative would not have voting rights, a development about which the Avon Town Council expressed trepidation.
Also as proposed, all members of the authority would retain their existing water rights in the unification. As an example, Brooks said that the town of Avon currently leases certain water rights it owns to the authority. Under the proposed agreement, the town would still own these rights within the new unified district.
The proposal also would provide stipulations for current and future debt by the agencies and would bring no changes to current wastewater operations.
Concerns over governance, representation
Under the new governance structure of the district, members of the Avon Town Council expressed concerns over losing the current representation the council has with the water authority.
“My personal biggest concern is making sure that Avon maintains representation throughout this consolidation,” said Council member Amy Phillips.
As previously mentioned, these seats are not publicly elected but rather appointed by the member boards. Currently, Avon Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes serves as the Avon representative on the authority’s board of directors.
As proposed, the unified district would be governed by a seven-seat publicly-elected board of directors. The number of seats, Brooks said, is limited to seven by state statute. The director districts are defined based on the number of eligible electors.
“As far as representation goes, water districts exist, by state statute for the very purpose of providing water to development. I don’t think that the council, or the other authority members need to ever worry that the district would be doing something contrary to your interest as a town,” Brooks said. “We are here to support your decision making in land use and your values around water.”
In attempting to address representation concerns, the current proposal would allow the member boards to still have appointed representation in the new district. However, it takes away their existing voting power — something that many council members expressed significant concern in.
“Clearly, there could be vote at some point and we could be left in the back seat, that’s what I’m afraid of,” said Council member Chico Thuon.
Another part of the problem, as outlined by members of Town Council, was that Avon’s representation would be left up to an election, rather than an appointment.
“When you make those positions subject to the whim and the thought of the voter, things change. It becomes, even if it’s a nonpartisan election, it becomes a political issue,” said Council member Tamra Underwood. “I’m not sure that [in] managing the town’s asset of water rights and its guarantee that future needs would be met, etc., that this would be the right mechanism for that.”
While Brooks said she understood this concern, she mused on the democratic importance of elections. “We have a society that works on elections and the people get to vote and that’s how it works,” she said.
On the current Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Avon has representation for wastewater in two of the seven districts — as one of the director districts covers Avon and EagleVail and another covers Wildridge and Berry Creek. Currently, Avon and Wildridge elected officials, respectively, hold those two seats.
Council member Scott Prince expressed specific concern about the fact that water board elections do not receive significant participation by electors or candidates to ensure the representation the town desires.
“If the town doesn’t have a voting seat, I want to make sure that our residents know that this is a seat that’s out there,” Prince said. “I would push back on you to make sure that strategy of, when there is seat, it goes out in all different forms of media to make sure everyone is aware and how important it is.”
In addressing these concerns, Brooks expressed the district’s continued desire to increase participation in its elections.
“Getting more people interested in water — and that includes interest in our board seats, — has always been very important to us,” Brooks said.
Even with this trepidation, the Town Council did give its head nod, thumbs-up approval for the district to go ahead with the agreement. With the caveat that it still may not accept whatever the agreement looks like.
“It’s been made clear that until we fully understand the details, we can’t say, ‘Yes, go do the inclusion agreement and we agree,’” Smith Hymes said. “So, obviously the next step has to be doing the inclusion agreement so that we can really, really look at all the details of what this is going to mean.”
This process of unification is still very much in its infancy.
Going forward, the district and authority will draft the inclusion agreement. This agreement would then need approval and adoption by all entities in the form of a consent resolution. These resolutions would then be taken to the district, which would hold a public hearing and then determine whether or not to petition the district court to host an inclusions election.
Should the election prove positive, the court would issue an order of inclusion, therefore beginning the era of unification.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.