Water district releases its wilderness bill guidelines | VailDaily.com

Water district releases its wilderness bill guidelines

EAGLE COUNTY — A proposal to expand wilderness areas around Vail is still percolating in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, local water officials recently approved a set of guidelines they'd like any potential bill to meet.

The board of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — both of which are public agencies with elected boards — recently passed a policy regarding any potential expansion of wilderness areas near Vail. The most recent proposal is sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder-area Democrat whose district includes roughly one-third of Eagle County from Eagle-Vail to the east.

That proposal would add wilderness protection to several thousand acres in Eagle and Summit counties, and has been endorsed by many local governments. The list of endorsements doesn't include the water district.

That endorsement has been delayed as local water officials work to understand how imposing more stringent protection on the federal land surrounding Vail and the upper valley might affect how the district collects and treats water, and how it might maintain its facilities in the future.

YEARS IN THE MAKING

Getting to that policy — a relatively brief, seven-item list — has taken several years. Diane Johnson, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District communications and public affairs manager, said the current bill can be traced back to an earlier effort that included much more land.

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With all the work that's gone into the current Polis bill, Johnson said district officials decided in about 2014 to create a policy that will provide specific direction to district board members and employees years into the future.

"Even if people feel (about a bill) like 'that's not going anywhere,' legislators do keep plugging away," Johnson said. "At some point, the timing will be right."

When that happens, Johnson said the district wants to be prepared with a consistent policy.

SHORT AND SWEET

That policy, which takes up less than one page, includes items about the location of water features within any proposed wilderness, whether a wilderness designation would affect treatment and restoration efforts on public lands and whether a wilderness designation would created any new water rights.

Johnson said Polis' staff has been "very good" about listening to the concerns of the district and the authority — which are separate entities but share the same offices.

In an email, Craig Frucht, Polis' press secretary, wrote that people working on the bill are "optimistic we can make progress on this issue."

Frucht's email noted that the current bill has the support of Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. In addition, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has announced he will soon introduce companion legislation to Polis' bill.

If and when something does happen in Washington, Johnson said the district and authority will work to ensure that the groups can do their jobs well into the future.

"The boards of directors are in a unique position," Johnson said. "They're the only ones who have the roles they have — providing a source of high-quality water."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

The policy

The boards of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and the Upper Regional Water Authority recently passed guidelines for what they’d like to see any future wilderness bill consider:

• The locations and characteristics of water features within the specific lands proposed for wilderness designation, and the importance of such water features to the water supply and wastewater systems of the District and Authority;

• Whether the designation would conflict with or adversely impact existing or future water facilities of the District and Authority;

• Whether the designation would significantly impact necessary watershed treatment and restoration efforts;

• Whether the designation would prevent a future boundary adjustment of the designated area that would be necessary for a future water facility;

• Whether the designation would significantly reduce the risk of watershed degradation caused by human development and other activities;

• The specific Forest Service rules and restrictions that would apply to the subject roadless areas and to the proposed wilderness lands; and

• Whether the designation would create any reserved water rights, and if so, whether those reserved water rights would impact or help protect the water rights of the District and/or Authority.