Clearing the air: Residents question issues around water storage study efforts

JEFF BURKHEAD Horst Rick addressed the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District Board of Directors last Saturday. Rick, one of the upriver residents concerned about a possible water storage project, called for the meeting to learn more about the district’s plans.

Yellow Jacket board, property owners call meeting ‘productive’

JEFF BURKHEAD Horst Rick addressed the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District Board of Directors last Saturday. Rick, one of the upriver residents concerned about a possible water storage project, called for the meeting to learn more about the district’s plans.
MEEKER I Some questions were answered, some weren’t.
But concerned landowners accomplished one of their main goals — they got a face-to-face meeting with members of the board of directors of the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District.
About 50 property owners and concerned citizens met with members of the Yellow Jacket board, along with their attorney — Trina Zagar-Brown — for more than two hours Saturday.
While the session didn’t satisfy everyone’s questions or concerns, it did open a dialogue between the two groups, which representatives on both sides agreed was a good thing.
“We raised a lot of questions, and we got some of them answered, but it may be just some of those answers aren’t there yet,” said Horst Rick, an upriver resident who pushed for the meeting. “But I believe we accomplished the goal of an information exchange between the board and public. We invited them and I was pleased they came and we got a chance to talk to them.”
Yellow Jacket attorney Zagar-Brown agreed on the benefit of the two groups meeting and the opportunity for the water district to discuss its plans.
“The board and I thought the meeting was very productive. I think communication is the key to all successful groups and projects — this meeting was a great way to communicate with members of the Yellow Jacket District,” Zagar-Brown said.
Shawn Welder, who operates Welder Outfitting Services, said Saturday’s meeting was productive, but there were still unanswered questions.
“I think it was a healthy meeting and a good platform for more community involvement,” Welder said. “I was surprised that Trina could not answer many questions that I thought the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District board members would have had years to think about. The USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) data that they are leaning on so much should also include great information like Bob Tobin’s (retired USGS hydrologist) sediment and water quality report on the White River. His report looks at the possible effects of large amounts of water removed from the White River, including potential water quality effects to Meeker’s water and the river system.
“The lack of answers, I think, left a gap of credibility for those attending the meeting. I think many that attended could not tell what the board’s mission is,” Welder said. “However, one good point from board members Jim Joy and David Smith was that they believe their efforts on the board are to secure water for our common benefit. Their view, I think, is that they are protecting our water interests. That appears to be what the folks at the meeting and the community want to validate. Thanks to Horst Rick for putting the meeting together. Without his efforts we would know a lot less.”
The Meeker Chamber of Commerce co-sponsored the meeting.
“I appreciate Horst and Ellene (Meece, the chamber’s membership director) putting this together,” Zagar-Brown said. “We’re glad to have this opportunity to meet and talk with you. Good communication is important.”
But one concern property owners voiced was the lack of communication up to this point.
“My question is why wasn’t there public input and public notification?” asked Joe Livingston, a partner in Big Beaver Ranch.
Zagar-Brown took responsibility for the lack of communication.
“All blame would be mine,” she said. “Do I understand there is frustration? Yes, and I give you my personal apology. I feel very bad that there has been a miscommunication and misperception of cloak and dagger. Should this meeting have taken place six months ago? Possibly, but we didn’t have a project until January. We didn’t know what we were doing until we got the grant, until we had the money in hand.”
That’s when Yellow Jacket’s request for a $220,800 grant — to be used for a water storage feasibility study — was approved by the Colorado Water Conservancy Board. The grant has a local match of about $55,000.
“Yellow Jacket is trying to conserve its funds to try to contribute as much as possible to the local match,” Zagar-Brown said. “But we will leave no stone unturned to pursue this local match.”
Zagar-Brown wasn’t overly confident in Yellow Jacket’s chances of receiving the funding for the feasibility study.
“To be totally honest with you, I was shocked we got the grant,” she said.
When landowners caught wind of the feasibility study for a potential water storage project, they became worried the details of the process had not been made public and the deadline for filing a letter of opposition — the end of April — was fast approaching. Though, Zagar-Brown said, “Yellow Jacket would not object if someone filed after that last-day-of-April deadline.”
Saturday’s meeting helped ease landowner concerns, at least some of them.
“I felt some of my questions were answered. However, it was difficult to understand the answers given to several questions. One in particular was the answer as to why none of the landowners received notices of the grant approval, nor the recent court filings … that essentially they were told notices were mailed, but somehow the U.S. Postal Service failed to deliver any of them,” said landowner and outfitter Jeanne Horne. “And the other response I heard was that the burden of awareness and notification was up to those interested and they had the opportunity to read the published notice in the newspaper. Further, I am not clear why stakeholders are not being included on any notices as well.
“It also seemed some answers were very nebulous,” Horne said. “Certainly, I can understand that not all the answers to questions posed were known (at this time). I still came away with the feeling that the Yellow Jacket group really did not see the need or recognize the importance of better notices and/or communications. Hopefully, the meeting helped clarify that need.”
Said Zagar-Brown, “I know a mailing was sent out. Apparently, no one got it. I don’t know why. So we sent it out again.”
Going forward, Horne hopes there will be better communication.
“The overall outcome (of Saturday’s meeting), I believe, was extremely beneficial in that it opened some eyes and ears to what is in the works and I also think the meeting made an impact on the Yellow Jacket group as to the concerns of those interested/impacted and that they heard the clear request for transparency and open and effective communications,” she said.
The three-phase feasibility study will start in June and is expected to take 18 months to complete. Zagar-Brown said the results of the study should answer many of people’s questions.
“We don’t have all the answers, which is why we need the study,” she said. “All of those things (including the site of a water storage facility and the accompanying water rights), we can’t know until the board has that information, and information is expensive, which is why we need the study.
“The (board of directors) strongly believes that this study will go a long way to answering critical questions regarding Yellow Jacket’s conditional water storage rights and address critical water storage management issues within in our region,” Zagar-Brown said. “It was obvious by many of the comments made at the meeting everyone agrees that this type of study is very important for all water users in the region. (The board) is committed to proper water storage planning that will honor the historical flows in the White River.”
Phase One of the study will be an assessment of Yellow Jacket District’s water rights portfolio. On a six-year rotating basis, Yellow Jacket is required to go through due diligence proceedings on its water rights, which it is doing now. Phase Two of the feasibility study will provide more in-depth analysis and narrow a list of potential water storage sites to two or three. Phase Three “will be a micro-analysis of the one storage site within the district that has the greatest potential to be a storage area,” Zagar-Brown said.
She tried to assure landowners there was nothing underhanded going on with the feasibility study.
“There is no secret (water) storage project,” she said. “Yellow Jacket has never had any intention to storm anyone’s property. Would all potential storage projects be considered? Yes. Will it (a water storage project) flood my house? I’m happy to hear those questions, but I really can’t answer them. That is why the study is so critical.”
Asked if the cost of the study was worth the investment, Zagar-Brown said, “As much as I would like to say a cup of coffee and a map and a smart guy (could answer questions about a potential water storage site), it is my duty to see that this board gets professional information and an analytical analysis. That was my viewpoint and the CWCB (Colorado Water Conservancy Board) felt the same way.”
Added board member Mike Brennan, “First off, there are no monsters under the bed. This board has no intention of doing that. … If you think that’s what we’re trying to do, it breaks my heart.
“We are at fault … we should have gotten some information out earlier, but it seems this whole meeting is on a witch hunt that we’re trying to be sneaky,” Brennan said. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Outfitter Shawn Welder responded, saying, “It’s not a witch hunt, but there has been poor communication. … I think the biggest concern is whether the district is in line with the benefits of the taxpayers in the district.”
Zagar-Brown said, “Was there was an effort to communicate with the public? Yes. Will I make an even greater effort (to communicate in the future)? Yes.”
Board member David Smith spoke in support of spending the grant money for the feasibility study.
“We have this money and we’d like to spend this money and we’d like to spend it before the state takes it back,” Smith said. “I’d like to take some of the heat off of Trina … we didn’t know we were going to get that money until we got it and that was January. I’m hard put to sit here and criticize the opportunity to get that money.”
Joe Livingston acknowledged it was also up to landowners to pay attention and hold boards accountable.
“I honestly do not think the board here is trying to do anything underhanded,” Livingston said. “I think you need to be applauded for serving in a public role. At the same time, as citizens we need to be sure we’re watching. I think as citizens we need to step up and say, ‘How is our money being spent?’
“I would like to apologize to the Yellow Jacket Board,” Livingston said. “I have not been paying close enough attention to their activities. I will work hard not to let that happen in the future. In a democracy, it is critical for citizens and government to have good, open communications.
“It was pretty obvious there has been a lack of attention on both sides,” Livingston said. “This may have been fine in the past, but two things have changed: More Rio Blanco County landowners live out of the area. And Yellow Jacket is planning on spending close to $300,000 of public tax money on a feasibility study.”
Livingston suggested the Yellow Jacket Board “work toward removing suspicion, and create open communication with the citizens who rely on you.”
To take steps to improve communication, Livingston suggested the board publish a regular guest column or update in the newspaper, create a Web site, invite three ad-hoc, non-voting members of the public to join the board, publicize and invite the public to the water district’s annual meeting and conduct open-to-the-public planning sessions.
Members of the board in attendance Saturday were Mike Brennan, Ed Coryell, Jim Joy, Dr. Albert Krueger, Kelly Sheridan and David Smith.
The board’s next meeting — May 5 — is open to the public. The consultants for the water feasibility study will be in attendance, and property owners were also invited to attend. The meeting will be from noon to 2 p.m. in the basement conference room at the The Main Street Building, Seventh and Main.
“The important thing is you as landowners, you have a right — and are welcome — to be involved in the process,” Yellow Jacket attorney Zagar-Brown said.
She believes Saturday’s meeting helped to lessen people’s concerns and correct misconceptions.
“I believe that we cleared up what Yellow Jacket considers to be a lot of misinformation and misleading statements,” Zagar-Brown said. “Yellow Jacket remains in the process of outlining the implementation calendar for the water feasibility study and the call for this meeting preempted Yellow Jacket’s efforts to roll out public meetings regarding the study, but it all worked out in the end.”