Two longtime representatives of the Southwestern Water Conservation District board have been ousted from their seats.
Board President John Porter and Vice President Steve Fearn, representatives of Montezuma and San Juan counties, respectively, were voted off the board by commissioners in their respective counties.
Fearn, a prominent longtime coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, has represented San Juan County on the water conservation board since 1990 and served as vice president since 2007.
But San Juan County commissioners said Fearn’s representation no longer reflects county values, which have changed significantly since Silverton’s mining days to include more recreational interests with respect to water, county attorney Paul Sunderland said.
Fearn did not return a call for comment.
Commissioners voted to appoint Charlie Smith, part-time Silverton resident and eight-year general manager of the Lake Durango Water Authority, as Fearn’s replacement.
“Commissioners thought Charlie Smith would better represent San Juan County,” Sunderland said. “He has a lot of water expertise, and he’s probably more in tune with the wants of the current board. Historically, San Juan County has been largely dominated by mining interests, and Steve Fearn is very much associated with those interests, but the board’s interests have shifted more toward recreation.”
The fact that the state of New Mexico named Fearn in a lawsuit as a “potentially responsible party” for mine pollution in the Gladstone area was noted in the county’s decision, Sunderland said.
“It’s definitely something we’re aware of, given his ownership interests around Gladstone,” he said.
Southwestern Water is a state-created entity tasked with making decisions relevant to regional water rights, including storage, quality and use.
The board consists of nine members representing Archuleta, Dolores, Hinsdale, La Plata, Mineral, Montezuma, Montrose, San Juan and San Miguel counties. Board directors can serve an unlimited number of three-year terms.
“I want to make sure the county’s views are represented,” Smith told The Durango Herald. “I have an understanding of their water rights, and a lot of work needs to be done to secure those rights and make sure the uses align with what the county envisions.”
Montezuma County commissioners selected Don Schwindt to replace Porter, who was general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District for 22 years and a Southwestern board director for 26.
Schwindt is a director on the Dolores Water Conservancy District board and a critic of the Dolores National Conservation Area, a controversial proposal in Montezuma County to congressionally protect land and water along the lower Dolores. He did not return a call.
Porter thinks the proposal, criticized by Montezuma County commissioners, influenced his removal. Under Porter’s leadership, Southwestern Water Conservation District contributed funds to hire a water attorney to rewrite draft National Conservation Area legislation, which Porter thinks was perceived as support for the bill.
“I perceived the funding as an effort so everyone involved knew all the problems, the facts on both sides and could intelligently make a decision,” Porter said. “I think Southwestern’s involvement was perceived by others that we were very much in favor of the NCA legislation. That had something to do with it, and the fact that I’m 80-plus, and my 26 years on the board.”
Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Suckla said the commission chose Schwindt because of his water knowledge, and the conservation area proposal did not play a part in the decision.
“Don has shown ways that he would save water and retain water for farmers and ranchers,” Suckla said. “John Porter is an icon for Montezuma County. He was involved in the management of the lake (McPhee Reservoir), and all the benefits the county has received from that is because of the work he did, but it felt like it was time for new eyes.”
When Porter joined the board in 1990, he said water storage and dam construction were the district’s primary focus, including such projects as Lake Nighthorse. But gradually, the focus broadened to consider recreational water use and water quality.
Porter refers to his tenure as a career highlight, and said the importance of inter-basin relations and dialogue will only increase as time goes on, water supply dwindles and population grows.
“You’re asking someone who’s biased, but I’ve always felt that the Southwestern board tried its very best to represent all interests,” Porter said. “True, the majority of the members, including myself, were and still are agriculture-oriented. Yet to me, as Colorado’s population grows, it’s inevitable that our water supply will be drying up agriculture. And that’s not in our best interest, but I don’t see a way of satisfying municipal needs that we’re going to have without drying up some ag use. Irrigation takes a lot of water, and just that amount converted to municipal use will take care of a lot of families in an urban situation.”