Kinder Morgan’s local CO2 production generated 62 percent of Montezuma County’s tax revenues in 2015.
But the McElmo Dome field, the largest producing CO2 reserve in the U.S., could be nearly tapped out in 50 years, leading local officials to worry about the future economy.
Add to that a recent downturn in the oil energy sector, which has led to a reduction in Kinder Morgan operations and caused a negative impact on county tax revenues.
CO2 is used to coax oil out of wells, but the demand and price for oil have dropped in the past year.
“We’re looking at a 25 to 35 percent decrease in the 2017 budget,” said Montezuma County commissioner Larry Don Suckla. “We need diversity to keep up county services in the future.”
What could replace that lost revenue has been on the minds of the county commissioners. They have tasked the planning department to come up with ideas, which were presented last week by planning officials LeeAnn Milligan and Kelly Belt.
Hope for hemp?
Hemp has been legalized in Colorado, and the federal government allows universities to legally grow it for research under the Farm Bill.
Several local farmers obtained permits from the Colorado Department of Agriculture to grow small plots of hemp in Montezuma County.
The Southwest Colorado Research Center in Yellow Jacket was one of those experimental plots allowed under the federal university exemption.
Crop researcher Abdel Berrada said the first year was a good learning experience, but no definitive recommendations to farmers can be made yet.
“It showed potential. We learned how the plant grows, but it is too soon to make any conclusions on which variety is best,” he said. “We will grow it again this year and collect more data.”
After securing multiple state and federal permits, the Research Center planted 12 varieties of hemp seed shipped in from Europe. They were planning to plant 26 varieties, but part of the overseas order was denied at Denver International Airport.
Industrial hemp’s fiber and seeds are used for multiple products, including clothing, fuel, oils, soap, paper, food and rope.
Berrada said the 2015 test plot yielded 500 pounds per acre of seed, but he said he expects that to improve because a lot was lost to hail and birds. The bio mass yield was 4,000 pounds per acre, a respectable amount.
He said the hemp put up a lot of growth, matured over a long period of time, and kept making seeds.
Time for a sales tax?
The county doesn’t have one, but it could, with voter approval. Just a 1 percent sales tax would generate millions of dollars per year, and it would include sales made in the county plus sales within Cortez, Dolores and Mancos.
“It could help offset the costs of implementing our goal to deliver high-speed Internet throughout the county,” said Milligan.
A sales tax would help offset falling property values, and “would benefit from tourism season,” said Belt.
Another use for it could be to strengthen the road and bridge budget to handle maintenance into the future.
“It would have to be very specific what we would spend the money on,” said commissioner Suckla, of the sales tax idea. “Voters want to know what they will get if they vote for it.”
Here comes the sun
The county has been promoting solar power for the past two years, creating and distributing a promotional pamphlet, passing a renewable energy and solar-friendly resolution, developing a map of ideal solar farm locations in the county, taking tours of nearby solar facilities, and talking with Empire Electric.
Solar can work in Southwest Colorado’s sunny climate and high elevation. Nearby transmission lines to the national grid are seen as an advantage, and the solar power could be tied into Empire Electric lines if transformers are sufficient. If not, the cost to upgrade them could fall on the solar farm operator.
A new mecca for recreation
Whether its mountain biking, ATV use, motorcycle touring, skiing, hunting, mountain climbing, boating McPhee and the Dolores River, or exploring archaeological sites, the area has a lot of recreational opportunities, and there is a lot of untapped potential.
Expanding Phil’s World and building the Paths to Mesa Verde from Cortez to Mancos were seen as economic opportunity. Creating motorcycle touring routes that wind through the county roads and local public lands was another idea.
“It could be a GPS route with points of interests,” Belt said. “It’s reported bikers spend $300 per day during their tours.”
The county is looking into adding a recreation emphasis to its comprehensive plan.
“Recreation language is limited in the plan now, so it might be time to branch off into a new chapter,” Milligan said.