Steamboat Springs Some Milner residents are upset Routt County hired a consultant who is two years out of college to do a study of cottonwood trees at the proposed site of a new gravel pit.
"You would think they would want the best," said Loretta Van Norstrand, a resident of the Saddle Mountain Ranchettes, which overlooks the gravel pit site. The gravel pit is being proposed by Camilletti and Sons and would be located a half-mile south of Milner near a sensitive area between the Yampa River and Trout Creek.
The first proposal to study how dewatering the gravel pit would affect the water tables and cottonwoods came from Jord Gertson of SourceWater Consulting.
The second proposal came from Dr. David J. Cooper and two others with Ph.Ds with extensive backgrounds in groundwater studies of wetlands and riparian areas, with specific experience in cottonwoods and other vegetations.
Gertson actually studied at Colorado State University, where Cooper teaches. Gertson received a bachelor of science degree in watershed management in 1999.
"According to his resume, he has no biology experience or groundwater riparian experience," Van Norstrand said.
However, Gertson said he's not as green as they believe.
"I'm actually a watershed scientist," Gertson said in an interview from his Buena Vista office.
"We take into account land-use management, vegetations, soils and that includes riparian and hydrology."
Most area ecologists and hydrology experts agree Cooper is among the top in this field of groundwater and riparian studies.
But Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said the commissioners took the recommendation of the Planning Department to hire Gertson for several reasons.
First, Gertson's SourceWater Consulting was half the price of Cooper's group.
The commissioners would have been forced to conduct a formal bidding process for anything more than $5,000. Cooper's bid was $7,400.
A formal bidding process would have delayed the cottonwood study and thus the gravel pit application. The commissioners have voiced concerns about keeping the process on a fair timetable for the applicants and opponents.
But Cooper told Steamboat Today he was never informed about the $5,000 limitation.
He said he asked his colleagues the maximum they would charge and so he put the maximum ceiling.
"In the bid process they should have told me," Cooper said.
"It's a trivial amount of money considering the magnitude of the issues."
Most of the projects Cooper oversees cost $50,000 to $100,000.
Cooper said even $7,400 wouldn't have come close to paying what he and his colleagues would have spent on the study, so bidding below $5,000 wouldn't have affected them much.
"This would have been a gift anyway. I knew I would have had to donate many days of my time," Cooper said.
Gertson, 25, did agree to bring someone to his team that was more experienced to help oversee the studies being done on the gravel pit site.
"She's been involved in quite a bit of groundwater investigations," Gertson said.
"If the planning staff is comfortable with this contract, with his (Gertson's) qualifications and education, then that's what we're going to go with," Stahoviak said.
Planner Jim Goossens said Gertson would even be willing to submit his work to Cooper so that Cooper could oversee his work.
Goossens said Cooper would even donate his time. "I offered to help the county in any way I could," Cooper confirmed.
Cooper was offended by suggestions from the county commissioners that he might not be objective, another reason why planning staff leaned toward Gertson's group.
Cooper was consulted by both Camilletti's mining consultants and the opponents of the gravel pit during the planning process.
He said he normally doesn't get involved in the public review process but sent a letter to the commissioners warning them the dewatering issue at the Camilletti gravel pit wasn't as simple as presented by Camilletti's consultants.
"I work for everyone that manages water in the western United States. I'm only interested in helping everyone understand what the truth is."
The Milner residents felt a little better after hearing someone with Cooper's experience might stay involved, but they have a wait-and-see attitude.
"I would have liked him (Cooper) to do the study," said pit opponent Stuart Orzach.
He and others expressed concern that Camilletti's consultant, Paul Currier, would be working too closely with the Gertson group.
"This is supposed to be an independent study," Henry Kebodeaux said. "Currier is going to control this guy who's been out of college for two years."
Gertson said that won't be the case.
"You can count on me for an objective point of view," he said.
In fact, Gertson said Currier is only helping him drill monitoring wells. Gertson will actually tell Currier where to drill and why they're doing it that way.
"Being right out of school, I'm more objective," Gertson said with a laugh.
"I haven't been warped by political actions."