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Plan for tower in Mancos State Park faces backlash from residents

Locals concerned about radiation, future development
The La Plata Mountains overlook Jackson Gulch Reservoir at Mancos State Park. Last week, outrage from residents about the construction of a 40-foot tower west of the dam halted the project in its tracks.

A new 40-foot tower on Jackson Gulch dam at Mancos State Park aims to transmit data from the reservoir to the Mancos Water Conservancy District in real time to reduce water loss.

But some residents doubt that is the tower’s real purpose, given its size and location.

The Bureau of Reclamation is working with the Mancos Water Conservancy District on the tower’s construction, which was set to begin last week. But calls from residents temporarily halted construction and led to a community meeting with the bureau Tuesday night.

Kelly Fuenzalida of Mancos, who lives about a quarter-mile from the proposed tower site, said 40 feet seemed excessive. For Fuenzalida and others in an adjacent neighborhood, the tower appeared to be a staging area for expanding internet access, as well as 5G cellular technology.

Fuenzalida said she suspects the project, billed under the guise of water efficiency, is “publicly funded for privatized gain” for local internet providers such as Nimbus Solutions.

“I’m not against progress, but I am for responsible progress,” Fuenzalida said.

The Bureau of Reclamation did not give formal public notice or allow for public comment about the project.

“It felt underhanded and sneaky,” said Susan House, who also lives in the neighborhood next to the site. She said the tower would disrupt “the beautiful scenery of the state park” and could reduce the value of her home.

Ernie Rheaume, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the agency followed National Environmental Policy Act procedures by moving forward without public comment.

The tower would be part of the existing Jackson Reservoir project with a “small physical footprint and physical scope,” so it does not qualify for public comment, Rheaume said. The meeting Tuesday evening was informational and was not required, he said.

But residents like Fuenzalida don’t consider the tower to be small in size or scope.

“We live rural for a reason,” Fuenzalida said. She said she was concerned the tower could open up Mancos State Park to additional development and a “hyper-connected community.”

The Bureau of Reclamation said it has not factored broadband development into the project and has not received a formal proposal for an internet access project. If the agency received a proposal, Rheaume said, it would review the proposal according to standard procedures.

Broadband is not an existing part of the Jackson Reservoir project, so any development related to broadband would go through a notice and comment period, Rheaume said. He added that the agency has considered public health effects of the tower.

Residents also expressed concern about the possibility of long-term exposure to radiation from the tower.

“The (Federal Communications Commission) hasn’t updated its guidelines for assessment of health for over 40 years,” Fuenzalida said.

Similar towers have been associated with increased risk of cancer because of high-wave and high-frequency output, House said.

According to the American Cancer Society, there’s no strong evidence that exposure to radio frequency waves causes noticeable health effects. However, “most expert organizations agree that more research is needed,” particularly when considering long-term effects, the organization’s website states.

Neighborhood residents Dan and Diane St. Hilaire said they moved to Mancos with their daughter because she was sensitive to electromagnetic frequency from radio towers. She wears a metallic hat to protect her from brain damage, Diane St. Hilaire said.

The arguments seemed to sway Mancos farmer Scott Hauck, who said the tower “doesn’t seem worth it,” even though his livelihood relies on the water in the dam.

Residents also expressed concern that the tower would pose a wildfire hazard.

“The fire department said they might not come in here and save us because of their inability to get in and out quickly,” House said. The dam area is residents’ only efficient way out in case of a wildfire, and if lightning strikes the large metal tower, it could ignite a wildfire that blocks the only egress, Fuenzalida said.

“This is rural America, we moved here for a reason,” Dan St. Hilaire said. “You’re trying to bring high-tech, high-data here, but we don’t want it.”

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency intends to move forward with the tower project as it applies to monitoring the dam, as it does not require public consent or comment. Rheaume said he would communicate residents’ concerns with agency leaders based in Grand Junction.