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Even if Gary Boyce goes away, the water problem won’t

Essay by Ed Quillen

Colorado Water – October 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN WE STARTED this magazine in 1994, AWDI had just lost all its court appeals, and it appeared that any story we published on the water wars in the San Luis Valley would be history, rather than journalism.

We watched, from a distance but with interest, as Gary Boyce began re-assembling the old 100,000-acre Baca land grant, and then in the spring of 1996, we got word of a meeting near Crestone where he would explain his plans.

His plans were immediately dubbed “Son of AWDI,” although Boyce prefers the “No Dam Water Project.” It looked like a major story, and there was a competent writer, familiar with the San Luis Valley, available. So we asked Ray James to start putting together a story on Boyce’s plans and the Valley’s opposition.

He assembled considerable material, but pointed out that “we don’t know what Boyce really plans to do until he files for the well rights.” Such filings typically occur at the end of the year. We checked in January of 1997. No filing.

Nor were there any such filings before January of 1998, by which time Ray had gone to prison. His notes and clippings sat in a filing cabinet, still waiting for Boyce to file, so that we’d have something specific to write about.

That still hasn’t happened. Boyce said he might file this year, “if we have a level playing field.”

By that, I presume Boyce meant that he would have neutralized the tax-supported Rio Grande Water Conservation District as an opponent — which could happen if his two ballot initiatives pass. The District can fight Boyce in water court, but state law prohibits it from participating in ballot-issue campaigns. Other entities, allowed to lobby and campaign, must be established, and they must raise money to buy advertising to put their case before the public — just as Boyce and his backers certainly will.

All Coloradans get to vote on the ballot initiatives, and I, for one, would like to cast a reasonably informed vote. So this looked like the time to put together some stories on the Valley’s latest water war — for my own information, as much as anything else.

It’s a big story. But there’s a bigger picture that needs to be addressed here. Colorado’s population is growing, especially along the Front Range. Douglas County, between Denver and Colorado Springs, is the fastest-growing county in the nation. It’s already got water problems, which will only get worse.

Boyce says he can provide them with water from the Closed Basin, and his opponents say “Keep Valley Water in the Valley.” That’s a captivating slogan, but it’s not an answer to the issues Boyce raises when you sit down with him and enjoy a few cigars.

Boyce’s arguments go something like this:

1) The state constitution says the unappropriated waters of Colorado belong to the people of the entire state, not just the people of any given basin.

2) Population growth in a desert like Colorado means that there’s a market for water.

3) There are good reasons to believe that the Closed Basin offers considerable quantities of unappropriated water.

4) The Closed Basin and the Rio Grande drainage are both in the San Luis Valley. But that’s like saying the Arkansas and the Gunnison rivers are both in Colorado — there’s no natural hydrologic connection. And the Closed Basin is not some pristine untapped resource — it already exports water with the Closed Basin Project, with the full support of many of the people who oppose Boyce’s export plans.

5) If Boyce doesn’t develop that water and sell it, he argues, then somebody else will. And he’s offering a wildlife sanctuary and a restoration of several creeks now diverted to his hayfields. Another water developer, say some metropolitan utility with the power of condemnation through eminent domain, might not offer anything.

Even though my emotions tell me “it’s best if everybody leaves the Valley’s water alone,” I can’t come up with good answers to many of Boyce’s arguments. Consider several possible scenarios, assuming that Boyce and Stockman’s water are defeated, and that there actually is water in the Closed Basin that could be developed.

1) Colorado law, or even the state constitution, is amended to prohibit such water developments and exports. That might hold for a few years, but this is a democracy, and most Coloradans live along the Front Range. Long before they get very thirsty, long before the subdividers have to quit because there’s no water for new lots — they’ll change the law or the constitution.

2) By some quirk, those laws remain in place. People who want to move to Colorado will have to move to the Closed Basin, where there’s water for them.

Colorado has grown by nearly a million people since the last census — and the 150,000 acre-feet Boyce says he can get is a reasonable supply for a million people. If they all settled in the Valley, what would remain there to be worth caring about or protecting? How could water exports from the Closed Basin ever damage the Valley as much as the influx of a million people?

3) To make his payments when he can’t sell water, Boyce starts selling off his ranches in 35-acre parcels — which works out to at least 2,500 sites, or at least 10,000 more people. That’s no way to save the Valley we know and love, either.

4) Some conservation trust or the like buys Boyce’s land and promises never to develop the water. But what’s to keep a city from buying (or condemning) some other land over the Closed Basin, and tapping it there? Remember, this is a democracy and 80% of Colorado’s population lives in those thirsty cities — they’ll write our laws to serve their needs.

SEE WHAT I MEAN? Stop Boyce and pass laws to keep anybody from every trying this again — and the same issues will persist as long as anybody believes there’s water available from the Closed Basin.

For the time being, I’ll vote against Boyce’s two initiatives, as I do against any initiative that had paid circulators. I don’t like it that anyone with enough money can construct a proposed law, pay people to collect signatures to put that proposal on the ballot, and then buy enough media coverage to get it passed. The only way I know to discourage this process of purchasing our statute books is to vote against all ballot issues with paid circulators — maybe they’ll get the idea if none of their proposals ever passes.

Besides, these initiatives look more like spite than an attempt to make the laws of Colorado more fair and just.

But I do wish Boyce would file his applications so his proposal could go forward to a state water court. That’s the system we have for allocating water in this state.

It’s far from perfect, to be sure, but it allows people on both sides of the issue to make their case in an organized manner. And in a world that sometimes seems to offer nothing but unpleasant choices, maybe that’s all one has any right to expect.

— Ed Quillen