Essay by Tom Wolf
San Luis Valley Water – November 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan (1798)
OKAY, FINE. Call me a contrarian. But a writer’s task is to speak the unspeakable, isn’t it?
Millennial water battles in the San Luis Valley are not a matter of Little David vs. Big Goliath. Don’t let the spin doctors fool you. This fight pits Old Goliath vs. New Goliath. The federally-subsidized water establishment against the privately-financed water marketers. The winner will determine the course of Colorado water politics — and the shape of Central Colorado — for the century to come.
In one corner stands the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), a political entity with taxing powers but little public accountability. (Its directors are appointed by the county commissioners.) In the other corner stands the Challenger. Gary Boyce grew up on a ranch in this arid part of southern Colorado. Until recently, he ran his 12,500-acre Rancho Rosado near the little town of Crestone, hard up against the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Boyce was among the leading opponents of the now-defunct American Water Development, Inc. (or AWDI) project to pump large amounts of groundwater out of the San Luis Valley and sell it out of basin. Then he changed his mind. Boyce knows the value of big ranches, both for open space and for wildlife and for water. “If you want to turn the ranching economy around,” he says, “you should consider marketing the water that goes with the ranch. You should consider my `Stockman’s Water Project.'”
At Boyce’s side stands Jeris Danielson, the former Colorado State Water Engineer, and a partner in the project. Danielson knows a thing or two about dams — and especially about their negative environmental effects. He also knows about water marketing. Colorado Governor Roy Romer (D) fired him a few years ago for voicing the heresy that Colorado should consider selling some of its water to California rather than using it to spur yet more development in a state where Romer’s “Smart Growth” policies have clearly failed. According to the Challengers, Central Colorado needs money to deal with the social and environmental effects of growth — not more water to stimulate more local growth. Let the inevitable growth pay its own way.
And let it occur along the Front Range, where it does the least harm.
Behind Boyce is the land purchase that makes the whole thing possible. A few years ago, Boyce bought the upper, mountainous 10,000 acres of the Baca Ranch, as well as another 2,000 acres of dunes that border Great Sand Dunes National Monument. This parcel was particularly important, for bulldozers were already chugging along Sand Creek, breaking the land into a destination resort. Then Boyce completed acquisition of the rest of the 100,000-acre Baca Land Grant. This series of quick deals put the ranch back together and left the slower-moving conservation real estate industry behind. There were various plans to buy parts of the ranch and roll them over into public lands through re-sale to the federal government.
The Baca has endured the environmental insults of a century and a half of mineral exploitation and land and water speculation, including a subdivision south of Crestone with more than 10,000 lots. Boyce couldn’t undo the subdivision, but he could pursue his boyhood dream, based on the ranch as he knew it under legendary conservationist Alfred Collins.
Boyce’s Baca includes a couple of 14,000-foot peaks, Kit Carson Peak and Crestone Peak. It abuts the Forest Service’s Sangre de Cristo Wilderness on the east and the Park Service’s Great Sand Dunes Wilderness on the south. With the ranch came the rights to use its water — lots of water.
THOSE HIGH MOUNTAINS snag snowstorms all winter long. When the melt comes, that water irrigates the vast hay meadows below.
Even lower than the ranch’s meadows are the unplumbed depths of a hydrologic formation on the east side of the San Luis Valley called The Closed Basin. All waters entering this gigantic basin, unless diverted by humans, formerly flowed to its low point at today’s San Luis Lakes State Park, where they either evaporated or were consumed by the ubiquitous and commercially worthless shrubs known as greasewood and rabbitbrush. Known as “evapotranspiration” or “e-t,” such plant-driven water losses caught the attention of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and its client, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. At a cost to federal taxpayers of $100 million (plus millions per year for operation and maintenance) the USBR completed in 1993 the San Luis Valley Closed Basin Project, which pumps shallow groundwater and conveys it south through concrete-lined ditches into the nearby Rio Grande.
At the Colorado-New Mexico border, Colorado must meet certain obligations under the Rio Grande Compact, which guarantees minimum flows to downstream states. On its way to the New Mexico border, the Closed Basin water also fills several manmade National Wildlife Refuges. These are “mitigation” refuges, artificial wetlands that provide habitat for migratory water birds, including the endangered whooping crane. Just what they “mitigate” is open to debate.
If you turn the clock back and ask why the Closed Basin Project was necessary, you find yourself in “the Holyland,” the part of the southern San Luis Valley, outside the Closed Basin, that contains vast powerline systems leading to the world’s heaviest concentration of the electric pumps that drive center pivot irrigation. Industrial farmers here pump the Rio Grande dry every summer. To make up for this, taxpayers pump the Closed Basin. Who pays?
Who benefits? Those answers are at the center of the controversy.
Greasewood and rabbitbrush may be the vegetation that covers most of the non-irrigated Valley today, but, like the artificial wetlands, they are not “pristine.”
Consider this scene. In April of 1998, a female whooping crane died in a collision with a powerline near the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley. Refuge manager Mike Blenden told The Pueblo Chieftain the same thing he told visitors to the Monte Vista Crane Festival. “Cranes have a high mortality rate in the San Luis Valley because of the density of powerlines here.” Go figure.
THE DEATH of this magnificent, endangered bird leaves only four whooping cranes in the Rocky Mountain population that migrates annually through the San Luis Valley. Who uses the bulk of the electricity in the Valley? The Holyland. The plight of the whoopers dramatizes the conflict between the Goliaths: between a free market based on æsthetics, wildlife, and water versus a political power structure based on taxation without representation. The Crane Festival markets wildlife and its associated æsthetics, while the RGWCD benefits from massive federal subsidies, which it protects through its ad valorem taxing powers. Boyce means to change that.
The key to Boyce’s plans is his contention that the Closed Basin waters (including the shallow groundwater, the e-t, and the deep groundwater) were never part of the natural flow of the Rio Grande. And so, Boyce reasons, ranchers in the Closed Basin area should both re-assess traditional ranching methods and consider marketing the water they now use to grow winter feed for their animals. He is not suggesting they abandon ranching.
He is suggesting they learn to ranch in an economically rational way.
Boyce has founded Stockman’s Water Company to pursue his dreams. He is in the process of applying in Colorado Water Court for the right to sustainably harvest new water from the deep aquifers of the Closed Basin and divert it via a pipeline and pumping system across the mountains to eager municipal buyers along fast-growing Colorado’s Front Range — or perhaps downstream along the Rio Grande, via the existing plumbing of The Closed Basin Project. Boyce says he will use his considerable surface water rights to repair any damage done to existing wells in the Valley.
But of course that means that existing wells would have to prove damage — something that the Holy Land’s RGWCD in particular is loath to do, leading to the obvious question: are they using more than they are entitled to — and expecting taxpayers to make up the difference?
Whatever Boyce’s project is, it is not “AWDI II.” AWDI lost its case in court, and now money from that settlement fills the war chest of the RGWCD.
In addition, the Colorado Legislature keeps passing bills (sponsored by Rep. Lewis Entz, R-Hooper, a San Luis Valley potato farmer) aimed at making it more difficult to pump water out of the San Luis Valley. They plainly mean to win a war of attrition against Boyce, as opposed to letting him file in Colorado Water Court, where a legal system already exists to judge the fairness and feasibility of his proposals.
THE MECHANICS of the project’s water production and augmentation schemes exceed most people’s technical competence. But the economics and environmental effects do not. How would the project affect e-t rates in the Valley? Would the Valley dry up and blow away? So-called “behind the dam” reservoirs produce not only absurd evaporation losses but also tremendous environmental damage.
Stockman’s Water Project would tap the Closed Basin’s deep groundwater storage, estimated as about 2,000,000,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is a volume an acre broad and a foot deep.) The annual recharge to this natural groundwater reservoir from the surrounding mountains is at least 700,000 acre-feet. Boyce proposes to pump at renewable rates (perhaps 150,000 acre-feet per year), which he says will not damage other legitimate users. Boyce might even convey some of his water to the Closed Basin Project to make sure Colorado meets its downstream Rio Grande obligations.
This is no small matter. Recent years were so parched that the Rio Grande in New Mexico dried up completely, thus damaging wetlands and wildlife refuges, and monkeywrenching the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s recovery plans for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. No wonder that in 1993 the environmental group American Rivers named the Rio Grande the Nation’s Most Endangered River.
No wonder that this spring, a New Mexico environmental group filed a Notice of Intent to Sue aimed at breaking the monopoly of the RGWCD and forcing readjustments in the Rio Grande Compact that would require water for endangered species. No wonder that the Sierra Club formed a group called Give Us Back Our Water — aimed at breaking the monopoly of the old water buffaloes like RGWCD.
ON THE BACA ITSELF, Boyce proposes to stop irrigating artificial haymeadows. Instead, he would leave the formerly diverted water to follow its old streambeds out to where it would reconnect with what used to be San Luis Creek. (In an interesting twist, some of The Closed Basin Project’s pumps labor away right on Boyce’s land, land which the RGWCD taxes to fight Boyce.) Restoring the old streambeds would create miles and miles of wetlands and streamside habitat in an area where such things are rare and endangered. In addition, Boyce would use these riparian areas to link the Valley floor with his proposed 50,000 acre Alfred Collins Wildlife Preserve, which borders 22 linear miles of federal Wilderness and provides habitat for large elk herds and for one of Colorado’s most important bighorn sheep herds. Finally, the Preserve would protect the lands on the north end of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Recent surveys by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program confirm the ranch’s extremely high biodiversit
How would Stockman’s Water help ranchers? Right now, the value of the water on the ranch for irrigating livestock feed is about $160/acre-foot.
At its highest and best use in the San Luis Valley, that value can climb as high as $5,000/a-f for growing potatoes or even beyond that for sale to downstream users. Any participating rancher can increase his asset value many times over — and here is the key — he still stays in the ranching business. If he invests his profits, he can easily buy winter feed from other places in the Valley where it pays to grow alfalfa.
Does selling the water ruin the ranch? Not necessarily. A rancher who lets his haymeadows revert to natural grasslands will have more grazing land and can also increase the size of his ranch by purchasing land from willing sellers. As for the Valley’s many ditch companies, they seem to have worked themselves into a corner. They have effectively lowered the value of their water by making it impossible for any single member to market his/her shares. If you ask them about this, they will admit that they would do what Boyce is doing if they could. If you press them further, they will say, as rancher and Saguache County Commissioner Candidate (and Board member of the RGWCD) George Whitten said, “We don’t want our water exported to the cities. We want the growth here in the Valley. Let the people come here.” In contrast, Boyce says he is willing to work with The Nature Conservancy, which recently opened a field office in the San Luis Valley — and started buying land and water rights.
My own motivation remains the same: the return of the wolf to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. If the Alfred Collins Wildlife Preserve can be the start of the Sangres as a wolf haven, then I will listen to Boyce, for I don’t see how the present distribution of power and water in the region benefits wildlife.
BEGIN BY QUESTIONING the assumption that the status quo of water politics in the San Luis Valley is somehow sacred. Somehow so sacred that we cannot consider buying and selling water in a setting where markets, rather than politics, might determine value. Ask yourself: “Is water somehow different from other commodities, so that a wise and benign government should control its allocation in ways that maximize social equity and environmental quality?” Or maybe the opposite is true. Maybe the Endangered Species Act needs some re-tooling. Maybe the fates of the wolf and the whoopers and the silvery minnow hang upon our willingness to experiment. Maybe political control and regulation misallocate precious water in ways that harm the environment and enrich the few at the expense of the many. If you follow this line of thought, you may end up taking another look at Boyce’s proposals.
Where does the water flowing into the Closed Basin come from? Have you looked recently at the environmental health of the forested watersheds of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains? Only Boyce is willing and able to look at entire watersheds from top to bottom, asking what money and ingenuity could do to restore and maintain their integrity. If you think the U.S. Forest Service has the money to practice ecosystem management in the Sangres, then you are living in a dream world. If you think doing nothing in the fire-prone Sangres is good for the environment, then you are a strange sort of environmentalist indeed. For you assume the same thing in ecology that you assume in politics: whatever is, is good. But is it?
All too often, we environmentalists know what we are against, but not what we are for. When local Hispanics in the town of Center cut a deal with AWDI for the rights to farm 2,000 acres of the Baca in a communal fashion, they endangered their lives. Who says that the status quo is either socially just or environmentally benign? Not the judge who determined that voting patterns in the Valley systematically discriminated against Hispanics. As if to signal an end to the old ways of doing business, he ordered a commission to break the Valley into new districts that will give Hispanics more clout.
Think of San Luis Valley water as a high stakes poker game. Sooner or later, someone is going to develop the Baca’s water. Only Boyce says he will put some of his profits to work on behalf of environmental quality.
Fair enough. No one else is willing to make that bet — not the environmentalists, not the federal government, and certainly not the RGWCD, whose own environmental practices are highly questionable.
Tom Wolf is the author of Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains (University Press of Colorado, 1995. Revised and expanded paper edition due in 1999).
The Ice Crusades, his book about cold war and cold sport, will be published this winter by Roberts Rinehart Press.