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San Luis Valley water war goes statewide

Article by Ed Quillen

Water – November 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE SAN LUIS VALLEY’S continuing water war will appear on the state ballot this year as two ballot issues, and you can expect a propaganda barrage from both sides. Stockman’s Water, according to Gary Boyce, will spend up to $1 million, and its varied opponents, co√∂rdinated by Citizens for Colorado Water in Alamosa, hope to have their own million raised by the time you read this.

Judging by the political sentiment I’ve sensed in the San Luis Valley, Stockman’s Water is an easy company to hate, and Gary Boyce is readily despised.

He is flamboyant, an easy man to spot in a crowd. He always totes a pistol, and he’s generally wearing knee-high hand-tooled stove-pipe cowboy boots. Sam Bingham described Boyce’s quarters at Rancho Rosario, just outside Crestone, as having “halls wide enough to U-turn a truck in.”

I wasn’t driving a truck on the day I visited, so I didn’t try to verify that observation, but the house is impressive, and when Boyce stopped by my house to chat last summer, he was driving a $70,000 Humvee.

But even so, Gary Boyce is also literate, informed, witty, and generous with his expensive cigars. If he does have horns, a forked tail, cloven-hoofed feet, and a “666” birthmark, those features have so far escaped my notice.

Boyce grew up in the San Luis Valley, went off to seek his fortune, and came back with one. He bought the 12,500-acre Rancho Rosado and in 1990 started an anti-AWDI newspaper, the Crestone Needles.

Then he folded it, for reasons still not clear, although he said publishing it “was the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on.” After AWDI lost its lawsuit in 1992, Boyce started buying property, and within a couple of years, had re-assembled the historic Baca Grant ranch, with the exception of the 7,726 lots in the Baca Grande subdivision south of Crestone.

Boyce may be a man of some means, but they’re not unlimited. The $16+ million real-estate acquisition binge had to be financed, and the financing came from Farralon Capital Management, a $500 million investment partnership based in San Francisco.

Thus Boyce has payments to make, and as he will be the first to tell you, cattle ranching doesn’t pay enough to make the payments — land in the Rocky Mountains is just too expensive, and livestock-raising too marginal. The day will probably come, he told me, when there are few if any commercial ranches in the West, since an acre of Iowa can produce more cows than 160 acres of the Valley.

Boyce could subdivide the Baca, selling parcels that would enable him to meet his payments, but he says he wants to keep his end of Saguache County open. And so now there’s his “No Dam Water Project,” also called “Son of AWDI.”

In brief, Boyce proposes to export at least 100,000 acre-feet a year from the Closed Basin, pumped from deep wells beneath land he owns or controls. Stockman’s would develop the water, but once the rights were granted, the water rights would be transferred to the purchaser — i.e., City of Aurora or the like.

To mitigate any water losses suffered by current water users in the Closed Basin, Boyce offers 25,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of senior surface rights.

These are from several creeks — Willow, Spanish, Cottonwood, Deadman, Crestone — that flow down the west face of the Sangres onto his land. Currently they are entirely diverted to hay fields, so that none of their water reaches Saguache Creek.

IF THESE CREEKS flowed freely, they would recharge the shallow Unconfined Aquifer, thereby helping make up for any drops caused by pumping the Confined Aquifer. And there would be environmental benefits — more riparian and wetland habitat.

Boyce also offers a $3 million trust fund, administered by the county government, so that if anybody in the Closed Basin had to drill a deeper well on account of Stockman’s, the money would be available.

As for Boyce’s Baca ranch, he proposes 50,000 acres to be set aside as the Albert M. Collins (named for a former Baca owner) Wildlife Reservation, a “buffer zone that would protect the integrity of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area,” and part of it would protect the northern 2,000 acres of the Great Sand Dunes from development.

He’d also establish a 10,000-acre preserve around Crestone Mountain and Kit Carson Peak, two 14ers he owns. As Boyce observed, Colorado’s 14ers are suffering from too much foot traffic, so “access to this privately owned and managed wilderness area would be controlled and monitored for conservation.”

So there seems to be something there for almost everybody, from thirsty Front Range cities to environmentalists throughout the country, and Boyce says he’s got something for his ranching neighbors — they can let Stockman’s sell some of the deep water under their land.

Ranchers just use that water to grow winter feed anyway, he says. They’d come out ahead if they sold the deep water through Stockman’s, and used some of the profits to buy feed from farmers down on the Rio Grande. They’d profit financially, and they could still graze their cattle, and so the ranches and resulting open space and low population density would be preserved.

Boyce can cite a certified expert — Jeris Danielsen, former Colorado state water engineer — in support of his plans. As he points out, “this has to go to water court, and whatever rights we get will be very junior rights. If we’re granted water rights, we won’t be hurting any other users. We have the mechanism in place to protect their water rights from me or anyone else who threatens them.”

So, why doesn’t he just drive the Humvee over to the courthouse with his engineers and lawyers, and file the application for the well permits?During several hours of conversation with Boyce, that’s the only time he sounded hesitant with an answer. “Before I do that, I want to make sure the playing field is level.”

THE PLAYING FIELD doesn’t look all that level to Chris Canaly as she sits in her crowded office, one corner of the bottom floor of KRZA, the public radio station in Alamosa.

Canaly, who lives just a few miles from Boyce, runs Citizens for San Luis Valley Water — a non-profit educational group that can’t get involved in a political campaign. So there’s a sister organization, Citizens for Colorado Water, run by Carla Shriver, in charge of raising money and buying media to fight Boyce’s ballot initiatives; the first Denver television ads, starring a gulping trout, have already appeared.

I first met Chris Canaly in Denver in December of 1992, at a conference of Western activists. My car was ailing, so I caught a ride there with George Sibley of Gunnison. The ride home came from Canaly and her husband, Mark Jacoby.

Canaly sees the Valley’s agricultural community — northern ranchers and southern farmers — as a unit with shared interests. What hurts one group will hurt both.

Boyce doesn’t. To him there are ranchers in the Closed Basin who are having their water taken by the “planters” along the Rio Grande, without getting anything in return. His plan would redress that “takings.”

The main problem with the Stockman proposal, Canaly says, “is that there’s so much we don’t know.

“For instance, is it the groundwater that Boyce might affect that keeps the Great Sand Dunes from blowing away? We don’t know how much water is in the Confined Basin, and if there is water there, we don’t know its quality from deep wells — it could be quite saline or mineralized. We don’t know how much water flows into the Closed Basin for recharge. We don’t know the evapotranspiration rates of plants on the Valley floor that could be affected by lowering the water table, and nobody wants the Valley to turn into one big stretch of sand dunes if those plants die.”

As for Boyce’s offers of nature preserves and riparian restoration, “all we have is his word. He hasn’t set up any formal mechanism through a trust or conservation group to accomplish that.

“Those are some reasons why this project has to be opposed, until we get some answers to those questions.”

State Rep. Lew Entz, a Hooper potato farmer, got a bill passed that forbids more drilling in the valley until the state engineer can conduct some of those studies.

Also advocating delay is Ralph Curtis, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “We’ve got studies going that might tell us what we need to know. At the moment, everything is working pretty well in the Valley, at least in water terms. And it could be that Boyce won’t hurt anything. We just don’t know. It would be fair to say that a lot of the opposition to Boyce comes from plain old fear of the unknown, and I share those fears.”

The District led the court battle against AWDI, and would likely fight Boyce in water court.

“In ways, the AWDI fight was easier,” Curtis said, “because we knew what they proposed to do. Boyce hasn’t filed anything official, so we don’t really know what we might be up against.”

WHAT THE DISTRICT is up against is a political and judicial assault from Boyce.

He’s got two proposals on the November ballot. The metering requirement, Canaly said, “is written so that if a water meter clogs — which is frequent, considering the amount of sand that pumps can bring up here — then the farmer has to shut it down immediately until he gets a new meter. That could take several days, and his crops could dry up — the only time you’d be pumping anyway is if you needed the water at that moment.”

She sees it as a spite measure against the irrigated farmers who oppose Boyce, “since if he was really interested in measuring water usage, they could measure electrical power consumption, they way they do in the lower Arkansas Valley. There’s a very close correlation between electrical consumption and the amount of water pumped. Requiring water meters on the wells is just a way to make life harder for farmers here.”

The other ballot proposal, to require the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to pay for water it pumps out — and has pumped out in recent years — from under state land “would pretty much bankrupt the district,” Canaly said. The money is supposed to go into the state school fund, but it wouldn’t really increase the money there, since under the Bruce Amendment, the fund can take in only so much anyway.

What does Boyce have to gain from bankrupting the Water Conservation District? If it didn’t have any money, it couldn’t fight him in court when he gets around to filing his application for well permits.

Boyce denied that he intended to bankrupt the district, but noted that “if that was a result of this law, I wouldn’t shed a tear.”

The Conservation District can fight Boyce in court, in order to protect its residents’ interests, but it can’t fight a Boyce ballot initiative, since it’s a tax-supported entity and tax money can’t be spent on ballot issues. So in some respects, the ballot initiatives represent an end run around Boyce’s likely opponent in water court.

On the statewide political front, the pre-election polls haven’t really started, and neither has the campaign advertising, so there’s no telling how the two Boyce initiatives are faring.

On a more local level, well, I’ve yet to encounter or read about any candidate for any office in the Valley who is not absolutely and firmly opposed to Boyce. Every candidate of any party (or even no party at all, like George Whitten, Jr., in Saguache County) is saying something like “I will fight to my last breath to keep the Valley’s water in the Valley.”

THE ONLY CANDIDATE, to date, who has even hinted at something less than total opposition to Boyce is Bill Owens, Republican candidate for governor. In Salida last spring, he said he would oppose any provision to outlaw trans-basin water transfers in Colorado, because the state needs flexibility in managing its water resources to accommodate its citizens.

On the federal level, well, who knows? They seem occupied by sex in the White House, rather than federal water policy, but it’s hard to imagine that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt would ever approve any pipelines out of the San Luis Valley.

But if a Republican were elected president in 2000 and he appointed a James Watt clone as Secretary of the Interior, the wells and pipelines could easily get a federal stamp of approval. And lest I appear too partisan, a Democrat could argue “the greatest good for the greatest number” (especially if the proper campaign contributions were in hand), and likewise approve.

Boyce hasn’t gone to water court, and so the precise issues remain rather misty in that respect. But he has gone to another court.

On Aug. 28, the Cabez de Vaca Land & Cattle Co., the Boyce entity which runs the ranch, filed suit in Denver U.S. District Court against Babbitt as Secretary of the Interior, and Rio Grande Water Conservation District and its officers.

IN ESSENCE, the suit charges that the Closed Basin Project has lowered the water table on the Baca Ranch, so that its hay meadows can no longer be grazed, and that the project is taking more water than it should from the Baca.

Further, project water is supposed to be going to wildlife refuges and to meet Colorado’s compact obligations, but instead, “the water has been produced for the purpose of irrigation and other beneficial uses in Colorado, such as supporting or protecting surface diversions for irrigation upstream of Alamosa.”

And in that case, Boyce’s complaint says, the law requires irrigators to pay for their water to help the U.S. treasury recover the $100 million cost of the project. But in “violation of the Act, the Secretary [of the Interior] has failed to execute contracts with the Colorado water users providing for the repayment of the costs….”

None of the defendants would comment on the suit; they hadn’t had a chance to read it yet when I was asking questions, and they understandably wanted to talk to an attorney before talking to any writers.

Federal cases and state-wide ballot initiatives, fund-raising campaigns and political-issue advertising — it’s a war with everything but the shooting.

On one side, there’s a man who stands to make millions while offering to protect a fair-sized chunk of some of Colorado’s best scenery from crowding and development. And it would channel the growth that nobody can stop to the Front Range, already pretty much a sacrifice area, without causing the need to construct new and destructive reservoirs.

On the other, thousands of people who fear that the places they know and cherish will be devastated, just so some capitalists in San Francisco can get a good return on their investment in Stockman’s Water.

That’s incentive enough, on either side, for a long and protracted struggle, one that won’t end after the November election, no matter how the two ballot proposals fare.

Ed Quillen helps publish Colorado Central, and believes that wasting water is the best way to keep Colorado livable. He wanted somebody else to write this story, but Ray James went to prison before the issues developed sufficiently for him to finish the job. The Closed Basin and various other aspects of Valley hydrology were covered in the previous edition of Colorado Central.

First Installment in Oct. 98 edition.