By Zaylah Pearson-Good
Imagine an underground pipeline in your backyard. It runs along a quiet, arid valley, beneath contorted Junipers, sprawling chamisas, sporadic wetlands, and vast agricultural fields. Headed north from Saguache County, the pipeline winds through the Rockies, climbing Poncha Pass along US 285, traversing the Arkansas River, until it eventually reaches the thirsty South Platte Basin just beyond Trout Creek Pass summit. Annually transferring 22,000 acre-feet of water from the San Luis Valley to the rapidly growing Front Range, this pipeline commodifies your drinking water, wetlands and food production, selling it at over $20,000 per acre-foot. Every decade or so, San Luis Valley (SLV) residents are called to action to prevent this scenario from becoming a reality. This time, Renewable Water Resources (RWR) is up to bat.
In the fall of 2018, RWR spokesman and owner Sean Tonner contacted the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) to ask for their support in creating a trans-basin diversion in the SLV. Tonner explained to Cleave Simpson, RGWCD’s General Manager, that he had recently purchased Rancho Rosado, the prior ranch of Gary Boise, who had attempted a similar water diversion scheme years before. RWR had big plans for the property; drilling up to 30 confined aquifer wells, at depths of 600 ft. each, the company would annually market 22,000 acre feet of SLV water to an undisclosed entity in the Front Range.
RWR presented their project, and continues to do so, as a “Win-Win” for both the SLV and the Front Range. Piping water up north would be an easy remedy to the rising demand for water in the rapidly growing Front Range. In turn, RWR representatives argued that the SLV would benefit economically, as the region would be given a $50 million trust fund for community development. Furthermore, RWR ardently claimed that their trans-basin diversion would abide by all laws required by Colorado Water Court, and therefore, would not negatively impact the SLV aquifer, senior water users, nor the ecological stability of the landscape.
The San Luis Valley is unique in that it operates under a “One-for-One” water law, meaning that for every acre-foot of water removed from the confined aquifer, an equal amount must be retired. Since there are no unappropriated confined aquifer wells left in the SLV, and it is not permitted to drill new ones, RWR would need to purchase existing wells in order to comply with the regional mandate. These wells would be found across the Valley, many of which are decades old. RWR looked to RGWCD to help them locate and identify potential wells to purchase and retire. Simpson agreed to present the RWR proposal to the board.
In January of 2019, RGWCD’s board responded to RWR with their final decision: Out of concern for the ecological and economical wellbeing of the Valley, RGWCD would vigorously oppose the diversion project. Furthermore, they would actively educate the public as to why RWR’s project would indeed NOT be a “Win-Win” for SLV residents.
Simpson explains that the reasons to oppose RWR’s project are numerous. A primary reason is that the SLV water basin is already out of balance. Simpson laments that with agriculture running the Valley’s economy, water demands have been exceeding supply for decades. Annual precipitation and snowpack have also decreased, limiting aquifer recharge. As a longtime resident of the SLV, a fourth generation farmer, and the general manager for the Valley’s water district, Simpson is stretched to see how a trans-basin diversion of any kind could be sustainable. He notes that “We don’t have the water that was once here when agriculture communities were first built;” at RGWCD, “We are consistently trying to fix the water imbalance without compromising our environment and economy.” Despite RWR’s claims for sustainable use, Simpson believes that the diversion would jeopardize SLV’s water conservation goals.
Additionally, RWR’s proposal seems to directly contradict a fundamental principle in ecology: everything is connected. RWR claims that because water will be extracted from depths of up to 2,000 feet below ground, the removal will have no impact on surface waters and ecology. Yet, Simpson notes that our Valley is “connected through hydrology.” RGWCD has already seen the unintended consequences from well use. Crestone Creek and San Luis Creek show signs of reduced flow due to use of wells in the area. Simpson shares that groundwater withdrawal has varying impacts based on geography, well location, and stream specifics, yet their studies always produce the same result: groundwater withdrawals do impact surface water.
As of 2019, pumping records show that over the prior 5 years, existing wells in the San Luis Creek response area withdrew roughly on average 11,000 acre-feet a year from the confined aquifer. This number is already 1,000 acre-feet over what Colorado groundwater rules and regulations permit in the near future. What would become of our local surface waters if another 22,000 acre-feet of water were removed every year? How could RWR comply with sustainable use policies if existing wells are already failing to do so?
In addition to the environmental concerns, RWR’s project has the potential to undermine the San Luis Valley’s economy. The SLV hosts some of the poorest counties in the state, and sometimes even the nation. With some 500,000 irrigated acres in the Valley, the economy is heavily depended on agriculture. RWR has designed many of their marketing campaigns around the SLV’s economic vulnerability. In addition to offering a $50 million “gift” to the SLV community, RWR sees their water diversion as being a great way to diversify the local economy. By buying out local ranchers and farmers from their water rights, locals would no longer have to struggle in their agriculture field. When it comes down to it though, RWR is making big assumptions about the needs and desires of SLV residents.
For many, agriculture and ranching is not just a source of income, it is a way of life. The SLV landscape and the resources that exist upon it are a part of family histories, personal identities, and investments for future generations. Simpson remarks gratefully that many people in the Valley value the land beyond its economic potential. They understand that without enough water in our Valley, there is no future here for our children—no matter how tempting a trust fund might be. As we face climate change and economic uncertainty, we must start to see our water supply as the highest currency. If RWR takes away large sums of our water, how will we ever be economically stable?
In closing, Simpson reflects on his desired vision for the future of the San Luis Valley: “ I would like to see a resilient agriculture-driven economy still intact that maintains a wonderful connection to the environment and recreational community.” He would also like to see the return of massive bird populations to the area, and increased snowfall and snowpack. Simpson remembers a time when water from the San Juan Mountains made its way all the way across the Valley, ending up at the Baca Refuge. He would love to see this water return.
As a water leader, Simpson recognizes the challenges to manifesting this vision. It will take our entire community to rebalance our water demand and supply. It will take willful political and community leadership to enforce policy and to continue to protect our water basin. Simpson warns that if the next twenty years are anything like the last 20 years, we can expect to lose water resources on maybe as much as 100,000 acres of land across the Valley. With our water resources already dwindling, we must ask ourselves again, is the proposal set forth by Renewable Water Resources really a “Win-Win” for everyone?
Cleave Simpson is currently running for State Senator in District 35. His water expertise could provide valuable leadership serving in the Colorado state legislature.
Many thanks to Cleave Simpson and RGWCD for the background knowledge pertaining to the creation of this article. Watch for the water export informational website page about to be released by the RGWCD.
To learn more about the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, visit their website: https://www.rgwcd.org
Learn more about the RWR water project by visiting the SLV Ecosystem Council website: