by Mary Lowers

According to reports in the Alamosa Courier and Center Post Dispatch, a plan to sell San Luis Valley (SLV) water to municipalities on the eastern slope, in the works since 2016, was officially announced at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) meeting December 7. The plan outlined at the meeting would make available 22,000 acre-feet of water per year for export from the northern SLV to the water-poor cities on the eastern slope, specifically Douglas County.

A version of this water transfer plan was presented to the Saguache County Commissioners in 2014 by the late Gary Boyce under the umbrella of an organization called Sustainable Water Resources. Advocates of this new water plan contend the Commissioners at the time did not “seem to oppose the plan.” That water export plan was eventually defeated. After Boyce’s death in March 2016 the organization remerged as Renewable Water Resources (RWR). Sean Tonner of RWR bought Boyce’s 11,500 acres of water holdings from his estate.

RWR attorney Kevin Kinnear said the water, which would come primarily from Saguache County, would be purchased for $2000 per acre foot, this price depending on both groundwater and surface water rights. Jerry Berry, who has farmed in Saguache County since 1996, is manager of RWR property. He said there are locals interested in selling their water. To sweeten the water sale, RWR is adding a fifty-million dollar community fund to the contract. RWR says this fund could be spent on everything from schools, to law enforcement, to conservation easements.

According to RWR’s plan, water would be pumped from the SLV with buyers paying for pipeline construction at an estimated cost of $550 to $600 million. The whole project, if it gains traction, would take about ten years to complete with the first five years dedicated to capitalizing the project. Tonner said RWR has been working on this project for four years and would like to file their paperwork in Division 3 Water Court sometime in 2019.

RGWCD Board President, Greg Higel said he questions if the 22,000 acre-feet would be enough for thirsty eastern slope towns like Castle Rock and Aurora. Tonner said that buyers and sellers “are ok” with pipeline restrictions. The pipeline RWR is envisioning for the project cannot carry more water than the agreed-upon 22,000 acre-feet. RWR says it has held “numerous” community meetings in Saguache as well as “nearly one hundred” meetings across the SLV about the planned water sale. RGWCD Board member Bill McClure of Saguache said he was not aware of any community meetings about RWR’s plans in the area. Saguache County Commissioner Tim Lovato said that RWR has not yet met with County Commissioners about the water sale plan.  The Town of Crestone, not far from the Boyce San Isabel property, hadn’t heard anything about this plan.

There were plans to sell water out of the SLV in the late 1980s involving some board members of the late Maurice Strong’s Arizona Land and Cattle Company, who called themselves American Water Development, Incorporated (AWDI). The late Gary Boyce then picked up the gauntlet, after AWDI was defeated in a Water Court Case in 1992, and renamed the trans-basin water project Stockmen’s Water. Throughout most of the 1990s, Boyce’s plan surfaced in different forms, but mostly in the public policy arena, culminating with two ballot initiatives that were launched in the state of Colorado in 1998 designed to cripple the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and water users of the San Luis Valley. Citizens worked diligently throughout the valley to inform Colorado voters of the initiatives’ true intention, to cripple water users, although they were masquerading as education bills. The voters of Colorado defeated the two ballot initiatives with a 70% majority.

Valley residents then looked towards a long term solution. A bi-partisan effort emerged to redirect the water diversion attempts that were taking place on the then-Luis Maria Baca Grant #4 Ranch, and in 18 months pushed through legislation that culminated with the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000, (creating the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Baca National Wildlife Refuge and Baca Mountain Tract). The federal government purchased the approximately fifty-square-mile Baca Ranch for $33 million, placing the Baca Ranch into public hands, thereby removing the temptation of selling off those private water rights.   

The National Park has since become a sustainable economic anchor, as opposed to a boom and bust cycle, creating over 400 jobs and bringing a cumulative impact of over $36 million/year to the San Luis Valley region. The Park estimates that over half a million visitors toured during the 2018 season. The investment made in 2000 has greatly enriched the American public portfolio and future generation legacy.

“RWR’s plan looks exactly like what we have seen in the past” says Christine Canaly, Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, who was very active in opposing the trans-basin water diversion attempts in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. “The first time I met Alex Crutchfield, the Vice-President of American Water Development, Inc., he said I could sit on a Board and figure out how to spend all the millions they would make pumping water out of here, on local community projects. My perspective has not changed, as I said to Crutchfield then ‘what good is this place without the water?’ Especially now, we are in severe drought conditions, what part of climate change and over-appropriation is RWR not understanding?”

While Renewable Water Resources had presented their plan to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, at this time no official documents have been filed in water court.