Developers once again going after San Luis Valley water

La Jicarita recently published an article by William Henry Mee, Jr., President of the Agua Fria Wellowners Association and parciante on the Acequia Agua Fria. He’s also on the board of the United Communities of Santa Fe, an organization whose mission is to “ensure that Santa Fe’s future development, growth, and water allocations are fully sustainable and fairly distributed, with community involvement that is heard, respected and honored.”

As La Jicarita has covered over the years, the water supply necessary to sustain the city of Santa Fe is dependent primarily on the Buckman Well Field, where a series of wells mine groundwater supply and the Buckman Direct Diversion accesses Rio Grande and San Juan/Chama surface water rights. While the BDD diverts water from the north, many other Santa wells have been developed with water transferred from lower agricultural water rights, mostly in Valenica County, where farmers have let their fields go fallow. These water rights have been purchased by developers who are required to provide the requisite amount of water to supply future growth in the Santa Fe area. What Mees and his organization are concerned about is not only the sustainability of Santa Fe growth and development in a time of drought and climate crisis but the fairness of water transfers from their areas of origin.

On a much larger scale, the story of the battles to divert vast amounts of groundwater from Colorado’s San Luis Valley to the states’ front range—Douglas County, which stretches from Denver to Colorado Springs—demonstrates the lack of fairness and sustainability that Mees decries in his article. La Jicarita has covered the various schemes to divert San Luis Valley water via pipeline to the Denver area since the 1990s, all of which were soundly defeated through the courageous efforts of Valley farmers and organizations, particularly the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

Alas, it appears that the schemers never give up. In late 2021, a Denver development group called Renewable Water Resources (RWR) began negotiating with Douglas County to transfer 22,000 acre feet per year (afy) from 25 groundwater wells in the northern part of the San Luis Valley to the county. The developer wants the county to provide $10 million (originally $20 million) of its federal Covid-relief funds as a down payment on the estimated $600 million cost.

This latest attempt to transfer San Luis Valley water rights is the brainchild of former Colorado Republican Governor Bill Owens (who just resigned as chairman of the supervisory board of one of Russia’s largest banks, Credit Bank of Moscow), but other Colorado politicians have jumped in the fray to oppose the project. Democratic Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressing their opposition to the project. The letter pointed to a 1992 law, known as the Public Law 102-575, or the “Wirth” amendment, that “provides a legal framework and elevated standard of environmental review for any transfer of groundwater out of the [San Luis] basin that may adversely affect public resources, such as the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Closed Basin Project, Baca National Wildlife Refuge.”

While the RWR project has not been formally submitted, as required, to the Colorado State Engineer’s Office, State Engineer Kevin Rein stated that RWR misrepresented Douglas County’s reliance on a “depleted” Denver Aquifer in its proposal and has not identified the end user of the transferred water (which was also an issue in the proposed transfer of water here in New Mexico from the Plains of San Augustin in 2016 as reported in La Jicarita).

The San Luis Valley is fully on board to protect its community waters with the development of numerous public organizations  and the support of the conservancy districts and local politicians.

To put this story in a larger context, I’m including the chapter “San Luis Valley Water Wars” from my book ¡No Se Vende! Water as a Right of the Commons that tells the long and convoluted history of the previous transfer attempts.

. . . . . . . .

The story of the vast reservoir of water that sits below the San Luis Valley’s Baca Ranch in southern Colorado provided fascinating fare to the papers that covered environmental and social issues in the west in the late 1990s, including La Jicarita News. The Baca Ranch’s history is inextricably tied to that of New Mexico’s land grants. In 1863 the U.S. Congress agreed to settle the Luis Maria de Baca land grant dispute in the Las Vegas area by agreeing to a land swap that gave Baca’s heirs five sites, each 100,000 acres in size, located anywhere in what had formerly been Mexico. The Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico is one of those former grants; the northernmost is the Baca Ranch of the San Luis Valley.

The “Baca” has seen many owners over the years, including William Gilpin, the first governor of the Colorado Territory, until in the 1980s it fell into the hands of Canadian oil millionaire Maurice Strong and his American Water Development company. They hatched a scheme to pump 200,000 acre feet of water per year from beneath the ranch to the Front Range (the water short county between Denver and Colorado Springs). That plan died an ignoble death at the hands of Valley farmers, ranchers, and environmentalists, aided by the county government, asserting that pumping water in the closed San Luis basin would adversely affect existing wells and riparian areas.

The San Luis Valley is geologically divided into two sections by a wall of impermeable rock running east and west, roughly through the middle of the valley near the towns of Center and Hooper. Water on the south side of the subterranean barrier flows into the Rio Grande; water on the north side is trapped in what geologists term a “closed basin.” In articles written for his Colorado Central Magazine, Ed Quillen said that conservative estimates suggested there are several billion acre feet of water (one acre foot equals approximately 330,000 gallons) trapped deep beneath the surface. Furthermore, scientists claim it receives an additional million acre feet per year from run-off.

The state of Colorado appropriates approximately 40,000 acre feet of this water per year through its federally and state funded Closed Basin Project to meet Colorado’s obligation to New Mexico via the Rio Grande. This still leaves hundreds of thousands of acre feet of recharge water which, according to Colorado law, may be unappropriated.

The closed basin water again became an issue after Strong sold the 100,000 acre Baca Ranch (located near the town of Crestone) to Falloran Investment of San Francisco, whose managing partner was Gary Boyce, a pistol-toting, Humvee-driving, hand-tooled knee-high cowboy boot-wearing former San Luis Valley resident who went to California as a young man and came back a millionaire. Boyce, through his Stockman’s Water Company, attempted to reopen the door to the sale of the water rights to urban areas on the Front Range by drilling wells to export 100,000 to 150,000 acre feet per year. To facilitate this plan he got two constitutional amendments on a Colorado state ballot that would have subverted the power of the local conservation districts that opposed the water transfer. One proposal would have required the costly installation of water meters on many irrigation wells in the San Luis Valley, while the other required local irrigators to pay four times the market rate for water pumped from beneath state trust lands in the Valley. Through the determined efforts of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District both of these amendments were soundly defeated, so Boyce decided to pursue the possibility of sale in the other direction, south, to New Mexico. To “level the playing field” Boyce filed a lawsuit against the Closed Basin Project, which delivers water to New Mexico to meet Rio Grande Compact requirements, so that he could sell ranch water to meet Compact needs. Boyce also began talking to the New Mexico-based environmental group Forest Guardians that was lobbying for a change in the Compact. He saw the possibility to use the Closed Basin Project’s cheap and available plumbing to sell some of the water beneath his ranch to New Mexico to meet its federal environmental law requirements (at $5,000 to $10,000 per acre foot, 60,000 acre feet equals between $300 and $600 million). Boyce, therefore, realizing he and Forest Guardians had a common goal, made contributions to the environmental group through his Stockman’s Water Company. When La Jicarita questioned Boyce about the reason for these contributions, he claimed Forest Guardians “ . . . were raising the right issues” and he wanted to help “underwrite their research.”[i] He refused to disclose the amount of his contributions. Forest Guardians meanwhile filed a notice of intent to sue state and federal agencies in an attempt to dismantle the Rio Grande Compact, which it claimed unfairly favors agricultural water users and prevents the state from enforcing the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

In April of 2000 a new twist was added to this water saga. A bipartisan coalition in Congress proposed to change the status of Sand Dunes National Monument, at the south end of the Baca Ranch, to a national park. While such a change in status might result in any number of cumulative impacts (just ask the residents of Moab, Utah, near Arches National Park, or those in Montrose, Colorado, near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, how national park status has changed their communities), the issue at the Sand Dunes was water. According to Republican Congressman Scott McInnis, sponsor of the legislation, the primary goal in changing the monument’s status was to protect the closed basin water rights in the Baca from development.

That, of course, could only be implemented with the purchase of the ranch from Falloran and Boyce. But as Ed Quillen pointed out in Colorado Central, there was no incentive for Boyce to sell water rights that he paid $15 million for to the federal government for the appraised value of $35 million when he could conceivably get $750 million for development rights.

When we were covering the issue no one seemed to know for sure if The Nature Conservancy— the organization that was leading the negotiations to buy the ranch in anticipation of the Sand Dunes status change — was making any headway in purchase negotiations with Boyce or the other investors of Falloran Investments, which owned 50 percent of the Baca Ranch. It was also unclear what the Conservancy would eventually do with the 100,000 ranch, if acquired. Ralph Curtis of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District told La Jicarita that there were three distinct parts of the ranch for which the legislation proposed management. The first was called the sand sheet, or the dunes that actually provide sand to the monument, which would become part of the national park. The second area included the pastures and riparian areas that would be managed by U. S. Fish and Wildlife as a wildlife refuge to recharge the groundwater aquifer. The northeast part of the ranch, called the Mountain Tract, abuts the Sangre de Cristo peaks (it includes the 14,154 foot Kit Carson Peak) and could be managed by the Forest Service as wilderness.

Somehow The Nature Conservancy persuaded Boyce to refrain from filing a water rights application and instead sell the Baca Ranch to the Conservancy, which would hold it in escrow until the federal government’s purchase. In November of 2004, the final federal appropriation to repay the ranch’s $34.5 million purchase price was approved and it was then divided among three federal agencies: 53,135 acres were included in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve; almost 13,000 acres were added to the Rio Grande National Forest; and the 31,000 remaining acres were included in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. There would be subsequent controversies over the federal government’s right to all of the unappropriated water lying underneath the Park, and over split estate subsurface mineral rights when an oil and gas company came calling. But the Rio Grande Compact remains intact and closed basin water is not flowing down the Rio Grande to save the silvery minnow.


 

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