Despite their marketing assertions, RWR’s plan to export water from the San Luis Valley was not devised by locals nor will it benefit the entire Valley. Nor is there a billion gallon “ocean” under the Valley floor just waiting to be tapped.
RWR proposes buying local agricultural water, pumping out 22,000 acre-feet of water and transporting it through a pipeline over Poncha Pass. It would be the first pipeline in the Valley built to remove water. RWR executives, former Governor Bill Owens and his former deputy chief of staff Sean Tonner, are behind the plan. The Centennial, Colorado-based company owns Rancho Rosado, just north of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. The stated need for the water is to support population growth and development on the Front Range. There are no publicly known buyers for the water at this time.
The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, Conejos Water Conservancy District, the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable as well as the City of Alamosa, Town of Del Norte, City of Monte Vista, Town of Saguache, environmental groups, local businesses and many farmers and ranchers oppose RWR’s proposal. They stand against it as the newest of a long line of export schemes that threatens the Valley’s agriculture, economy and natural environment.
A Threat to Farming and the Economy
RWR’s plan will remove water from the Valley and permanently dry up at least 10,000 acres of farmland. Pumping and exporting water would exacerbate groundwater level declines, especially with the ever-present and ongoing threat of severe drought. RWR’s promise to supplement water in the aquifer in exchange for project support would ultimately still dry up more farmland since the removal of every two acre-feet of water dries up one irrigated acre of land.
While it may sound like a lot of money, the one-time $50 million community payment RWR has promised will not go very far or benefit very many of the communities in the Valley. Future generations would also be negatively impacted by the sale of agricultural water, as will the succession plans of many farmers/ranchers to keep operations within the family. The long-term economic consequences of drying up agriculture far outweighs any short-term benefit from such a payment.
Farming communities that have sold their water to cities in the past have faced dire economic consequences. The sale of agricultural water from Crowley County, Colorado and Owens Valley, California to growing metropolitan areas decimated these farming communities, their economies and quality of life. Neither ever recovered.
It makes no sense to pump water out of the San Luis Valley during a time when farmers in the area are making self-imposed water cuts on their irrigated land to better balance out their demands with their supplies. Water leaving the Valley places about 500,000 of irrigated acres at risk. RWR’s plan could drain Saguache, Alamosa, Rio Grande and other counties’ economic engine.
Attacking Local Solutions
RWR’s project will work to undermine local efforts to balance water supply and use. Many Valley farmers currently participate in a voluntary program of Subdistricts that work together to replenish and sustain the shallow groundwater, allowing them to guide their own destiny and solve problems locally. The area has experienced severe drought for 20+ years. To address this, a program was started when local water users and state officials recognized that groundwater use in certain parts of the basin is unsustainable. Local leaders passed legislation that allows communities within the Valley to create their own plans for balancing water use and supply.
With assistance from RGWCD, Groundwater Management Subdistricts (Subdistricts) were formed to create and implement groundwater management plans. Valley water users are working together to recharge groundwater levels themselves, rather than facing sweeping orders from the State Engineer to shut down or curtail wells.
The Subdistricts are hard at work, but their members face increasing challenges from a drying climate and challenging agriculture markets. RWR’s project will put additional strain on the local economy and communities, making successful aquifer recovery and sustaining agriculture operations even more challenging.
A Threat to the Environment
RWR plans to pump water from the deep aquifer using a series of wells located in very concentrated area at the north end of the Valley. Since the Valley water is connected, pumping this deep groundwater could greatly reduce water levels in shallower aquifer that sits above it as well as local streams, wetlands and rivers.
Extensive, concentrated pumping in this area could have significant impacts to area streams and groundwater, including those that flow through the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Baca National Wildlife Refuge and numerous important ecosystems on public and privately-owned lands.
Pulling water in a concentrated area could also affect the streams, rivers and ponds within and flowing through the Sand Dunes. The proposal could negatively impact bodies of water that support the Sand Hill Cranes and other wildlife.
One-half million people visit the Great Sand Dunes each year. The spring and summer runoff of Medano Creek is a major draw. This national park supports 400 jobs and brings in a cumulative impact of $36 million annually to the region.