An eight-year controversy ended May 9 when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against a company seeking to pump vast amounts of groundwater from beneath Colorado's San Luis Valley.
In 1986, American Water Development Inc.,
filed for the rights to siphon 65 billion gallons of groundwater a
year from the sprawling San Luis Valley. Investors in the $150
million project then hoped to pipe the water 100 or so miles to
suburbs around Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
The project was portrayed as an environmentally
sensitive solution to urban water shortages, but perhaps because of
numerous legal and political problems, AWDI never found a buyer.
Instead, the company got swamped by angry residents of the largely
Set in a virtual desert at 7,000
feet, the valley's agricultural economy is dependent on its
abundant groundwater. Early on, residents circled the wagons.
Antipathy toward the project reached the point where most
storefronts in Alamosa and other towns in the valley bore anti-AWDI
signs, and even the police cars carried anti-AWDI bumper stickers.
Townspeople bristled at the mention of the
project's backer, Canadian businessman Maurice Strong, who was
joined by former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm and William
Ruckelshaus, former director of the Environmental Protection
In addition to the grass-roots movement,
AWDI was opposed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which feared
that critical waterfowl habitat would be lost, and the National
Park Service, which claimed the project might destabilize the
valley's Great Sand Dunes National Monument.
Studies by the state and federal agencies, and
by the valley's farmers, argued that groundwater pumping from the
valley's deep aquifer would likely reduce flows in the shallow
aquifer, affecting farming, wetlands and the sand dunes.
In court, the valley's collection of
hydrologists was lined up against a competing battery of experts
from AWDI. Finally, the company was unable to prove that the deep
aquifer was isolated from shallower
In late 1991, District Judge Robert
Ogburn rejected AWDI's water rights claims. He also granted the
opponents' motion to recover more than $3.1 million, the amount the
various opposition parties spent for legal and scientific
In an appeal, AWDI questioned
Ogburn's objectivity, noting that instead of writing his own
opinion, he merely adopted one written by various state and federal
agencies and the valley's water districts. The appellate court's
unanimous ruling, however, held that Ogburn "was properly
Company spokespeople have declined
to comment on the ruling, but many observers speculate that to pay
its legal bills, AWDI may be forced to sell the Baca Ranch, Maurice
Strong's sprawling ranch that was to have been the initial location
for the water project's first wells.
In the San
Luis Valley, jubilant winners are celebrating. The money will be
split among the water districts, Citizens for San Luis Valley
Water, and several state and federal agencies.
* Barry Noreen
works for the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph.