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A Colorado newspaperman fights for his valley's water

 

Updated 3/20/12

Out east of Pueblo, Colo., where juniper, sage and bitterbrush melt into the wide-open shortgrass prairie, towns with names like Manzanola, Ordway, Rocky Ford, Swink and La Junta dot the Lower Arkansas River Valley. These were the kinds of agricultural settlements celebrated by William Ellison Smythe, an early-20th-century champion of filling the West with irrigated farms. In his book, The Conquest of Arid America, Smythe exhorted yeoman farmers escaping the urban squalor of the East to "grapple with the desert, translate its gray barrenness into green fields and gardens, banish its silence with the laughter of children."

For Smythe, there was no more exalted calling than that of the toiling farmer, and his praise often soared to delirious heights: "This is the breed of men who make the Republic possible, who keep the lamp of faith burning through the night of corrupt commercialism, and who bear the Ark of the Covenant to the Promised Land." Water, of course, was the key to that vision. Since Smythe's time, though, the West has grown tremendously and its cities have boomed. Today, the Lower Arkansas Valley is a far cry from the irrigation crusader's dreams of an earthly paradise. The water from one-third of the valley's irrigated farmland -- about 150,000 acres -- is now controlled by outsiders, who have already siphoned much of it to Denver's suburbs, 130 miles away. Once-green fields lie permanently fallowed, laced with dried-up irrigation ditches and marked by the great carcasses of cottonwoods slowly falling to pieces.

But the spirit of William E. Smythe endures, at least in the editorial pages of the local newspaper, The Pueblo Chieftain. Started in 1868 by a former Confederate army surgeon, the Chieftain is the oldest continuously published daily in Colorado. Its editor and publisher is a man named Bob Rawlings, and for years he has been using his $8 million, German-built Man Roland Uniset printing press to thunder against what he sees as water grabs by predatory outsiders.

Rawlings, who turned 87 last August, has a faintly Merlin-esque mien -- complete with goatee and a wizard's eyebrows. He is mercurial, by turns gracious, prickly and sentimental. It is not unusual for him to choke up, particularly when he talks about his family's history and the star-crossed plight of the valley's farms.

The two subjects are deeply intertwined. Rawlings' grandfather, father and uncle -- and the local newspapers they controlled -- were instrumental in the campaign to build one of the main water systems that feeds Arkansas Valley farms. For years, Rawlings watched with growing dismay as distant cities took the valley's water. Then, roughly a decade ago, a Denver suburb that already owned most of one major canal system came calling for the rest. To Rawlings, the maneuver seemed a potential death blow to the local people and culture. Suddenly, his legacy became manifest.

"Before that, it was just another news story," says Steve Henson, the Chieftain's managing editor. "And ever since then, it's been a war."

The Chieftain is printed out of a squat building on western 6th Street in Pueblo near the railyard, where downtown's brick buildings give way to the lazy meander of the Arkansas River. Rawlings runs the newspaper from a suite with several well-stuffed chairs and a lighted globe. The most high-tech thing inside is an IBM Selectric II typewriter.

For a man with such a fierce print voice, Rawlings is surprisingly amiable. He is nearly deaf -- a result of his time aboard a submarine chaser during World War II -- so he follows conversations with unusual attentiveness. In person, he rarely utters phrases more blasphemous than "I'll be doggone."

One wall of his office is home to what he calls "the Rogues     Gallery": a collection of photographs of himself glad-handing practically every politician who's passed through Pueblo. But a far less ostentatious memento hints at Rawlings' true passion. On the coffee table lies a small, gold-painted skillet engraved with the words:

GOLDEN FUTURE
FRYING PAN
MORE WATER FOR
THE ARKANSAS VALLEY

It's an emblem of the role that the newspaper and its publisher's family have played in securing and defending water for the valley, an enterprise that stretches almost as far back as Rawlings' own life.

Rawlings was born on Aug. 3, 1924. At the time, his grandfather, Frank Hoag Sr., owned the Chieftain's afternoon competitor, the Star-Journal, propounding his views in forceful front-page editorials with lots of all-capital letters. Rawlings' relationship with Hoag was always fractious. But Rawlings inherited a distinctive trait from him.

"My grandfather was a goer," Rawlings says. "He was a fighter."

In 1933, Hoag bought the Chieftain. It was a pivotal time for the valley, one that would push the paper to play a major role in local water politics and shape Rawlings' views about the importance of the resource.

When settlers arrived in the valley in the mid-1800s, they banded together to form ditch companies and dug networks of canals to divert Arkansas River water onto their sugar beet, melon and grain fields. But during the 1930s, the Dust Bowl overwhelmed their little farm towns. Rawlings was 10 years old at the height of the dust storms, and he remembers them clearly: brown clouds extending from horizon to horizon, 3,000 feet high and full of churning dirt and trash.

"It was just awful for the farmers," he says. "If they had a field of grain out there when that stuff came through, it would just obliterate it."

The memory of that trauma spurred the second wave of water development. John W. Rawlings, Rawlings' father, was a banker in the Lower Valley town of Las Animas who had made loans to struggling farmers. He approached Rawlings' uncle, Frank Hoag Jr., then second-in-command at the Chieftain and Star-Journal; together, they persuaded other local businessmen to stump for a project that would tunnel beneath the Continental Divide to bring water from western Colorado to the Arkansas Valley.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation began investigating the scheme's potential in 1935. It ultimately proposed the Gunnison-Arkansas Project, which would draw a whopping 800,000 acre-feet per year -- enough to fill 29 million semi-truck tankers -- from mountain headwaters around Gunnison, Crested Butte and Leadville. The plan was so audacious it was practically guaranteed to fail. And fail it did, thanks to furious opposition from Colorado's Western Slope, which runs from the Continental Divide west to the Utah line.

Chastened, the Arkansas Valley boosters whittled the proposal down to less than one-tenth its original size, and focused on the Fryingpan River near Aspen, 140 miles northwest of Pueblo. The proposal -- renamed the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project -- was introduced to Congress in 1952. "We have a gold mine here," Frank Hoag Jr. said at the time, "but it is up to us to develop it."

In 1955, Hoag and other boosters launched the Golden Future Fryingpan Campaign, which sold commemorative frying pans to fund lobbying trips to Washington, D.C. Finally, in the summer of 1962, Congress approved the $170 million project. Hoag stood proudly in the Oval Office as President John F. Kennedy signed the bill.

The Star-Journal lauded the event as a triumph of unvarnished self-interest. On June 15, 1962, it ran a photo of Colorado's congressional delegation around a bacon-filled skillet with the caption "Brought Home Bacon In Fryingpan." By that point, the Arkansas Valley was practically raining skillets. When Kennedy flew to Pueblo a month later, the local stadium was hung with red, white and blue bunting -- and at least two-dozen frying pans. "We are going to make in this project an example of what can be done in other parts of our country (that) also look for water and cannot find it," the president told a crowd of 12,000 people. "This is an investment in the future of this country."

No sooner had he finished than Sen. John Carroll thrust yet another commemorative frying pan into his hands.

Rawlings, meanwhile, had followed in his grandfather's and uncle's footsteps. He served in the Navy and then enrolled in Colorado College. In 1947, he married classmate Sandy Graham and began working as a police reporter at the Chieftain. He was 23 -- "a complete neophyte," he says. "I had never written a story. I didn't know how to type."

Over the next dozen years, he and Sandy had four children. Then, in 1962 -- the same year the Fryingpan-Arkansas project was approved -- Rawlings' grandfather died. The following year, his uncle, Frank Hoag Jr., made Rawlings, then 39, the company's general manager.

For much of Colorado's history, blue-collar Pueblo was the second-biggest city in the state, thanks largely to the steel mills "which blackened (its) sky ... with the smoke of a young Pittsburgh," in Smythe's words. But as Rawlings worked his way up the newspaper's hierarchy, Pueblo's civic ambitions were taking a beating. And the gap between local incomes and those in Denver and other urban areas to the north widened.

In 1967, Colorado Springs, 40 miles to the north, bumped Pueblo from the number-two spot. And farther north, the Denver suburb Aurora was growing even faster. In 1950, its population was 11,000. By 1970, it was 75,000, and over the next decade, it more than doubled again. The city launched a series of annexations and began outrunning its water supplies -- just as Rawlings finally took over the Chieftain as publisher and editor, in 1980.

Aurora's problem was simple. Denver and other cities had snapped up most of the rights to the rich troves of water in the Colorado Rockies in the 1900s. "We got into the game pretty late," says Barb Cleland, a longtime Aurora city councilwoman "And pretty much anything we could get, we would."

Aurora lies on the Platte River, in a separate watershed from the Arkansas. But thanks to the thoroughness with which the Continental Divide has been replumbed by the Fryingpan-Arkansas and other projects, the city is hydrologically much closer to the Arkansas Valley than it seems. In the 1970s -- just as the first water from the Fryingpan-Arkansas project was arriving in the valley -- the once-thriving local sugar beet industry was being wiped out by cheap imported sugar. And for a fast-growing and thirsty city -- or for speculators looking to turn a buck -- a depressed farming region is a smart place to look for water.

The 1860s- and 1870s-era mutual irrigation ditches were the first targets, because their water rights are more reliable than those from water projects that were developed later. In 1979, a company called American Crystal decided to shutter its sugar beet processing plant in Rocky Ford. It gave local farmers an option to buy the factory, but they were unable to raise enough money, so the Resource Investment Group -- a company owned in part by Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen -- stepped in. RIG, as it was better known, wasn't particularly interested in the factory. It really wanted the rights to the Rocky Ford Ditch that came with the purchase -- rights that it promptly sold to Aurora.

The deal was one of many that took water from the valley, and a derisive phrase soon emerged for the phenomenon: "buy and dry."

Crowley County, east of Pueblo, became a symbol of how bad things could get. Farmers burdened with debt have sold out, one after another. After a series of sales to Aurora and Colorado Springs -- even to Pueblo itself -- only 4 percent of the county's historic cropland is still farmed. The area's small towns retain a quiet dignity, but much of the county has a hardscrabble, wind-blasted look and seems to be fading back into primordial entropy.
Still, it wasn't until 1999 that Rawlings seriously began his crusade to keep water in the valley. Aurora was still growing -- and running out of options. But about 40 percent of the Rocky Ford Ditch -- which lies to the south of Crowley County, in Otero County -- remained in farmers' hands. The city approached the holdouts and offered about $20 million to take the rest.

The prospect that another county might be sucked dry, the way Crowley County had been, finally ignited Rawlings' outrage. "To me, it was criminal," he says.

Rawlings rolled up his sleeves, took to the Chieftain's editorial pages, and fulminated that Aurora's plan would "take the lifeblood of the Arkansas Valley and wash it down the South Platte."

"We're fighting to protect that water, to be used as I feel it was originally intended to be used," Rawlings says today. "If we lose our water, then there's no hope for us."

For 13 years now, he has kept up his drumbeat. The Chieftain has railed against "raiders," "water pirates" and "the smug water buffaloes to the north"; denounced Aurora as an "avaricious" and "stealthy foe"; and warned readers that the "giant sucking sound you hear is Aurora's unquenchable thirst." Rawlings has denounced the tendency to view farms as a "water piggy bank, to be broken when sprawling cities along the Front Range have looked for more of this most precious natural resource."

And, in the style of William E. Smythe, the paper has extolled the plucky farmer. "Farmers are the salt of the earth, and we in Colorado need to see to it that they can continue their way of life," one editorial proclaimed; another noted: "That way of life should not be sacrificed for the quick buck."

The opinion pages repeat one simple mantra: "When the water's gone, it's not coming back, and the money just doesn't last."

The indignation is not all Rawlings' own. In recent years, other members of the editorial committee have done most of the writing: Chuck Campbell, the editorial page editor; Tom McAvoy, a veteran political reporter; and Rawlings' daughter, Jane, who is assistant publisher. Nonetheless, Rawlings' mark on the paper's editorial pages has been indelible. His irascibility is legendary -- several editors have parted ways with him under less-than-amiable circumstances, and he and Sandy separated in 1990 -- and it shapes much of the Chieftain's editorial voice.

What doesn't appear in the paper says a lot, too. Aurora has borne the brunt of Rawlings' ire, but Colorado Springs has also taken its share. In 2004, Lionel Rivera, then the mayor of Colorado Springs, wrote a letter to the editor seeking to correct what he saw as mischaracterizations in a Chieftain editorial. The letter disappeared into Rawlings' office -- not the only time a letter vanished, according to Rivera.

"We waited and we waited and we never heard back," Rivera says. "We finally came to the conclusion that they weren't going to run it.

"So," he says, "we bought an ad."

Rawlings has not been shy about taking the fight beyond the pages of the Chieftain. In 2002, in an effort to get his favored candidates on the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board, Rawlings organized a letter-writing campaign to the local judge responsible for those appointments. When Rawlings decided that district wasn't defending the valley's water vigorously enough, he pushed for creation of a clone, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

Then came a particularly horrifying setback. For years, Rawlings had argued that because Aurora lies outside the Arkansas Valley, it has no right to use the canals and pumps and tunnels of the Fryingpan-Arkansas project. But in 2003, the federal Bureau of Reclamation declared that Aurora could use the project for which the valley -- and Rawlings' family -- had fought so hard to take that water.
"That just angered the hell out of me," he says.

The issue became Rawlings' obsession. He turned his ceaseless editorializing against the government's move, calling it "a terrible blow to the memory of those courageous civic leaders" who lobbied for the Fryingpan-Arkansas project. He repeatedly urged the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District to sue the federal government. When the district did sue, in 2007, the Chieftain applauded the move and proclaimed: "Let's see if this valley can get justice in federal court." Rawlings invested his own money in the fight. In 2007, he bought water rights solely to gain legal standing, hired a lawyer and jumped into the court fray.

In light of all this, it's surprising that many local farmers don't regard Rawlings with particular tenderness. Three years ago, U.S. Reps. John Salazar and Betsy Markey traveled to the town of Lamar to hear testimony about the disputed agreement and other issues. About 100 people, including many farmers, turned out, as did Bob and Jane Rawlings. The occasion proved to be chastening: The chairman of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District -- the organization created by Rawlings' editorial call for a strong, new guardian of the valley's water -- accused Rawlings of "journalistic sleight of hand." When the publisher and his daughter spoke, they were jeered by the crowd.

Such venom is inspired in part by the fact that Rawlings has frequently focused his ire not just on cities like Aurora, but on the farmers who sold water to them. They betrayed their neighbors and communities, Rawlings says. "I think it's tragic that they do it, and it's sad that they would do it to the people they know."

He hasn't hesitated to get personal. Back in 1999, the Chieftain published the names of about 60 people who were preparing to sell their water from the Rocky Ford Ditch to Aurora, identifying five families that each stood to make more than $1 million in the deal. Farmer Ron Aschermann was on that list. He had watched as some of his neighbors sold their Rocky Ford water to RIG in the early 1980s. Despite the declining sugar beet industry, Aschermann refused to sell. "We were holdouts," he says. "From '83 to '99, we gave farming a chance to do better."

But things didn't get better. In 1990, a hailstorm destroyed Aschermann's entire crop. Then the melon market tanked in 1991 because of a salmonella scare. Those two years "broke my back," Aschermann says, and in 1999, he finally decided to call it quits.

Aschermann is by no means the only local farmer who feels unfairly singled out by Rawlings for trying to make a graceful exit from a brutal industry. "Why shouldn't I be able to sell my water when he can sell his damn paper whenever he wants?" says Leroy Mauch. Another farmer put it even more pointedly: "Frankly, between you and me and the fencepost, the Pueblo Chieftain has got their head up their ass."

Jay Winner, the general manager of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District, has the complicated task of helping farmers figure out how to survive without selling out.

On a trip through Crowley County last year, Winner surveyed the view out his windshield and conceded the obvious: "There's not a lot of farmers left out here." These days, the county's biggest crop is a clutch of razor-wire-bespangled prisons that flourish on the former farm fields. In 2010, 42 percent of Crowley County's 6,344 residents lived behind bars. Median household income is around $30,000, about half the state average.

Winner was once director of public works for Vail Resorts, which owns the Vail, Breckenridge and Heavenly ski areas. The world of water, he says, is very different from the corporate world. "Water is a nasty business," Winner says. "It's a nasty, nasty business."

The Lower Arkansas water district has taken a sometimes bare-knuckled approach to holding off new water raids and minimizing the impact of the water transfers that do happen -- imposing strict demands that fallowed farmland be replanted with native grass, for example, to reduce wind-blown dust. One of the district's favorite tactics has been to strategically buy shares in ditch companies to prevent thirsty cities from taking over and drying up entire ditches. The district has also negotiated several intergovernmental agreements that limit cities' ability to plunder the valley's water.

"What we've tried to do," Winner says, "is put Aurora in a little maze."

Oddly enough, the mutual-defense strategy that may prove strongest is a plan that could help cities like Aurora get even more water from the Arkansas Valley. In 2007, the Lower Arkansas water district spun off an organization called the Super Ditch. It is essentially a confederation of farmers in seven different mutual ditch companies, who pool their water for lease outside the valley. To free that water from the land, Super Ditch farmers promise to idle a certain percentage -- no more than a third -- of their farmland each year. But they do so on a rotating basis, so that no fields are permanently fallowed and farming continues. The leases will generate income for farmers and allow them to keep control of their water over the long term.

"See, Bob tries to beat the crap out of people," Winner says. "We try to put together a strategy."

No one was less pleased with the plan than Rawlings. In launching the Super Ditch, he says, the Lower Arkansas district violated its duty to protect the valley's water. "I think if you give Aurora some of that water, they're going to take just as much as they need," he says. "And eventually they're going to need it all."

This uncompromising attitude is fraught with internal contradictions. In August 2009, for instance, a Chieftain editorial declared that "Aurora has already taken too much of this region's water," and pointedly concluded: "The maxim that must be followed: 'Not one more drop.' "

Exactly two weeks later, the Chieftain ran another editorial, this one critical of the Western Slope's reluctance to turn over more of its water to the Denver suburbs. The piece led with a sneering reference to "Western Slopers' 'not one more drop' attitude."

This inconsistency reveals a kind of schizophrenia that underlies much of Western water politics. If it's so important to prevent water from being exported from one river basin to another, there's a simple way to do it: Pass a law prohibiting exports. In the 1930s, after lawmakers in California watched the Owens Valley crumble to dust when Los Angeles bought most of the valley's water, they did exactly that.     
A so-called basin-of-origin law in Colorado could quickly end the depredations that Rawlings has spent so much ink decrying. And, in fact, various basin-of-origin protection bills have been introduced in the Colorado Legislature more than two dozen times. But taking a stand in favor of a basin-of-origin law has always been a tricky proposition for Rawlings and the Chieftain.

When asked directly whether he would endorse an area-of-origin bill, Rawlings said he would, "100 percent."

But were such a bill to become law, it would halt the Arkansas Valley's yearly diversion of 2.5-million-tanker-trucks' worth of water from the Fryingpan River. Rawlings paused, realizing that he had painted himself into a corner.

"Well, yeah," he said. "But of course, we rationalize that the Western Slope is not being hurt by that little bit of water that we're bringing over."

Rawlings is not the only person who thinks this way. Even some of his biggest critics are of two minds about keeping water close to home. Leroy Mauch's cousin Dale groused about neighbors who had quietly sold their water to outside speculators, who in turn flipped it to cities along the Front Range. But Dale Mauch was adamant that he be able to sell his water wherever he wanted, whether in the Arkansas Valley or not.

"I don't want restrictions on that water right," he said, because "any restriction you put on it devalues what it's worth."

And despite the stern commandments from the Chieftain not to give up one more drop of water, many local farmers have discovered that they have to do just that in order to save their farms.

After a record-setting drought in 2002, and with little money coming in from his farmland, Dale Mauch was forced to sell part of his farm to housing developers. "If I could've had this (Super Ditch) lease deal," he says, "that would've made my lease payments, and I wouldn't have had to sell."

Bart Mendenhall, the general counsel to the Lower Arkansas water district and the Super Ditch, has frequently gone head-to-head with Rawlings over water transfers. "He thinks all these farmers are just rich opportunists, and he considers them traitors," Mendenhall says. But most growers who have sold their water "didn't have any choice. They had a banker standing behind them with a gun at their head."

The Super Ditch, says Mendenhall, allows farmers to band together and name their price, rather than get picked off one by one under the crush of a flagging economy. "We know that the cities are coming. We know that they need water," he says. "What is a more elegant solution than to lease water to them, and use that money to make farmers more financially stable so they won't have to sell to them?

"It's neat. It's logical. It's elegant."

John Hazlehurst, a Colorado Springs reporter who has written about Rawlings, and not always flatteringly, once called him a "magnificent old warrior." Steve Henson, the Chieftain's managing editor, puts it differently: "Bob's an all-or-nothing kind of guy. He's not a negotiator."

The Lower Arkansas Valley has never been an easy place to live. Throughout his tenure as publisher, Rawlings has remained a staunch champion, not just of the valley's farmers but of the vision that helped inspire the settling of the West. Yet that vision is increasingly at odds with present-day realities. Time has turned against not just the valley's farmers, but Pueblo, too -- which now has slid to the undistinguished rank of Colorado's seventh-biggest city.

Len Gregory spent 37 years at the Chieftain, working his way up from typesetter to executive editor before he left in 2001. "I'm a loyal company man," he said. "I don't want to, in any way, be disrespectful toward Bob or the Chieftain."

But Gregory and Rawlings butted heads over the paper's editorial positions on water. And, Gregory says, all the rhetoric about defending the farmers' way of life hides a deeper motivation. "It's a growth struggle," said Gregory. "The question, in essence, is: Who gets to grow with this water?"

As Pueblo's luster fades, Rawlings has fallen back on a kind of water jingoism. "It's easy to create community opinion around a subject like this," Gregory said, "because all you have to say to people is: 'By God, Aurora's taking our -- our -- water!' " He invoked the days of Yellow Journalism, when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer published sensationalized stories about Spanish atrocities in Cuba to gin up public support for the Spanish-American War.

"Pulitzer and Hearst," Gregory said, "would be proud."

In spite of all this, Rawlings has, of late, shown signs that he may be tempering his position. Some of that shift has been driven by financial realities. The Chieftain's revenues have declined significantly with the recession, and in that sense the newspaper's fortunes have mirrored those of Pueblo and the surrounding counties. Rawlings won't reveal specific numbers, but says that the Chieftain's entire staff has been forced to take substantial pay cuts. Rawlings' income was slashed as well, and he was forced to drop out of the lawsuit challenging Aurora's use of the Fryingpan-Arkansas project a year ago.

It was not an easy decision. "I don't like to lose," Rawlings said. "But I'd just about run through what I could."

Rawlings also seems to be undergoing a genuine philosophical shift. Not long before he dropped out of the lawsuit, the Chieftain ran a front-page editorial that noted: "In a perfect world, no farmer would want to sell his water rights and leave the land." But, it announced, "We now resolve to put our faith in the Super Ditch to beat back the permanent 'buy and dry' of farms that would destroy the Valley."

Unusually, the editorial was signed -- by Bob Rawlings.

Since then, it has been difficult to take a precise bearing on the Chieftain's position on the Super Ditch. One editorial asserted that Peter Nichols, the veteran water lawyer who serves as special counsel to the Lower Arkansas water district, "no more represents the interests of the Lower Arkansas Valley than does the man in the moon." Rawlings urged the district's board of directors to fire him. The paper also proposed a series of restrictions so severe that they would render the Super Ditch program worthless. Yet the paper maintains a grudging acceptance of the effort.    
On a windy day last spring, a dirty pall hung in the sky somewhere east of Pueblo, toward Kansas. It was the kind of grim, Dust Bowl specter that has haunted Rawlings throughout his life.

The octogenarian is keenly aware that the tides of time will eventually sweep him from the Chieftain's helm. "I'm not about to retire," he said. "But yeah, I'm going to come to a place where I can't fight anymore."

He still hopes to stop the growing cities from taking water in the ways that have been "so hurtful to my people here in the Arkansas Valley." But he conceded that the Super Ditch might be the only way to reconcile the cities' thirst with the kind of life that William E. Smythe championed more than a century ago.

Still, Rawlings added: "I don't like the idea."

High Country News contributing editor Matt Jenkins has written for the magazine since 2001. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian and other national publications.

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.