Rural area beats back water diversion plan


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 Hispanic valley.

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 Agency.

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 groundwater.

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 assistance.

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 objective."

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.

The writer works for the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph.

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