A water baron takes on the establishment

  • San Luis Valley of Colorado

    Diane Sylvain
  • "FLAMBOYANT": Gary Boyce outside Rancho Rosado

    Ed Quillen photo

One-word descriptions of rancher Gary Boyce are easy to find in the high, wide and impoverished San Luis Valley of south-central Colorado. "Greedy" comes up often, as does "opportunist," along with terms unprintable even by Starr Report standards.

But "flamboyant" also fits. Boyce is generous with expensive cigars and wears knee-high hand-tooled stove-pipe cowboy boots and a red silk choker. He drives a $70,000 Humvee and his home, one writer says, has "halls wide enough to U-turn a truck in."

The house is headquarters of Boyce's 5,500-acre Rancho Rosado, a few miles northwest of the New Age vortex of Crestone in Saguache County. But it's Boyce's plan for his nearby land - the 100,000-acre Baca Grande Ranch - that has the San Luis Valley in an uproar.

Last summer, Boyce paid circulators to put two constitutional amendments on the 1998 Colorado ballot. One would require water meters on certain wells in the San Luis Valley. The other would require the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to pay - retroactively and with interest - the state school fund for water it has pumped from beneath state lands in the San Luis Valley.

Both appear aimed at financially breaking the valley's water establishment, which has allied with environmental activists to fight Boyce's proposal to export water from the Baca Grande.

The 100,000-acre Baca that Boyce bought from Canadian oilman Maurice Strong in 1995 results from an 1824 Mexican land grant. It includes 14,154-foot Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and extends a dozen miles south to Great Sand Dunes National Monument. From the Sangres, the Baca runs east about 10 miles, almost to State Highway 17, a perfectly straight stretch of road across a nearly flat expanse of greasewood, salt grass and chico bush.

That's the floor of the upper San Luis Valley - a desert 8,000 feet above sea level that gets only 7 inches of rain a year. But the valley sits above an immense amount of sediment extending two to six miles deep, and holding at least 2 billion acre-feet of water. That's 50 times the combined capacity of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Although road maps make it appear that all this water is connected to the Rio Grande, which courses westward across the San Luis Valley before turning south near Alamosa, scientists say there is no connection. The southern part of the valley is indeed drained by the Rio Grande, which flows south to New Mexico and Texas. But the northern part is the "Closed Basin," a 3,400-square-mile version of the Great Basin of Nevada.

The Closed Basin contains the so-called "Unconfined Aquifer," whose water is connected to the streams and lakes. Beneath that is a layer of impermeable clay, and from there to bedrock, up to six miles below, is the "Confined Aquifer," which in theory is not connected to surface flows.

Boyce proposes to drill deep wells under his 100,000 acres of land and pump 100,000 to 150,000 acre-feet a year over 9,011-foot Poncha Pass. (Under Colorado law, he owns the confined aquifer water beneath his land.) From there he will move the water to Colorado's Front Range - water-short places like Douglas County between Denver and Colorado Springs. Douglas County is the fastest-growing county in the U.S.

Boyce argues that his "Stockman's Water Company" will be taking only a small percentage of the million or so acre-feet that recharge the confined aquifers each year through fissures in the rock. If he's wrong, he has 25,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of surface water rights, now used to grow hay, to compensate those who get hurt. That's one of the major differences between his plan and an earlier plan put forth by Maurice Strong's American Water Development Inc. (AWDI), a plan which was rejected by the courts.

Boyce is also offering to establish a wildlife refuge and protection against development for the two 14,000-foot-high peaks he owns and for a zone bordering the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. As Boyce sees it, his project will help accommodate the million people who have moved to Colorado since 1990, mostly along the Front Range. And he will do it without one of those big valley-wrecking evaporation tanks like Two Forks Reservoir.

In return, he plans to sell water to Front Range cities and water districts for $5,000 an acre-foot, which means $750 million if he develops 150,000 acre-feet.

Fear of the unknown

But before Boyce can implement his plan, he has a small army of opponents to deal with. Most residents of the San Luis Valley believe the plan will wreck the valley's agriculture. But nobody can predict exactly what it would do to the cattle ranches and farms - there are about 80,000 acres of potatoes and carrots under cultivation. "We don't know," said Ralph Curtis, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, based in Alamosa. "It would be fair to say that a lot of the opposition to Boyce comes from plain old fear of the unknown, and I share those fears."

The Conservation District, which is mostly funded by property taxes, led the courtroom opposition to AWDI's plan in the early 1990s. Certain opposition arguments appear contradictory. In court, the irrigators argued that pumping from the Closed Basin would affect the flow of the Rio Grande more than allowed by state law. But these irrigators also tap the Closed Basin's confined aquifer with wells themselves, under the assumption that there's no natural hydrologic connection between the Closed Basin and the Rio Grande's flow. It wasn't just the farmers who opposed AWDI. In a valley where money is always short, a coalition of local and environmental groups held bake sales and other fund raisers to help with the legal bills.

The same coalition is united against Boyce, but he has yet to file any claims in water court, and so, "In ways, this is more difficult to fight than AWDI was," according to Curtis. "At least then we knew what we were up against."

Taking everyone down

Boyce hasn't filed yet because "I want the playing field to be level before we go to court." Two of his levelling devices are the election initiatives. But he is aiming not just at sapping the farmers' financial strength, but also at a federal project that pumps water out of the Closed Basin and into the Rio Grande.

The $100 million federal Closed Basin Project allows valley farmers to irrigate their fields - there are about 2,000 "farming circles," or center-pivot irrigation systems in the valley - while federal funds are used to help meet the Rio Grande Compact's requirement that 300,000 acre-feet of water per year flow into New Mexico. Boyce says the project lowers the water table he and other ranchers need to keep their pastures healthy.

He also doesn't like a Colorado law his opponents caused to be passed recently. It stops Boyce's project while studies are done.

So in August, Boyce and his corporate entities and backers filed suit in federal court, charging that the Closed Basin Project and its 170 wells into the unconfined aquifer had been mismanaged by everybody from the secretary of the Interior down to Ralph Curtis. If the suit succeeds, Rio Grande irrigators - Boyce's opponents - would have to meet Compact obligations without help from Closed Basin water. Rather than shut down substantial parts of their operations, they would probably push for substantial revisions in the compact, threatening the 1934 agreement.

In another action against the compact, last May the New Mexico group Forest Guardians filed notice of intent to sue to overturn all Western water compacts because they do not conform to environmental laws. Forest Guardians has received contributions from Stockman's Water, and in this case, they have a common goal.

Forest Guardians wants more water in the river, and Boyce wants to weaken or destroy the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. If he could knock out the district through his initiatives and the Closed Basin Project through his lawsuit, Boyce could develop his water and use the Closed Basin Project's plumbing (it would probably be available cheap) to deliver his water to cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe, along the Rio Grande, while improving environmental habitat in northern New Mexico.

"I think that is the real plan here," said George Whitten Jr., a life-long Saguache County rancher and a candidate for county commissioner. "It would give Boyce an easy place to deliver the water, and the environmental groups and the cities in New Mexico would get what they want. I suspect that's the long-term agenda."

Boyce denies that he has any such plan. Forest Guardians says it won't take any more money from Boyce.

Most of the San Luis Valley is raising money for a campaign to defeat Boyce's ballot initiatives, and organizations like Trout Unlimited have joined the opposition, which has already started running TV commercials. Boyce has said he plans to spend at least $1 million promoting the two initiatives.

In other words, it's a Western water war across a much bigger expanse than the usual Colorado courtroom. People have been predicting for decades that the West's system of water law and politics will eventually give way to a less regulated approach. Now, in possible fulfillment of that prediction, comes Gary Boyce, bankrolled with money out of a California investment firm named Farallon Capital Management, to fight the local water establishment and its environmental allies.

This article is part of a High Country News series on the West's politics, supported by a grant from the Wyss Foundation.

You can contact ...

* Stockman's Water Company at 719/256-4619;

* Rio Grande Water Conservation District at 719/589-6301.

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