A Colorado newspaperman fights for his valley's water

  • Steve Starr
  • Pueblo Chieftain Publisher Bob Rawlings stands next to Fountain Creek, near its confluence with the Arkansas River in Colorado's Lower Arkansas Valley.

    Steve Starr
  • Bob Rawlings in front of the "Rogues Gallery."

    Steve Starr
  • Rawlings has thrown himself into a fight to keep outsiders from taking any more water from the Arkansas River, shown above as it flows through Pueblo.

    Steve Starr
  • The Lower Arkansas Valley's fortunes have risen and fallen since the Dust Bowl. Dust storm in Baca County in the Lower Arkansas Valley, c. 1936.

    D.R. Kernodle, Farm Securities Administration/Library of Congress
  • The Pueblo Star-Journal celebrated Congress' approval of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which would bring water to the valley from western Colorado, on June 15, 1962

    Pueblo Star-Journal, courtesy the Pueblo Chieftain
  • One month later, president John F. Kennedy flew to Pueblo to dedicate the project.

    The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
  • A dry ditch in Crowley County, where only 4 percent of the historic cropland is still farmed.

    Steve Starr
  • Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. Rawlings pushed for the creation of the district, but then became critical of its efforts to help farmers negotiate strategic deals with thirsty cities.

    Steve Starr
  • The newsroom at the Pueblo Chieftain, which has been buffeted by the recession and by readers' and advertisers' turn to the Web.

    Steve Starr

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:


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.

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