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

Page 3

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."

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