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

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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."

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