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 4

But were such a bill to become law, it would halt the Arkansas Valley's yearly diversion of 2.5-million-tanker-trucks' worth of water from the Fryingpan River. Rawlings paused, realizing that he had painted himself into a corner.

"Well, yeah," he said. "But of course, we rationalize that the Western Slope is not being hurt by that little bit of water that we're bringing over."

Rawlings is not the only person who thinks this way. Even some of his biggest critics are of two minds about keeping water close to home. Leroy Mauch's cousin Dale groused about neighbors who had quietly sold their water to outside speculators, who in turn flipped it to cities along the Front Range. But Dale Mauch was adamant that he be able to sell his water wherever he wanted, whether in the Arkansas Valley or not.

"I don't want restrictions on that water right," he said, because "any restriction you put on it devalues what it's worth."

And despite the stern commandments from the Chieftain not to give up one more drop of water, many local farmers have discovered that they have to do just that in order to save their farms.

After a record-setting drought in 2002, and with little money coming in from his farmland, Dale Mauch was forced to sell part of his farm to housing developers. "If I could've had this (Super Ditch) lease deal," he says, "that would've made my lease payments, and I wouldn't have had to sell."

Bart Mendenhall, the general counsel to the Lower Arkansas water district and the Super Ditch, has frequently gone head-to-head with Rawlings over water transfers. "He thinks all these farmers are just rich opportunists, and he considers them traitors," Mendenhall says. But most growers who have sold their water "didn't have any choice. They had a banker standing behind them with a gun at their head."

The Super Ditch, says Mendenhall, allows farmers to band together and name their price, rather than get picked off one by one under the crush of a flagging economy. "We know that the cities are coming. We know that they need water," he says. "What is a more elegant solution than to lease water to them, and use that money to make farmers more financially stable so they won't have to sell to them?

"It's neat. It's logical. It's elegant."

John Hazlehurst, a Colorado Springs reporter who has written about Rawlings, and not always flatteringly, once called him a "magnificent old warrior." Steve Henson, the Chieftain's managing editor, puts it differently: "Bob's an all-or-nothing kind of guy. He's not a negotiator."

The Lower Arkansas Valley has never been an easy place to live. Throughout his tenure as publisher, Rawlings has remained a staunch champion, not just of the valley's farmers but of the vision that helped inspire the settling of the West. Yet that vision is increasingly at odds with present-day realities. Time has turned against not just the valley's farmers, but Pueblo, too -- which now has slid to the undistinguished rank of Colorado's seventh-biggest city.

Len Gregory spent 37 years at the Chieftain, working his way up from typesetter to executive editor before he left in 2001. "I'm a loyal company man," he said. "I don't want to, in any way, be disrespectful toward Bob or the Chieftain."

But Gregory and Rawlings butted heads over the paper's editorial positions on water. And, Gregory says, all the rhetoric about defending the farmers' way of life hides a deeper motivation. "It's a growth struggle," said Gregory. "The question, in essence, is: Who gets to grow with this water?"

As Pueblo's luster fades, Rawlings has fallen back on a kind of water jingoism. "It's easy to create community opinion around a subject like this," Gregory said, "because all you have to say to people is: 'By God, Aurora's taking our -- our -- water!' " He invoked the days of Yellow Journalism, when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer published sensationalized stories about Spanish atrocities in Cuba to gin up public support for the Spanish-American War.

"Pulitzer and Hearst," Gregory said, "would be proud."

In spite of all this, Rawlings has, of late, shown signs that he may be tempering his position. Some of that shift has been driven by financial realities. The Chieftain's revenues have declined significantly with the recession, and in that sense the newspaper's fortunes have mirrored those of Pueblo and the surrounding counties. Rawlings won't reveal specific numbers, but says that the Chieftain's entire staff has been forced to take substantial pay cuts. Rawlings' income was slashed as well, and he was forced to drop out of the lawsuit challenging Aurora's use of the Fryingpan-Arkansas project a year ago.

It was not an easy decision. "I don't like to lose," Rawlings said. "But I'd just about run through what I could."

Rawlings also seems to be undergoing a genuine philosophical shift. Not long before he dropped out of the lawsuit, the Chieftain ran a front-page editorial that noted: "In a perfect world, no farmer would want to sell his water rights and leave the land." But, it announced, "We now resolve to put our faith in the Super Ditch to beat back the permanent 'buy and dry' of farms that would destroy the Valley."

Unusually, the editorial was signed -- by Bob Rawlings.

Since then, it has been difficult to take a precise bearing on the Chieftain's position on the Super Ditch. One editorial asserted that Peter Nichols, the veteran water lawyer who serves as special counsel to the Lower Arkansas water district, "no more represents the interests of the Lower Arkansas Valley than does the man in the moon." Rawlings urged the district's board of directors to fire him. The paper also proposed a series of restrictions so severe that they would render the Super Ditch program worthless. Yet the paper maintains a grudging acceptance of the effort.    
On a windy day last spring, a dirty pall hung in the sky somewhere east of Pueblo, toward Kansas. It was the kind of grim, Dust Bowl specter that has haunted Rawlings throughout his life.

The octogenarian is keenly aware that the tides of time will eventually sweep him from the Chieftain's helm. "I'm not about to retire," he said. "But yeah, I'm going to come to a place where I can't fight anymore."

He still hopes to stop the growing cities from taking water in the ways that have been "so hurtful to my people here in the Arkansas Valley." But he conceded that the Super Ditch might be the only way to reconcile the cities' thirst with the kind of life that William E. Smythe championed more than a century ago.

Still, Rawlings added: "I don't like the idea."

High Country News contributing editor Matt Jenkins has written for the magazine since 2001. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian and other national publications.

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.

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