A water ‘win-win’ in Colorado? Not so fast.

A plan to export water from the San Luis Valley to the Denver Metro area is met with defiance.

 

San Luis Valley farmer Dale Bartee, left, with his parents and his oldest son, Tyler, the fourth generation on the farm.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

If water flows to money, in Colorado, it flows to the Front Range. There, a booming population has strained municipal governments, which are actively looking elsewhere for new water sources. This is nothing new: In recent decades, locals have fended off several schemes to export the San Luis Valley’s water east over the mountains. The latest of these is Renewable Water Resources, a venture backed by Denver metro money and former Republican Gov. Bill Owens. Worsening drought, poor commodity prices, economic trends towards consolidation and the ever-present threat of state intervention in local water management have some people worried — and others sensing an opportunity.

Sean Tonner, a businessman and longtime state Republican operative who worked for Owens, is behind the current water export scheme. Tonner exudes salesmanship, the sort of person who calls you by your first name the second he meets you. His plan reworks one that was pushed by the late Gary Boyce, a notorious water export advocate. Tonner, who now owns Boyce’s 11,500-acre property at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, proposes a 22,000-acre-foot pipeline to carry water from the northern end of the valley over Poncha Pass to Douglas County in the southern Denver metro area. His company would buy and remove from irrigation about 30,000 acre-feet of San Luis Valley water, paying local farmers for the water rights that would offset the export.

Tonner uses the phrase “win-win” to describe the project. The front page of the project’s website reads: “Best for the San Luis Valley. Best for the environment. Best for Colorado.” Few in the valley see it that way. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District rejected the proposal in January 2019, and the board has told Tonner it would fight any attempt to export water from the valley. Several town governments oppose the plan, as well. If it goes to court, the exporters would have to prove that the plan would not injure Rio Grande water rights, the aquifer or the protected areas that rely on the aquifer, including Great Sand Dunes National Park.

At a February water conference at Adams State University, former U.S. Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — the most public member of the well-known Salazar family, which has farmed in the southern part of the valley since the 1850s — declared that “water will flow out of this valley to the North only over my dead body,” drawing a raucous cheer from the audience of farmers and ranchers.

Even so, it is easy to imagine the valley’s economic plight making it possible for Tonner’s proposal to catch on. His plan offers incentives that previous plans lacked, including a $50 million fund for local governments to use in the community. If the valley’s financial woes worsen — or if the state were to shut off thousands of wells in Subdistrict 1 — that cash could sway some desperate local officials.

Tonner claims he has local support. At a community meeting in Saguache on May 23, he told the large crowd that he had enough water users interested in selling to obtain 22,000 acre-feet of water. Few farmers and ranchers want to admit this, but the valley’s grim circumstances are pushing some to sell.

  • Ron Bartee and his son, Dale Bartee, work on modifying a grain combine from the 1970s to harvest their new crop of flax seed, a less water-dependent grain.

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
  • Tyler, age 12, and Kolby Bartee, 8, move their herd of sheep out to pasture.

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
  • Deanna Bartee, a professor at Adam's State University, goes through Kolby's morning lesson before he works on the farm in the afternoon. Deanna and Dale homeschool their sons because the boys wanted to be more involved on the farm.

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

I put the question to rancher Dale Bartee in August: What would happen if the drought returns next year, the valley’s pumping fee is higher, and the export company shows up with ready money?

“If the price is right, it would be very hard to say no,” he said with a sigh, sitting at his kitchen table. It’s an admission he does not like making out loud. Like many here, Bartee sees the export advocates as turncoats, exploiting the imbalance of economic and political power concentrated on the other side of the mountains to extract rural resources. Repeated attempts to export the valley’s water make the people feel dispensable.

“For me, I will probably be one of the last ones to say yes to it, because of my boys,” Bartee said, whose two sons work the farm with him.

“They both say they want to come back, they want to farm,” their father said. “And if I sell out, what do they have left?”

If the valley’s water use were corrected, Rio Grande Water Conservation District Manager Cleave Simpson believes, the export schemes would evaporate. “Buy and dry” proposals, as they are known, seem less appealing when water supply and demand are in better balance, he said. The subdistrict model is an attempt to allow current farms to carry on at slightly diminished capacity, rather than face the “draconian” decision of either selling to exporters to get what money they can or risk having pumping rights suspended by the state engineer. 

“I don’t think producers should have to make that choice,” Simpson said. 

Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.