Water, Under Pressure: Episode 1 - Liquid Gold
Episode 1: Liquid Gold
Water, Under Pressure is a five-part narrative podcast series about the increasing demands on water in Colorado. The series is hosted by Kristan Uhlenbrock, Director of the Institute for Science & Policy. For more information and resources from this episode, check out the episode summary page. To listen to the audio version visit waterunderpressure.org.
WATER IS GOLD
CINDY MEDINA: Water is our liquid gold. And it’s becoming more and more so. And so when you have somebody that wants to come and just say that we have too much water, I think I heard that someplace, we have too much water. I don't think any place has too much water.
KRISTAN UHLENBROCK: Cindy Medina is a river keeper.
CINDY: We deal with water quantity and quality issues.
KRISTAN: She’s also a writer, a daughter, a mother…
CINDY: I come from a family of seven girls.
KRISTAN: And a community activist…
CINDY: I work with a lot of community projects here in Capulin, and Capulin is a small village that is at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.
KRISTAN: Cindy and I are standing outside of her house. It’s about 100 years old. It’s adobe. Icons of the Virgin Mary are arranged throughout her garden and home – nods to her Hispanic heritage. We are standing in a wide, flat, wind-swept valley in southern Colorado surrounded by mountain ranges. To the west, the peaks of the San Juans. To the east, the jagged ridges of the Sangre de Cristos. This is the San Luis Valley.
CINDY: It’s a confluence of Germans and Japanese and Dutch and Mormons and, of course, Native Americans and Hispanics. And it's very rich culturally, and a lot has not changed in all these hundreds of years.
KRISTAN: Diverse communities have made the San Luis Valley home for centuries. The Clovis and Folsom Indigenous peoples resided in the valley as far back as 13,000 years ago, followed by the Ute, Diné, Tiwa, Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe peoples. The Valley is one of the first places settled by colonizers coming to Colorado in the late 1600s.
With its cold temperatures. Its high elevation. And its stretches of flat, dry dirt. To some, it might be a puzzle why the San Luis Valley is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in Colorado. The valley floor receives only about 7 inches of rain a year – it’s truly a desert. But water circulates through the region – making it the lifeblood for those that call it home.
Cindy recounts stories about her great Tio Pulito. How he loved to garden. How proud he was when he built the house back in 1930. Surrounding the home are 10 acres. It’s June 2022, and they’re supposed to be green.
CINDY: You know that we're in extreme drought. So we just did not get the snow that we had hoped for. And nor the rain. And so things are just very dry right now, just kind of a yellowish, brownish look to my supposedly alfalfa field.
KRISTAN: The San Luis Valley faces similar threats like much of the arid west, climate change
and droughts along with over appropriated water use. But there’s something else about the water that has created more and more controversy. Some people believe this high alpine desert contains an oasis of water below ground.
For the past forty years, this claim has fueled something of a gold rush. It’s attracted investors and politicians and entrepreneurs. Each one hoping to unlock the allegedly under-used water reserves and funnel it to Colorado's growing – and thirsty – metro areas.
To people like Cindy, the water in the valley must stay put. If it goes, cultures and livelihoods go with it.
So how much water is there really? And how do we decide who gets it and who doesn't?
Flowing through San Luis
Water in our veins
The lifeblood of our culture
Aquafers and rains
KRISTAN: This is Water, Under Pressure, a podcast about the increasing demands on water
in Colorado. And how the choices we make now could tear us apart or help us to navigate our uncertain future.
From the Institute of Science and Policy, welcome to season two of Laws of Notion.
Theme music continues...
We are all Colorado
Our future to choose
With water on the table
There’s so much to lose
A CLUE IN THE CLAY
KRISTAN: Off of 4th Street in downtown Alamosa, the largest city in the valley, I’m in a bright
homey office building. This is the San Luis Valley Conservancy District, and I’m talking with district manager, Heather Dutton.
HEATHER DUTTON: Did someone see the clay!
KRISTAN: In her hand is a small pile of crumbling blueish material. We pour water on it.
HEATHER: We can get it wet. It turns bluer. But this shows some blue sand but then this is the clay…
KRISTAN: I was hoping Heather could explain to me why the valley is at the heart of this
debate around water. The clue, she says, is the clay.
HEATHER: And so that clay separates the aquifers. You could take some. And so the San Luis valley as a whole is, is this beautiful high elevation desert that's ringed by 13 and 14,000 foot peaks, but the floor of the valley is really flat. During the last ice age there was there was a lake here and the natural dam that was in place broke down by the Rio Grande Gorge and Lake Alamosa drained but what was left was the water that was in the lake sunk into the ground.
KRISTAN: As the valley formed over time, layers of clay, silt, sand, and gravel settled,
creating the underground aquifers that exist today.
HEATHER: If you kind of think of the whole thing as just a big bathtub, but then picture maybe halfway down there's an impervious layer, it's blue clay, it actually is blue. When it's wet, it's even more blue. And the clay separates the two aquifers. And so the unconfined is the one on the top, it's shallower, it's generally up to a depth of about 100 or 120 feet deep. And so it's very easily recharged by streams or ditches and just water flowing into it. And so that's where we can run water in the canal, dig a hole in the corner of a field, put water in the hole and it goes into the unconfined it's really not rocket science with that one.
KRISTAN: The unconfined aquifer is the primary source of water for irrigation in the valley.
The deeper aquifer – the confined – doesn’t get filled back up with water as easily. Some say it’s plentiful, others disagree. Which is why there is growing concern about pumping it out.
HEATHER: The confined is, it's confined by the blue clay and it's under pressure and so the pressure of the other aquifer sitting on top of it and those confining clay layers smash it down to where it's actually artesian and so if you put a straw into it or put a well in water will actually flow up and be free flowing.
KRISTAN: The patchwork of what’s underground is complicated but important. Because it’s
at the center of the controversy about water in the valley.
CONFLICT STARTS ON THE BACK OF AN ENVELOPE
HEATHER: I've lived in the San Luis Valley, my whole life. My family has been has been here for five generations.
KRISTAN: Heather grew up on a farm that was passed down from family member to family
member until it didn’t make sense anymore to keep it. Her father sold the property when she was young. But even without the farm, protecting water in the Valley was just as important then as it is to
HEATHER: I can vividly remember helping my dad with a there was a fundraiser a potato and chili fundraiser at one of the local restaurants and so to raise as much money as possible volunteers were waiting tables and so, so I think I was about 10 years old, I can remember following him around and helping bus tables and being part of those AWDI and Stockman’s fights where we were raising a bunch of money to fight those and so it just it keeps coming around. I think that also helps us in this valley realize what we've got, that we have to be stewards of this resource because it is so precious. It's so precious that people from over a mountain want it.
KRISTAN: The people over the mountain that Heather is referring to are where 84% of the
population of Colorado lives. Municipalities and investors are always looking to try to solve the need for water in growing cities up and down the Front Range. And for decades the idea that the San Luis Valley has water to spare keeps cycling back to the top of someone’s list. Buy someone’s water rights and bring that water over the mountains.
Back in the 80s’ there was a company called American Water Development Inc. or AWDI. They bought a property called Baca Ranch and its accompanying 200,000 acre-feet of water rights, enough water to support about half a million homes. The business case: pump that water and sell it to the front range.
The local community rallied together in opposition, and ultimately the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that AWDI could not pump the aquifer. Then in 1995, AWDI sold the property to Stockman’s Water. Stockman’s had their own proposal to move water to the Front Range. This time, they promised about 75% of the original amount of water. Again, the residents of the valley rallied and pooled their money together and shut down the effort. The Nature Conservancy stepped in and purchased the Baca Ranch and converted it to public land, which is now part of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.
I asked Heather where this idea originated, that the valley’s aquifer system could be a water solution for Colorado’s metro areas. And she told me about a number scribbled on the back of an envelope.
HEATHER: So there was a report that was done in the 70s by Phil Emery. He was a USGS geologist and he studied the valley extensively, and some of the best information that we have still comes from Emery's reports. And so on a map in the back of a report, just on the edge, the margin of the map, a little footnote on a map, he said, he thinks maybe the capacity of the aquifers is 2 billion acre feet. And he testified during the AWDI trial that it was the back of the envelope calculation and that we probably have better data now.
KRISTAN: Numbers matter. We’re beyond back of the envelope calculations and we now
have better monitoring, data, and modeling for the water in the valley. And with a better assessment comes the knowledge that the water is under pressure.
KRISTAN: While Stockman’s Water Company sold the Baca Ranch in 2002 to the Nature Conservancy, they held onto a different property called Rancho Rosado, and the accompanying water rights. Then in 2016, Stockman’s owner passed away, and another buyer stepped in.
CLEAVE SIMPSON: This time they're called Renewable Water Resources.
KRISTAN: Renewable Water Resources, is commonly known as RWR. As RWR began drafting their plan, they visited State Senator Cleave Simpson, who represents the counties of the San Luis Valley, and serves as the General Manager for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
CLEAVE: They came and met with me and I said, I'm pretty skeptical that, you know, my board would be supportive. But if you want to present to the board, we'll schedule it.
KRISTAN: The RWR proposal includes pumping 22,000 acre-feet of water annually, moving it
through a pipeline over Poncha Pass, and selling it to growing cities along the Front Range. That’s about ten percent of the water that AWDI originally promised back in the 80s.
Cleave is the kind of person that’s willing to listen. He’s a fourth-generation farmer from the valley, and he’s one of two active state senators who runs a working farm. For him, being conservative involves protecting a way of life. That means advocating for farmers and his community in the valley. And also conserving water.
CLEAVE: We have a water security issue here, you know, our demand exceeds our supply. And we're actively working to close that balance.
KRISTAN: The water in the valley has been declining for decades due to a combination of overuse. And a drought whose effects are multiplied by climate change. With that comes difficult decisions for water managers and local communities. So the idea of water leaving the valley permanently has many concerned.
After RWR’s first visit, Cleave and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District met with their
constituencies. By the time RWR returned, Cleave and the board had an answer regarding the new
CLEAVE: “No, we won't be partners with you. And rest assured we will challenge you every step of the way, again, that this is not good for our community. It's contrary again to everything we've worked for and worked on here.” So the kind of the battle lines were drawn.
KRISTAN: They weren’t alone. It seemed like no one was in favor of this proposal.
CLEAVE: For more than three years, there's not been a single elected official anywhere in this valley, whether it's county commissioners, school board member, city councilor, none, not a single one of them have stepped up and come to this district or through their representative to this district and said, you know, there might be something here, we probably should think about this a little bit more.
KRISTAN: What is frustrating to people like Cleave and Heather and so many others is the
implied assumption that the San Luis Valley isn’t managing its water correctly. That they have more than they need.
HEATHER: The biggest one is just their claim of how much water is in the valley
KRISTAN: This is Heather Dutton again.
HEATHER: Their website says that the San Luis Valley has a vast ocean like aquifer, and it talks about all just all this available, untouched water and, and you know pretty much saying that we don't we don't even know what we have, and we have so much of it that we can't use it all. And if you drive through here, I think it's pretty easy to see that's not the case.
This area is the most intensely irrigated agriculture region in the world, we have some of the most advanced technology of anywhere in the world as far as irrigation and farming goes. And so I can tell you that we're not stupid, and we're not lazy. Water is our most, it's our most scarce, but also most precious resource. So there's no room for them to come in and take water out of here.
KRISTAN: It’s lunchtime in Alamosa. I’m at the Campus Cafe a few blocks from Adams State
University. The wood-paneled walls are covered with placards from local cross-country championships and advertisements for the nearby alligator sanctuary. The tables are full. I’m here to try to understand what the general community thinks about RWR. What is the value of water to them?
Two women wave me over to their table.
JEANETTE: I'm Jeanette, and I live in Fort Garland and teach science.
COLLEEN: I'm Colleen. I live in Alamosa and I teach high school math.
KRISTAN: What do you think about water in the region?
JEANETTE: Very first thoughts are nobody around here likes the idea that we're selling it to other states or anywhere else, we don't have enough water for us.
COLLEEN: or even within the state of Colorado itself. The country here is very beautiful, and it's rich in historic value. And we're losing a lot of that history by getting rid of the water. I'm trying to figure out how to describe our student population, but we have a significant portion of our population that doesn't even have running water. So when there is no water, that makes it harder.
KRISTAN: While I was speaking with Jeanette and Colleen, two teenagers call me over to
their table. As I came over, i could see they’re eating a cinnamon roll the size of a dinner plate.
OLIVIA: What region is it that's trying to steal our water again?
JAMIE: Like RWR whatever. Are you talking about RWR, Renewable Water Resources? I think that's one issue that our community’s pretty united on -- we need to protect our water. Because I mean I heard this little thing. Douglas County, since we're in poverty, their argument is basically that money will give us economic stimulus. But the only thing that really keeps our economy even thriving in the first place is agriculture. And without water, we don't have that. So it's not really a long lasting solution to our poverty stricken area. So I don't really agree with it. Personally, I'm not for Renewable Water Resources. But I'm also biased because everyone I'm around usually isn't for Renewable Water Resources.
OLIVIA: I agree with you honestly. I was just thinking the same thing. Yeah.
JAMIE: We're one of the poorest regions in the nation. So I have learned a lot living and growing up here. But I've also learned that I do not want to stay here.
KRISTAN: One piece of the RWR proposal is an offer for a $50 million community fund.
Although, opponents say this one-time hit of money wouldn’t make a lasting impact. Particularly if there’s less water for agriculture, which is the region's second largest employer. The value of water seems to be greater than any dollar amount, for now.
IF NOT THIS, THEN WHAT?
CLEAVE: "Cleave Simpson, Colorado Senate District 35." So that was part of my campaign stuff. And I actually saved all my campaign signs.
KRISTAN: I’m walking around Cleave Simpson’s barn. Tucked in beside his tractors are the
campaign signs from the 2020 election – his first run at elected office.
CLEAVE: There’s a little side story there. I'm sitting with my Republican Caucus, and some of them are up for reelection and they're talking about, “Did you buy signs? Like, how many did you buy? Well, I bought two I bought four.” I said, they asked me how many do you buy? So I bought 50 of them. “50?!” And I said, “Yeah, I have 16 counties.” And they were laughing at me to go you had to buy 50 signs, and they're not cheap and now they're wall art, I guess.
KRISTAN: Fifty signs are a good metric for just how vast and sparsely populated Cleave’s district is. He purchased this farm back in 1996 with his father. It’s 300 irrigated acres. Before that, he attended the Colorado School of Mines on a basketball scholarship. Then he left for Texas, where he worked as an engineer. But after building a family and life elsewhere, Cleave returned to the San Luis Valley, to his roots. To be a farmer again. To raise his new son and teach him how to till the land. And at age 58 is when he decided to run for office.
CLEAVE: A lot of my motivation to run for office, not singularly, but a lot of what drove me was water and how this state not just this basin, but this state deals with, again, declining supplies, and exponentially growing demand and the value, the monetary value of water is just going to continue to skyrocket. And it'll put more and more pressure on the Rio Grande basin, the Colorado River, the Arkansas, the South Platte, we're all going to feel this.
KRISTAN: For many western farmers, water is one of the most valuable assets they have…
CLEAVE: There's always been a marketplace for selling water rights. That’s existed in since the first decrees were issued. It's now a marketable asset. And again for a lot of folks, my family, my dad, me, that's, that's my dad's 401K, potentially. And our interest is in trying to manage that, and not let it wreck our community and our economy. I mean, people that have lived in Colorado long enough to, to know the, you know, the poster child for this is what happened in Crowley County, out on the Arkansas.
KRISTAN: Crowley Country is an area east of the San Luis Valley, located in the plains of
Colorado. The Arkansas River flows along its border. In the early days, agriculture was king.
CLEAVE: 50,000 irrigated acres of, you know, sugar beets and alfalfa and orchards
KRISTAN: But then the area fell into hard times, and in the 70’s and 80’s farmers started to
sell their water to the rapidly growing and sprawling front-range cities. Now only a small fraction of farmable land remains and more than 50% of the county’s tax base is from a prison that was built in the late 1990s. Their poverty rate is one of the highest in the state.
CLEAVE: And that's in my Senate district, and I'm always sensitive to, the “poster child” isn't quite accurate, but it is what can happen. I don't begrudge the folks that made the choices they made. They were under, you know, economic stress and environmental stresses and the opportunity was there...that water's not there anymore. And their economic base now is largely driven by private prisons.
KRISTAN: That’s the fear that many have in the San Luis Valley. If the water goes, so too go the farms, and if the farms go, something has to replace the gaping hole left in the region’s economy, not to mention the culture. Farmers live on thin margins as it is. I know this because I grew up in a farming community and it wasn’t easy. If it wasn’t for some bailing wire to fix the latest thing that broke, or a neighbor willing to lend a hand, life would have been much harder.
I’m also someone who moved away from my small rural community by the time I was 18, in search of a different life. I feel fortunate that – a few years ago – my path brought me to Denver. And while I was aware of the water challenges facing the arid West, I didn’t fully grasp the extent of the situation until moving here. I have an uncle and a cousin, who for a number of years had a farm down in the Valley, and they’ve shared with me some of the struggles. So I’ve been listening and learning about why there is conflict, what people value, and where there are solutions.
KRISTAN: Back at Cindy’s home, the afternoon sun is bearing down on us. Water in the irrigation ditch on her property – slowly gurgles by. I ask Cindy about the future.
CINDY: I have a well right here in my home right now, if that would go dry, I either have to dig deeper, but maybe I didn't have enough money to go deeper. Maybe I didn't have enough money to go 1,500 feet or something like that. Does that mean that I would have to move maybe with my daughter in Denver or my daughter in Washington because I could no longer sustain myself?
KRISTAN: The future is uncertain for Cindy as well as for many in the Valley, as the cost of
water continues to go up. And with that, tensions are also on the rise.
CINDY: And sometimes, you know, there's conflict, anytime you have water, water equals conflict. I mean, that's just the way it is. Even if it's just a small town, or Denver, it's just, because everybody needs water to survive.
KRISTAN: If water means conflict, but people need it, then what are the options for the
communities of the San Luis Valley? Keep their water for the next generation, even while the next generation is a big question mark? Or sell their water and potentially lose their livelihoods and cultural identities today?
Maybe, there are other choices. Options that rarely make the headlines but might dictate the future of how water conflicts can be mitigated, how innovative solutions are popping up in unlikely places. And how the battles are not quite what they seem.
In this season, we’re taking you deep into the legacies of water rights in Colorado, the realities of agriculture, population growth, and climate change, and the potential solutions for water under pressure.
Water, Under Pressure is a production of the Institute of Science and Policy out of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and House of Pod.
To learn more visit waterunderpressure.org
Episodes are hosted and written by Kristan Uhlenbrock and producer Cat Jaffee, with the help of producer Ann Marie Awad, Nicole Delaney, and Kate Long.
Our theme music is by Alex Paul of Birds of Play.
Our episode composition is by Jesse Boynton with tracks from Epidemic Sounds.
Our sound design and audio editing is by Ameeta Ganatra.
A special thanks to George Sparks, Tricia Waddell, and Trent Knoss, and my uncle, Jack and cousin, Jeremy for fielding my extra questions about farming and water in the Valley.
The Institute for Science & Policy is committed to publishing diverse perspectives in order to advance civil discourse and productive dialogue. Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or its affiliates.