ALAMOSA, Colorado — The water that flows in the Rio Grande River is the same water that irrigates farms and provides habitat for local wildlife in the San Luis Valley. The water here all comes from the same place; melting snow on the mountain ranges that border the valley.
"It feeds from the rim, the rim being the San Juan Mountains on one side and the Sangre de Cristos on the other," explained Cleave Simpson, Manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District.
Simpson is a farmer and rancher from Alamosa and serves in the State Legislature representing the people of the 16 counties that make up Senate District 35.
He explained that the valley is one of the aridest regions in the state receiving less than 9 inches of precipitation annually. The snowfall on the Sangre de Cristos has been noticeably less in recent years reducing the flow of surface water into streams and rivers, and recharging the aquifers below the valley floor at a slower pace.
"We just don't have enough water here," said John Salazar, a farmer, and rancher from Antonito and former US Congressman. "We're very, very very, very limited on the water."
When water developer Renewable Water Resources recently made presentations in communities around the valley discussing an export proposal that would tap the valley's deep artesian aquifer many were skeptical.
"The board politely said no and we will challenge you every step of the way," Simpson said.
Heather Dutton, Manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District also opposes the plan.
"It is the official position of the board of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and me personally that this project is bad for the valley and we oppose it."
Salazar was blunter in his criticism.
"I'll tell you, it'll be over my dead body that they take this water out of here," he said.
The valley's groundwater system is made up of two aquifers. The shallow unconfined aquifer has been tapped with wells for crop irrigation for several generations and is over appropriated. Below that lies the confined aquifer which Renewable Water Resources believes holds a billion-acre foot of water. For perspective, that amount of water is more than double the volume of Lake Erie.
The number is also highly disputed in the valley. Travis Smith, a rancher from Del Norte and former water district manager said the figure was a rough estimate by former USGS hydrologist Dr. Phil Emery.
"It was a rough estimation by Dr. Emery about 2 billion acre-feet being available, and it's interesting how bad information if it hangs around long enough that it somehow people seem to think there's some truth in it," Smith said.
Dutton also disputes the billion acre-foot estimate.
"Phil Emery testified in one of the previous export cases that the number was a back of the napkin estimate," she said.
Renewable Water Resources proposes to transfer 22,000-acre feet of water out of the valley per year. It would be drawn from the deep aquifer and pumped through a transmountain diversion into the South Platte Basin where it would become available to municipal water customers along the Front Range.
A video produced by RWR explains that the 22,000-acre feet would represent a small fraction of the estimated annual recharge of the aquifer. The backers believe their proposal would also help the valley restore the shallow aquifer by returning more water than is taken out.
Monica McCafferty, a spokesperson for RWR explained that the San Luis Valley has a "one-for-one" regarding project water.
"This means that if any water is proposed to be taken out, an equal amount of water must be retired at the same amount," she said.
"The RWR project is actually retiring MORE water than we propose to develop. And, the amount of water we are proposing to develop - represents 2.5 percent of the aquifer’s annual recharge - a small percentage of the annual recharge."
RWR plans to pay interested farmers and ranchers in the valley to retire some 31,000-acre feet worth of existing water rights. Thus, a 9,000 acre-foot difference to reduce demand on the shallow aquifer.
However, Dutton points out that retiring water rights alone would be damaging to the local economy.
"By taking 22,000-acre feet out of the ground, the proponents would have to dry up an amount of existing agriculture to get that water and have that water available and so that would be a huge hit to our economy and our communities and our schools," she said.
Agriculture is the primary economic driver for communities in the San Luis Valley. Salazar said that retiring water rights would be devastating.
"I mean, if we start doing that and pumping this valley dry, we're done," he said. "I mean, our economy is gone. There won't be anything left."
Many farms and ranches in the valley have already made self-imposed cuts in irrigation to try and prevent further depletion of the shallow aquifer. Simpson explained that a number of sub-districts have been formed which are either temporarily or permanently drying properties to cut back on demand.
"We started this in 2012 and from 2012 to 2017 we were making good progress," Simpson said. "We have a target that we're trying to recover this aquifer too."
A severe drought in 2018 all but eliminated their progress. The conservation districts in the valley are working to restore water levels in the shallow aquifer in order to avoid state-ordered limitations on the use of wells in Sub-District #1.
RWR is offering a $50 million community fund to the valley to offset the loss from the retired water rights. The video indicates the money could be spent improving parks, schools, hospitals, and emergency services.
Even with that money, Alamosa city government recently published a paper examining the economic impact of the RWR proposal. The document concludes that the water export be would lead to "unrecoverable economic devastation affecting all sectors of the valley."
Smith, the rancher from Del Norte, also served four terms on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. He points out that the proposal of an interbasin transfer appears to violate a core principle of the Colorado Water Plan.
"The State of Colorado, when they embraced the Colorado Water Plan, it specifically said to benefit one basin at the expense of another, that was not the approach," Smith said.
McCafferty, the RWR spokesperson said that the project would reduce, "the overuse and over-dependence on the Colorado, Yampa, and Platte Rivers by the Front Range."
"We are taking pressure off of Colorado’s main and over-used surface water supplies," she said.
In order to begin implementing the RWR proposal, the developers would first need to file a claim to change the water use in water court. The process could take between three and five years.
Simpson said there is a long history of legal fights over water export claims in the San Luis Valley. He pointed out that the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District already had money set aside to challenge the RWR proposal after the court awarded valley residents legal fees from a previous failed export case involving a developer called American Water Development Incorporated.
"So we're prepared, we've seen this unfold before, and again, I'm very confident," Simpson said. "The community is already galvanized together to some respect, but it's if and when they file an application you'll see it even more."