Bob Rawlings retrospective — Chris Woodka

Bob Rawlings. Photo credit The High Country News

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The speech was delivered late last month at a water forum in Colorado Springs.

To say that Bob Rawlings cared about water in the Arkansas Valley would be a gross understatement. Toward the end of his life, it was his driving passion. As the water reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain and the editor directing water coverage for all of my 31 years at The Chieftain, no one knew this better than I did.

Your reaction to how Mr. Rawlings cared about water would color your interpretation of his concern. I often found that respect for him grew as I traveled east of Pueblo, where people could see first-hand the effects of drying up agriculture in the Lower Arkansas Valley. I saw his reach up here in El Paso County when I attended meetings and listened to people cuss and discuss the publisher of The Pueblo Chieftain. And, I saw more than one public figure or water developer leave his office disappointed, maybe frightful, but still respectful, after Mr. Rawlings chewed them out for not caring about the Arkansas Valley and its water as deeply as he did.

A few of you in this room probably wished, at one time or another, that Robert Hoag Rawlings would just get out of the way. But he never would. And I would suggest that water projects as a whole benefitted from his constant “interference.”

I also observed the subtle shift in Mr. Rawlings’ attitudes on water throughout the years.

When I arrived at The Chieftain in 1985, Mr. Rawlings cared about water like a farmer cares about his crops.

Water was something to be nurtured and its uses in the Arkansas Valley protected. When I came on the scene, water sales in Otero and Crowley counties were under way and a plan to take water out of the San Luis Valley was hatching. Mr. Rawlings believed the land would bloom if we could only weed out the interlopers.

One feature of his newspaper he loved dearly was the rain gauge, which would measure how much moisture different parts of town received from the same cloudburst. He even read a gauge at his own home and called in the results to a clerk for many years. Heaven help the editor who omitted the rain report after even the lightest sprinkle hit Pueblo.

After a heavy deluge, Mr. Rawlings would walk into the newsroom and ask, “So, was that what my father (who was a Las Animas banker) used to call a million-dollar rain?” He expected an answer, so we’d scramble to call all the farmers we knew to come up with one.

Which leads to the next shift. Mr. Rawlings cared about water like a homeowner assesses his property value in relation to what’s happening in the neighborhood. Water was a valuable asset.

He insisted, fairly often, that we continue to tell the story of what happened to Crowley County when the water was sold and separated from the land. He didn’t want his readers, or the state’s leaders, to forget about the value of water. We dreamed up a lot of ways to bring that point home.

Rocky Ford Ditch

During the 1990s, Mr, Rawlings reached the height of his power, I believe. He could pick up a phone on any given afternoon and get as much done as the state Legislature could accomplish in a week. When he learned that the lion’s share of the Rocky Ford Ditch was sold to Aurora, he saw the loss of farm income and referred to Aurora’s purchases as “the death knell” of the Arkansas Valley.

That’s when he went to war.

In the final years, he viewed water as a resource to be protected, and he would go to any lengths to meet that objective.

Mr. Rawlings helped to form the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, although he’d later shake his head at how that board executed its duties. When the Lower Ark District started making deals with Aurora, he took to the road one morning to confront a roomful of people in Lamar who disagreed with him and later that same day repeated the exercise in Rocky Ford, even as three members of Congress looked on.

He gave emotional speeches before federal panels. He’d use his presses to drum up community support for his views on water transfers and projects. He hired water lawyers, hoping to put himself on equal footing with the big water interests.

“They’re not smarter than us,” he’d bellow at his editorial board. “They just have more smart people.”

A staunch Republican for all of his life, he courted the favor of Democratic senators and congressmen, and even the Sierra Club, when his views of water preservation aligned with theirs. He’d politely tell even Republicans to take a hike if the disagreement was about water.

I am still not sure if I was privileged to spend so much of my journalism career pursuing water stories, or whether I was afflicted with some sort of curse all those years.

But I learned a lot about water because of Mr. Rawlings, and I will miss his drive and determination.

Chris Woodka is a former Chieftain managing editor for production who won numerous awards for his water reporting. He is the Issues Management Program Coordinator for the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

For a treat read Matt Jenkins profile of Bob Rawlings (and Chris Woodka) from The High Country News.

Chris Woodka. Photo credit The High Country News

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