AWRA Water Bingo Night – July 11, 2019

LadyDragonflyCC — Creative Commons, Flickr

From email from the AWRA Colorado Section (Alison Keener):

AWRA Colorado is hosting a networking event for students and young professionals on July 11th – Bingo Night at the Irish Snug! There will be cash prizes, free appetizers, and opportunities to meet professionals in the water industry. More information can be found in the attached flyer or on our website. Please share with anyone that may be interested in our event!

* RSVP required (click here).

#SouthPlatteRiver Regional Opportunities Working Group update: “I would prefer that they [East Slope] find their own water” — Rep. Dylan Roberts

A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used. Graphic credit: CWCB via Aspen Journalism

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Sterling Journal Advocate:

Colorado officials are planning to build multiple large reservoirs on the prairie northeast of Denver to capture more of the South Platte River’s Nebraska-bound water, then pump it back westward to booming metro suburbs struggling to wean themselves off dwindling underground aquifers.

They’re trying to prevent urban “buy-and-dry” of irrigated farmland and preserve rural communities across the South Platte Basin, which covers Colorado’s northeastern quadrant and ranks among the nation’s productive agricultural regions.

Booming growth along Colorado’s semi-arid Front Range has led to cities buying farms to take control of rights to withdraw scarce water from the river, a relatively feeble source given the magnitude of urban, industrial and agricultural development.

This new push to trap an additional 150,000 acre-feet of water, above what is held in an existing chain of reservoirs built by farmers, surfaced in Denver Post interviews with lawmakers and other officials this month. The effort would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and affect natural habitat for wildlife, including endangered sandhill cranes. It reflects a growing willingness in a nature-oriented state to re-shape river landscapes for meeting human needs.

“If nothing is done, up to 50 percent of the irrigated agriculture in the South Platte River Basin is projected to be dried up by 2050 because there’s no other place for cities to get bigger water supplies other than from irrigated agriculture,” said Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, who is helping to coordinate planning…

The latest state data from well monitoring reveal south metro Denver groundwater tables are falling. While the groundwater depletion since 2008 varies across the suburbs, the data show, decreases around Castle Rock exceeded 16 feet. State officials don’t intervene as long as municipalities determine that the sponge-like aquifers they tap wouldn’t be totally exhausted for 100 years…

Costs of piping water back from new reservoirs are “significant” and would be paid by “participants,” including those suburbs, where the current 350,000 households will increase to 500,000 “at buildout” in 2065, Darling said. Daily water use per person has decreased from utilities’ pre-2002 planning estimate of 165 gallons to 120 gallons, she noted.

Colorado’s new reservoirs would capture water that otherwise flows in the South Platte to Nebraska. A 1923 South Platte River Compact requires Colorado to leave a mean flow of 120 cubic feet per second from April through October.

State lawmakers pointed to gauging-station records showing annual surplus flows from 10,000 acre-feet to 1.9 million acre-feet — an average of 300,000 acre-feet of water each year that Colorado could claim.

State engineer Kevin Rein confirmed that “in many years more water is passing that gauging station at the state line than needs to… Conceptually I agree with what they are saying.”

[…]

Nebraska officials contemplated what this could mean. Nebraska monitors “the potential effects of new water-related activities on the states’ apportionment” and “will look at the proposed projects and communicate directly with Colorado on issues of concern relating to the compact” along with efforts to recover endangered birds, Jeff Fassett, the state’s director of natural resources, said in an emailed response to queries from The Denver Post.

South Platte flows nourish a diversity of species, including the imperiled sandhill cranes in Nebraska. Colorado and other states legally must prevent extinction. The birds need flows that form sandy beach habitat.

Reservoir proponents said impacts would be mitigated. They contend off-channel reservoirs could help cranes because reservoir operators, by trapping high flows during wet years, would be able to release water strategically, simulating nature, just when birds and habitat need more.

But less water and distortion of natural surges would be devastating, and reservoirs themselves would destroy habitat, Audubon Society vice president Brian Rutledge said…

The reservoirs would be built at three or more sites northeast of Denver, near the river but not directly blocking the main stem, and hold up to 70,000 acre-feet of water each, according to a consultant’s report. (An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, enough to sustain two families for a year.) That’s about the size of Parker’s Rueter Hess Reservoir, built for $170 million in 2012, one of the largest new reservoirs in the West.

It’s not year clear how many separate reservoirs would be built under this plan.

Sites and pipeline routes haven’t been set. Planners identified more than 20 potential locations for reservoirs but are focusing on areas north and south of Fort Morgan and near Sedgewick. Two or more pipelines, which cost more than $1 million a mile to install, would move captured river water back west to the Front Range, ending near Brighton, Aurora and possibly elsewhere…

Colorado lawmakers strongly supported building new reservoirs and pipelines.

“We should do our best to manage our water, and still meet our compact obligations. If that means less above the compact is going to cross out of our state, we should do that,” said state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who represents 11 counties across northeastern Colorado and serves on the legislature’s water resources review committee. He and eight other lawmakers, including key committee members, recently toured the South Platte Basin with Water Education Colorado…

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Lawmakers from across the Continental Divide in western Colorado, where rivers are depleted by diversions through tunnels to the Front Range, embraced the push for bigger storage as preferable to siphoning more water out of the Colorado River Basin and to boost resilience amid global warming.

“I would prefer that they find their own water,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, vice chair of the lawmakers’ water resources review committee.

Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said Coloradans on the Western Slope sense “that a lot of the water we’re sending over isn’t being utilized fully. … We want to keep as much of it as we can.”

And lawmakers representing south Denver suburbs saw increased storage as essential to enable continued Front Range population and economic growth, which they accept as inevitable, without destroying agriculture.

The push for new reservoirs has gained momentum after Colorado’s 2015 State Water Plan enshrined the notion of boosting storage along the South Platte, though the plan doesn’t specify projects.

Colorado Water Conservation Board director Rebecca Mitchell, an architect of that plan, this week indicated a favorable state posture toward what she called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group project.

“The South Platte River Basin is the most populous basin in the state, and in planning for Colorado’s water future… we need to bridge Colorado’s future water supply-demand gap,” Mitchell said in a statement emailed to The Post. “Combined with conservation and a focus on environmental health, project concepts like SPROWG create an opportunity…”

A look at #ColoradoRiver Basin water year precipitation so far #COriver #aridification #DCP

Morrow Point Dam spilling June 2014 via USBR

From The Colorado Sun (Katie Klingsporn):

…in the long-term puzzle of ensuring that the Colorado River — the main artery of the American West — provides water to the millions of people in the basin who depend on it, the challenges are mounting. And in the face of a complicated tangle of population growth, long-term drought and climate change, does 2019’s water stand a chance of making a meaningful impact?

Water experts say the answer is: Sadly, not likely.

Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller likened it to a year-end salary bonus. It’s a great development in the short term, but if it’s an anomaly in the broader picture, its effects will be minor.

“This is a short-term boon, and we should be happy,” Mueller said before adding the caveat stressed by many in the water community: “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Blue Mesa Reservoir

A pattern of aridification

Going from the record-breaking drought of 2018 to the record-breaking water year of 2019 is a stroke of luck that has enabled a much faster recovery of fisheries, soils and watersheds, said Taryn Finnessey, Colorado’s senior climate change specialist.

Here, reservoirs such as Blue Mesa, Navajo and Ridgway are expected to rebound as snowmelt flushes through rivers.

“However, on the broader Colorado River, even with a banner water year, we won’t see a significant recovery,” she said.

Large inflows are expected into both Lake Powell on the Utah/Arizona border and Lake Mead downstream — the big reservoirs considered to be the savings accounts for the Colorado River basin. The reservoirs, which have been steadily dropping for years, are projected to end the year at slightly higher levels.

But both are so far from capacity — as of June 24, Mead was only at 40 percent, while Powell was at 51 percent, according to the Bureau of Reclamation — that these increases will, at best, put them a little more than half full by year’s end.

“So we’re not seeing a huge rebound in those really large storage buckets that provide long-term storage in the Southwest,” Finnessey said.

Ridgway Dam

Why not? The short answer, she said, is climate change.

Over the past 20 years, the broader Colorado River system has experienced not only decreased precipitation — in the form of 19 years of drought — but also increased temperatures. The hotter weather creates more rapid evaporation and thirstier soils, and causes the snow to melt more quickly, transforming it from the steady flows that were once typical, into an annual big-water flush that’s harder to capture and store.

The result, Finnessey said, is a slow shift in the basin “from drought to long-term aridification” that’s drawing down the water. A growing population only exacerbates the problem. And one good year of water won’t reverse that.

In fact, Mueller said the river district’s engineer guesses it would require eight to 13 years “exactly like this one” to emerge from the deficit. So, relying on Mother Nature to turn things around isn’t a reliable option.

James Eklund, the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado Basin Commission, said the problem is that the entire system of storing, capturing and using the water of the Colorado River is predicated on the way things functioned before climate change…

Make no mistake, Eklund said, managers will store every drop they can in a year like this. Unfortunately though, “climate change is boxing Colorado water managers in from all sides.”

[…]

The result of those talks is the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which was signed in May. In that agreement, the Lower Basin states agreed to specific decreases in water use.

The plan is designed to bank water and leave it in Lake Mead, which in turn keeps more water in Lake Powell (by preventing large releases from Powell required to bail out the Lower Basin’s supply.) And unlike in the past, the water that is banked in Powell by the Upper Basin states will belong solely to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico as a sort of emergency water account.

Previously, all the water saved by Upper Basin states in Lake Powell could be released to Lake Mead for the Lower Basin states to use.

“That was a perverse incentive,” Eklund said of the former arrangement that didn’t really reward water conservation by Upper Basin states. “What we decided to do is make it a positive incentive.”

The Upper Basin states, meanwhile, agreed in the Contingency Plan to explore methods for managing and reducing consumption.

(As part of that promise, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has assembled eight workgroups to study a demand-management program for the state, which is envisioned as a voluntary program that would pay users to not use their water rights. The water saved through that program, the river district’s Mueller said, could be stored in Lake Powell to be used explicitly for Upper Basin needs.)

Finally, the contingency plan makes reservoir operation more flexible for Colorado’s Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs and Flaming Gorge in Wyoming — while still respecting the environmental considerations of their water releases…

But it’s also a problem that can’t be ignored away. “Everybody in the basin has to get better, faster, smarter at our jobs,” Eklund said. “Our policies have to become more flexible, smarter and better.”

Mueller echoed that, noting that if Lake Powell is a measure of how secure the Upper Basin should feel about its future, “we should not feel that secure.”

He said it’s time to take a hard look at measures such as removing sod, improving agricultural efficiency, crop switching and even cloud seeding.

There are models of success out there. Denver Water, which serves 1.4 million people in Denver and the surrounding suburbs, has seen its per-capita water use drop 34 percent since 2001 thanks to major conservation efforts.

“We’re actually using the same amount of water that we used in the ’70s even though our population has grown by half a million,” said Dave Bennett, the utility’s director of water-resource strategy. “And that’s really a testament to conservation.”

When it comes to the Colorado River, conservation may not be enough. For now, though, it’s one of the best tools available. So, while nobody has come up with the end-all answer for solving the long-term crisis, water managers are unanimous on one thing: Users can’t afford to waste a single drop of water, even in a year of abundance.

“We were lucky this year,” said Finnessey, the climate change specialist. “But I don’t think that’s something that we can ever assume will happen again. So we need to be really wise stewards of our resources.”

Denver developer, former governor make $118M play for San Luis Valley water — @WaterEdCO

Photo credit San Luis Valley Heritage.

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Henry, Colo.: As the sun sets at the Colorado Farm Brewery, a light breeze plays over a deep green rye field that borders the patio. As they do most Thursday nights, nearly two dozen people have wandered into this scenic, rural bar 250 miles southwest of Denver to relax and visit with neighbors.

The brewery is part of a 300-acre farm which grows grains and hops, and which also operates a malting company. Wayne Cody, the farm’s 61-year-old patriarch, has just come in from hours of work, roasting malt, examining fields, and preparing to plant buckwheat the next day.

As he visits with customers, it’s clear that most people in this bar tonight know that something almost unholy is in the works here in the San Luis Valley.

A well-connected metro Denver water developer, backed by former Colorado Governor Bill Owens, Front Range real estate interests, and absentee ranchers who themselves control huge amounts of water here, is proposing to export millions of gallons of water out of this drought-stricken, scrappy place for delivery to fast-growing Douglas County.

Sean Tonner, who once served as deputy chief of staff for Owens, is leading the group, which has proposed spending $118 million to acquire water from the farmers here. That sum includes a $50 million community fund to help bolster the poverty-stricken region.

Tonner’s company, known as Renewable Water Resources, is at least the fourth in a stream of developers who’ve beaten a path to this remote region in the past 50 years, intent on harvesting its water. All, up until now, have been decisively turned back.

In February, at a water conference in Alamosa, just up the road from Henry, a man suggesting that Tonner’s proposal had merit was booed.

The proposal to bring water from the San Luis Valley to the metro area would require a pipeline of more than 200 miles. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar’s family has farmed here for generations. Salazar also spoke at the conference and reassured the 200-plus people in the packed auditorium that no water would ever flow out of the valley into the metro area.

“Over my dead body,” he said to cheers and applause.

In a minute

For Wayne Cody, it isn’t nearly that clear cut. He and his sons, an energetic, muscular lot, are pouring everything they have, including beer, into saving their family farm.

Cody’s grandparents bought the farm in the 1930s, and the family has grown alfalfa profitably, then raised dairy cows, again profitably, for some 80 years. But as farm costs rose, and dairy prices dropped, they turned to a new industry, brewing, with Coors and others as customers.

In 2008, they started the Colorado Malting Company and last year they opened the Colorado Farm Brewery on County Road 12 South. Its custom beer snifters urge guests to “Drink Like A Farmer.”

Until a corporate malting company entered the valley two years ago, the Cody clan was selling 1 million pounds of malt a year, but they haven’t been able to compete well with the big operation, and so this year they have contracts to sell just 600,000 pounds of malt, Wayne Cody said.

Last month, the family laid off a full-time and part-time employee. Still they’re pushing ahead, hoping to make inroads into California’s malt market.

In the interim, the notion of selling some of their water each year to generate additional cash has a certain appeal.

“I would hate to see the water leave the valley,” Cody said, “but would I sell some? In a minute.”

Unequivocally no

Eight miles north, in Alamosa, Cleave Simpson runs the Rio Grande River Water Conservation District, an agency created by state law in 1967 to manage the Rio Grande River. It serves roughly 1,000 farm entities in the valley. Simpson and others are deeply worried about the export plan because the valley’s water supplies are already under severe stress.

The region’s sprawling farm economy is supported by the Rio Grande River and a giant underground aquifer, a sort of bathtub that is refilled by snowmelt and runoff.

But the aquifer has been over-pumped and hasn’t been able to refill itself for decades, thanks largely to the giant thirst of the valley’s thriving potato industry. It is the second-largest potato growing region in the United States.

A stubborn 19-year drought, that broke at least temporarily this year, and a warming climate that is causing declines in western rivers are compounding the problem.

So depleted is the aquifer that the state has ordered the valley to bring water levels back up to where they were prior to 2000, or face a massive shut down of farm wells in 2030.

It wasn’t always like this. When farmers began drilling powerful irrigation wells into the aquifer in the 1950s, subsurface water was thought to be so plentiful that they could irrigate their fields almost endlessly. But as modern hydrology caught up with pumping technology, it became clear that there was a close connection between the aquifer and flows in the river, and that the pumping was harming the aquifer, the river, and other farmers’ water rights in the river.

Soon, the Rio Grande Basin was under legal fire. Eventually the courts determined that the farmers of the San Luis Valley were overusing their fair share.

Still, bringing the aquifer back into balance is no small task. To get it done, valley farmers are voluntarily taxing themselves, and using those revenues to pay other farmers to reduce their pumping and fallow fields. But last year’s drought stripped the Rio Grande River of much of its water, and forced the farmers to pump heavily to protect their crops, wiping out much of the water their voluntary conservation program had placed underground in the prior seven years.

ource: Rio Grande River Water Conservation District. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Now, even in a good water year like this one, the valley must pay back the water it has overused in the past so that the Rio Grande can be made whole as it flows south to irrigate fields in New Mexico and Texas and refill reservoirs for the citizens and farmers of those states.

It is a bitter reality in the San Luis Valley, one that makes the notion of outsiders taking even more water out of the depleted region particularly painful to many of its farmers and water officials.

“This basin is just highly over-appropriated,” Simpson said. “There are way more decrees for water rights than can be delivered in any one year. We have water rights that haven’t been able to draw from the river in 20 years. Likewise the groundwater system is also over-appropriated.”

Tonner and his team made a presentation to the district’s board in January, asking that the district support its export proposal and help manage the $68 million water purchasing effort.

That’s big money down here. But the district’s board said no. Unequivocally no.

Simpson and other water leaders here believe that most farmers will oppose any Front Range deal to export San Luis Valley water, no matter the dollar figures involved.

Town by town

Tonner is not discouraged.

Since last October, he’s been traveling the mountain passes and dusty two-lane highways that link the San Luis Valley to the Front Range, bringing his 11-slide PowerPoint presentation to the tiny towns of the valley, from Saguache to Moffat to Crestone.

His plan: To buy 22,000 acre-feet of water, a purchase that would dry up roughly 10,000 acres of farm fields and provide enough water for some 44,000 urban homes annually.

He also proposes paying more farmers to fallow enough land to forego the use of another 30,000 acre-feet of water, allowing it to remain in the vast, complex underground water system. According to RWR’s math, even after their 22,000 acre-foot export, ensuring that 30,000 acre-feet is no longer pumped means an 8,000 acre-foot net gain for the system.

Tonner’s Renewable Water Resources is only the latest company to attempt this controversial task. Three others have tried since the 1980s. Tonner was involved with an earlier effort that stalled out due to a ranch owner’s death. Tonner and his backers came back and bought that ranch and are now moving forward with RWR.

RWR says it has raised $28 million from private investors to help fund the deal, but documents on file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange commission indicate that $750,000 has been raised. Tonner said those figures are out of date and that the rest of the money will come once the company has signed a deal with an “end user” in Douglas County.

He says no agreement has been signed yet, but that the end user would need to sell enough bonds to pay the farmers, RWR, and the cost of the massive well fields, pipeline and delivery system that will be needed to bring the water up Highway 285 and across to the Front Range. How much money is that? Tonner estimates construction costs of more than $600 million, depending on the final route of the proposed pipeline.

Tonner said he has signed sale agreements from roughly 40 farmers and that more than 100 farmers have approached him about selling their water. Tonner declined to identify them, citing the tensions in the valley and the potential for public backlash. Wayne Cody is not among them.

But Jerry Berry, a local ranch manager in the town of Moffat who has an ownership interest in RWR, did agree to talk about the proposal.

“This is an 8,000 acre-foot net gain. How does that not benefit the aquifer? You have to be open minded enough to see where the true benefits are. $50 million in a trust fund that they can use for economic growth is more than that water would ever produce agriculturally,” Berry said.

Berry, who is on the local school board, said he believes RWR is looking for a deal that benefits all parties. “I’ve done business with these guys. They are reputable. If it’s not a win-win for everybody they won’t do it.” Other developers, says Berry, have gone straight to water court without seeking community input.

And they’ve all been defeated there.

Having fought off water-hungry invaders before, the San Luis Valley, aided by such powerful politicians as Salazar and former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth, among others, and such powerful environmental groups as The Nature Conservancy, has established a long list of protections that will make any kind of a water export proposal difficult to execute.

Backers would have to prove that the exports don’t harm other users on the Rio Grande River and that they would not harm the aquifer itself. The plan would also have to demonstrate that it would not diminish the groundwater that maintains the Great Sand Dunes National Park and other conserved areas.

Still farmers are entitled to sell their water rights under Colorado law, even if their neighbors disagree.

Insatiable thirst

In his quest to protect the farmers in his district, Simpson too has been traveling the state and in February briefed Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee, a group created in 2005 under Colorado state law to facilitate cooperation between river basins.

Jeris Danielson, a former Colorado water regulator who sits on the IBCC, said the RWR proposal exemplifies a long-standing problem in Colorado — how to protect the state’s individual river basins, while ensuring the seemingly endless thirst of the Front Range, whose South Platte and Arkansas basins are also stretched beyond capacity can be satisfied.

“The problem is the six-county sucking chest wound called the metro area,” said Danielson, who represents the Arkansas River Basin on the IBCC. “That’s where all of the people are moving. So how do we solve this problem?”

Transbasin diversions (TBDs), which move water from one river basin to another, are not new in Colorado. More than two dozen pipelines have been harvesting West Slope water and delivering it to the drier Front Range for nearly 150 years, often leaving some of the state’s most scenic, fragile mountain areas and wetlands forever altered.

However, they have become so controversial, and expensive, that no new ones have been built since the 1980s. And Governor Jared Polis, when he was campaigning last summer, said he would do everything in his power to stop any newly proposed TBD.

But that doesn’t address Colorado’s urban thirst. The Front Range needs roughly 300,000 acre-feet of water by 2050 to stave off shortages, according to the Colorado Water Plan. In Douglas County, the number is smaller but the problem is more urgent. Douglas County, along with parts of El Paso and Elbert counties, relies on an aquifer that, unlike the one in the San Luis Valley, cannot renew itself. And aquifer levels are dropping. Cities such as Castle Rock rely on the aquifer for roughly 70 percent of their water, and though they have acquired some surface water rights and they operate a water recycling plant, they still need more fresh water to ensure they don’t drain their own underground supplies.

Will new surface water come from the San Luis Valley? That’s not clear yet.

“RWR has presented to us,” said Castle Rock Director of Utilities Mark Marlowe. “But it’s not part of our long-term plan at this point.”

Tonner said RWR has talked with several major water districts in Douglas County, including Castle Rock and Parker and, very early on, Colorado Springs. But he says he’s not ready to identify the lead water district in the deal thus far.

Marlowe says it isn’t Castle Rock, but that the city might be interested in the plan if the price was right and if there was local support for the proposal in the San Luis Valley.

Colorado Springs said it has not met with RWR and it will not participate under any circumstances, planning instead to pull more water from places such as the Colorado River, where it already has some supplies.

$50 million worth of indifference

Jason Anderson is a Saguache County Commissioner. If this export plan becomes a reality, the well field and pipeline for the project would be built within his district. Saguache is one of the poorest counties in Colorado, with a median household income of $34,765, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Across the Continental Divide, in Douglas County, that figure is $111,000. The chasm between rich and poor isn’t lost on anyone in the San Luis Valley.

“It seems like every five years or so, the Front Range tries to figure out how to tap our water,” Anderson said. “I’m trying to keep an open mind because some of the folks in the proposal are from Saguache County. On the other hand, I haven’t had many folks speak to me in a positive manner about the plan.”

So far, Anderson said, the proffered $50 million community development fund, which might be used to support food banks and new industry, hasn’t swayed public opinion, despite the region’s poverty.

“That $50 million doesn’t seem to be playing much of a role in anyone’s decision down here,” he said.

But a look at Front Range water prices makes clear why there is so much pressure to find more and sell it on the Front Range. RWR says it is willing to pay double the market price for an acre-foot of San Luis Valley farm water. That’s roughly $2,000-plus 3,000.

That same acre-foot of water piped east across the mountains would easily sell for ten times that. And in some communities, $30,000 an acre-foot is a blue-light special.

RWR’s Tonner says his backers are now examining whether they can create an additional financial incentive for farmers that could include a sort of annual royalty payment in addition to the economic development fund.

“Look,” said Tonner, “I’ve had some people say we should pay them $1 billion for their water. That’s not going to happen. But we are trying to put some bones on a proposal that would include an annual royalty payment.”

Tonner said he would go public with his plan in six months and begin making presentations to the public water roundtables in the San Luis and in metro Denver.

Once it starts

Among locals, though, there is a much bigger concern than the cash behind the deal. The worry is that if another pipeline is built to the metro area, it will be only the first in a series of urban water exports that sooner or later will permanently strip the region of its agricultural economy and its proud farm culture.

“There is a reality that when you take the water that is being used in the San Luis Valley and open up a 22,000 acre-foot spigot — I can guarantee in 20 years it opens up to 220,000 acre-feet,” Salazar said in February at the Alamosa water conference. Salazar did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Tonner says his backers have agreed that they will insert into any eventual water court decree an absolute limit of 22,000 acre-feet on their export plan. But that would not necessarily limit others from using the same pipe to export more water, said David Robbins, an attorney who represents the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

“I don’t care what RWR says, no one is going to build a pipeline out of the valley and simply take 22,000 acre-feet. That is absurd. You would have to be so insanely naïve as to believe in the tooth fairy. Once it starts, it never stops,” Robbins said.

Saving a farm

Out in Henry, the Cody family has grown accustomed to hard work and risk. In recent weeks, they’ve unveiled a new lager and brought in beer steins to sell. It’s not clear that any of this will sustain the farm.

But if selling a small portion of their water and deriving an annual royalty payment from it could help, Wayne Cody might consider such a proposal.

“Everything we’ve done here is to save this farm,” he said. “Selling some of the water is the most profitable thing I could do.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this article failed to make clear that 22,000 acre feet of water is enough to serve roughly 44,000 urban homes annually.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.