Photos and story by Randy Brown | for Alamosa Citizen

YES, of course, tunneling through the westerly sideways-buffeting winds north on CO17, sandblasted out of Mosca with thankfully fresh asphalt smooth, almost hovering above its blackness, one gets a sense of the SLV through windshield time, opportunities for reflection at 70 miles per hour, windows down, the “breeze” plays backup to Mick Jagger singing “Mothers Little Helper” with the “What A Drag It Is Getting Old” chorus and I counter, “not so much Mick” but continue to listen with much rebellion and looking right at the Great Sand Dunes, and yes they are actually “great,” even from this distance.

Chris Canaly at the main gate of the Baca Grande Wildlife Refuge. One of the many success stories in eco preservation.

Randy Brown: Where does this passion that you have for the environment come from?

Chris Canaly: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in the city, not that far from the steel mills. The Cuyahoga River spontaneously caught on fire there. I was 10, I think, and our school groups used to go out on that river, on these boats called The Good Time I and II. They’d take school classes out. This didn’t happen in our class, because it was a little later. Margo Williams, who used to live here, she was just an amazing person, super brilliant, a botanist. She was born in Berlin, during World War II, and her father was wounded, and so she ended up getting out and moving to Cleveland which accepted World War II refugees. When she was on The Good Time, the boys would bring paper bags and would drop them in the water and just watch them disintegrate.

RB: So the ecology movement was just getting some steam? 

CC: I’m sure there were other things, but when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, that was one of the catalysts to start the EPA. I’m trying to think of when the EPA happened, because it might not have happened until ’70, ’71, and I think that happened in ’68 (Dec. 2, 1970). Anyway, so they established this agency to oversee the environment. Then my brother, Ken, my second brother, he loved to go fishing in Lake Erie. He brought back some walleye, and catfish, and my mom and I went down in the basement, because we had tubs down there, and she started looking at these fish. She says, “Ken, we can’t eat these fish. There’s tumors all over them.” That just had a huge effect on me.

RB: What else inspired you as a young person? 

CC: I always loved reading the newspaper and we delivered the newspaper. I had five brothers, so literally the paper route was passed down. So, we had the paper route in our family for a long time. I used to kind of be the …  when anyone didn’t, something else was going on, or somebody got sick or whatever, I would go out. I always knew the route, and I would help collect, but my mom didn’t want me to have a regular route. But I definitely learned the neighborhood and I loved delivering newspapers. It’s kind of weird, but you really felt like you were giving somebody something. It was probably not one thing, but anyway, for some reason I got really focused on water. Then, my background was in media. I went to Ohio University, which is in Athens, Ohio, southern Ohio. Really beautiful area. Also, a lot of water there too, right next to West Virginia. Then after school, I moved down to Atlanta. I worked for CNN, because they started the 24-hour news.

LEFT: Historic Homestead near the Baca Grande Wildlife Refuge.
RIGHT: Yak near Crestone on the Chokurei Ranch.

RB: Then, from Atlanta to? 

CC: I was always kind of hooked on current events. It just seemed natural for me to be at CNN. Then I always wanted to live in New York City, so I ended up moving there in the mid-’80s. I worked for NBC local news as a sound engineer. I wasn’t a reporter, but I would set up remotes and do things like that. In New York I met my future husband, Mark, who was renovating Brownstones with someone named Pat Patterson.  

Aside: Pat knew of Crestone, eventually moved there and is know for building the Ziggurat.

CC: Anyway, Pat told Mark about this place, and Mark said, “You know, I always wanted to build my own house, and it sounds like we might maybe do that there. We could get a little piece of property, and then we could just, you know…”

RB: Back to Margot, where does she come into the picture in a more impactful way?

CC: Margot moved to Crestone in the mid-’80s, so when Mark and I got here in the late ’80s she just took me around, and we would do these walks. She knew so much about the plants. Just incredible.

Distracting, not terribly surprising but perhaps a bit, a black 1991 fairly textured not too soft dents, black Lincoln Continental 6 door Limo pulls into view, taking up most of the Cottonwood Street block, horn honking at a hippie slow driving a 1982 rusty Subaru Outback held together with duct tape, wire, and love. Piling outside are 4 musicians, one of them the “Hawaii Shirt” wearing driver and “Limo” owner. They make their way past us and up to the door of the now-closed Elephant Cloud coffee house/café. 

A fall storm near Crestone

RB: Ok, so water, seems your first challenge came with the American Water Development Inc, AWDI, effort? 

CC: I was baking bread with Margo in Crestone, and one morning this guy Alex walks in. “Hi. My name’s Alex Crutchfield, and I’m vice president of American Water Development. Can you get me some breakfast?” I said, “Well, I’m the baker. You’re welcome to have some bread when it comes out.” Then he starts telling me about this plan. “We filed in water court (Colorado Water Court). We’re going to pump 200,000 acre-feet of water (one acre-foot is 326,000 gallons; do the math) out of here per year, but people like you will be able to sit on the board and help us figure out how we’re going to spend all that money.” I’m like, “You’re kidding me.”

I was just like so devastated. I was like, I moved out in the middle of nowhere, I thought I was getting away from all this shit. He didn’t know who he was talking to, either. He just saw this girl, baking bread. I ended up talking to Greg Gosar, a farmer in Monte Vista who had his own stone ground flour mill, about it and he says, “Let’s get these guys.”

Note: Greg Gosar, who passed away January 11, 2019, a well-respected and iconic man, a concert violinist, a boxer, race car driver, water activist,  and so much more, owned a flour mill in Monte Vista where Chris got her flour. It is now owned by his son, Kris. 

CC: Greg had major connections, so we started the Citizens for San Luis Valley Water who was the fiscal sponsor for the Ecosystem Council, the technical assistance group to oversee Summitville and the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, so we sponsored a lot of other organizations to get off the ground. Yeah. It was really interesting, especially the timing, because we moved here in July of ’88, and they, AWDI, had filed that application December 31 of 1987.

Yeah. I was like, I said to him “You can’t pump that kind of water out here.” He says, “Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s so much water here.” He’s talking to somebody that grew up on the Great Lakes. I was like, “I don’t think so.”

RB: I think that’s one of the problems, is that a lot of my research alludes to the enormous amount of water in the aquifer, the vast water resources beneath the San Luis valley, the confined aquifer, the lower aquifer. The chatter is it is the size of three Lake Powells, and four Lake Meads …  When people start hearing that, then the assumption is there is plenty.

CC: Yes, as was said to me, because I think, who was it that originally did those calculations, but somebody said they did it on the back of a napkin. Basically, they took the length and the width of the valley and then multiplied it by 10,000.

RB:  Parallels between AWDI and RWR? 

CC: That whole thing is so ridiculous. The water here is already over-appropriated. There was the San Luis valley confined aquifer study, Phase I, and one of the first things Greg and I did is we said, “We’ve got to have a lecture series, and we’ve got to bring in people who really understand the different aspects(of the issue).” The Smithsonian Institute came in, because there were people doing digs, and they talked about the Clovis people, the last 10,000 years. We just tried to build this curiosity around this place, and the landscape, and the history here. We had people from the Owens Valley come, from California. We had people from Crowley County come, because that was nearby, and what happened there.

LEFT: The promise of rain too far away for our liking, north from T Road near the town of Saguache. RIGHT: Parched earth near Saguache.

WE continue to chat, telling stories about people in the Valley, their commitment to hard work, a way of life, its opportunities and threats, that the RWR proposal, if “successful,” would remove water from the most economically challenged part of the state to the wealthiest county, from the most culturally diverse counties to one of the least diverse, from an agricultural one to a suburban one, from roads less traveled to those everyone travels. 

Like a backwards, clockwise, tornado, Chris has an uncanny ability to connect disconnected resources and find common ground, a consolidator, reconstructing, a gatherer up of what some might say are leftovers and create beauty. Not unlike farmers, ranchers, truck drivers, volunteers at the Center Food Pantry, and the clerk I purchased a Snickers and ginger ale from at the Mosca Pit Stop three hours earlier, especially as they apply to the viability and preservation of natural resources and the culture of the Valley. She is guided by the nature around her and that which is within. 

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