Photos and story by Randy Brown | for Alamosa Citizen

RATTLING here, banging there, tires bashing rocks, or are the rocks bashing tires? Whacking brush, thudding tires, jolting back, poking around, bouncing through a mile here, and kilometer there and as though involuntarily taking part in some geometry professors odd sense of humor as the grids of dirt roads, right angles of paved roads, all pretty much north and south, east and west, finding a diagonal is near impossible, and interspersed are the ag circles – half circles, quarter circles – of around 160 acres, more or less. I am mired in a student’s nightmare of missing geometry class all semester with the sudden awareness that finals are tomorrow. 

Some sense of relief as the water tower a few miles away defines the town of Center, and yes, it is considered the geographic “center” of the San Luis Valley. Moseying into town from the east on CO112 and past massive potato storage warehouses, granaries, irrigation companies, and what once was a tannery. 

Seeing the Jones Oil sign and my natural curiosity pulls my car to a parking spot in front of the modest office building. Like a Havoline oil salesman making a cold call I walk in through the front door and inquire as to who the owner might be? A friendly look from a couple of drivers recognizing the stranger that I am and told that would be Moe Jones who is not there at the moment but here is his cell number. A few calls, an email or two, and weeks later I am riding shotgun next to Joe Dzuris delivering diesel and gas to customers.

Joe lives in Mosca a dozen or two miles away and is a volunteer firefighter, involved in his kid’s sports, loves his job, his family has history in eastern Colorado, farming. He came to the Valley a few decades ago, and we talk over the roar of his truck headed to Del Norte on one of those rare diagonal roads I wondered about earlier.

Moe Jones of Jones oil. He has run the family business his father started since 1995. Moe Jones of Jones oil. He has run the family business his father started since 1995.

EDITORS NOTE: This one in an ongoing series of profiles of people who live and work in the San Luis Valley. See more of the project HERE.

The gist of the conversation is life in the SLV, what might happen if considerable amounts of water is exported to the Front Range along with the mandated water use reductions in the local ag community. Less water usage and exportation mean fewer farms and ranches operating, fewer jobs in grocery stores, cafes, the person who would serve a beer at a local tavern, and the truck drivers who deliver essential goods to everyone in the Valley. Take away irrigated acres, take away jobs, culture, family, and life in the Valley.

Still weeks later and sitting in Moe’s office we begin to take the time to move around and through what the Valley might look like in the event of the continued catastrophic drought, and how the threats that water shortages would impact valley life.

Randy Brown: So, Moe, how did you come to be in the Valley, to live here?

Moe Jones: Okay. On the Jones side, my dad’s side, they came out of Illinois, and they were dairy people. On my mother’s side, it was the Ross family and they all came out of Georgia. It was probably the late 1880s for both of them.

RB: The Valley at that time seemed to be, from others I have talked to, an explosion in population, a significant influx of people who came in with different ideas and really wanted to build a new community. They really were eager to have something completely different than what they had before.

MJ: Okay. My family was initially in the dairy business, pretty soon the dairies in the Valley became bigger and bigger. Instead of splitting off and everything, the kids wanted to do different things. My dad went into the army in 1937. He should have gotten out in 1942, but World War II broke out, he was in the Signal Corps. Later, in going through his army gear, we found headquarters passes and little clips of him peeling potatoes and the ambassador of Great Britain is standing over him watching, and he says, well, these aren’t as good as American potatoes. These are Irish potatoes. The army held him in Europe until 1946. He went to school and eventually worked for Oriental Refining in Alamosa, which is now gone. He was a chemist. They did just about everything down there. It was a small refinery and you had to tend boilers and whatnot.

“If you take the water out of this Valley, Randy, it’s going to die.”

– Moe Jones

Moe Continues: Anyway, the refinery closed, so then he got into the Rainbow Bread business. From the Rainbow he found out about Sinclair Oil in Center. So, we came up here. I had an aunt that lived just south of town here and they were successful farmers. So anyway, we went ahead and moved up here. That was in 1968.

RB: Okay. There was an opportunity to purchase that from Sinclair?

MJ: Right. Sinclair decided to divest itself of all these different distributorships. Here it is. You want to buy it and we’re going to offer it to you at a reasonable price. Here you go, and so then you become a distributorship.

Let’s go back to 1983. It was basically my mom and dad, a mom-and-pop type business. My mom passed away in ’83. My dad had fallen off a fuel truck and he was medically retired. He broke his hips. My brother and I took it on as a partnership, and then in 1992, we formed the corporation and we got into the propane side of it in 1995. I had three employees. My brother decided he wanted to get out of the business in 1995. So, I’ve had it since then, and now we’re up to 15 employees.

RB: How many of those are drivers?

MJ: Just 12.

RB: How much of your business is ag-related?

MJ: The majority of my fuel, not the propane, but the fuel goes to agriculture. I’d say 80 percent of it, it’s all agriculture.

RB: Getting to the point, the proposal to take 22,000 acre-feet of water per year includes a $50 million community investment fund. At the same time, the purchase, retirement, and exportation of that same amount of water from the Valley would have a $54 million reduction in the Valley’s economy. Thoughts on that? How does that impact your business?

MJ: We move a lot of product, don’t get me wrong, but on the propane side of it for everybody’s homes, it’s very service-oriented. I’ve got five guys that do propane and two that deliver liquid fuels. The two guys delivering liquid fuels will deliver more gallons than the propane, but you lose all these homes. There are jobs that are lost there in addition to the jobs that are lost with the agriculture being gone. If you take the water out of this Valley, Randy, it’s going to die.

two photos of Joe working

Jones Oil employee Joe Dzuris

Moe continues: So, it’s greatly impacted. The Valley is an agricultural one, that’s the economy of the entire Valley. When I was EMT, they told me that everybody dies from lack of oxygen or lack of food, and water produces food, and without food, not only does the Valley die, but it’s an ongoing domino effect. Not only the Valley, but it’ll affect the state of Colorado.

RB: What would you say if someone says, okay, I’ve been in business, I’ve been farming or ranching for 30, 40, 50 years, many people here much longer than that. I’ve been offered significant dollars for my water rights, I’m tired of doing this, maybe I can retire or at least do something else. I’m going to sell it and I’m going to get out. Is that something that you can identify with?

MJ: I can really identify with that. I’ve got a real good friend that lives over in Rocky Ford, and at the time, they were very prominent farmers. His neighbors sold off all their (Arkansas River) water rights, he still has his. However, he doesn’t get the quantity of water that he used to, because it takes so much more water just to run it down their ditches, and a lot of people don’t think about that. The area of Rocky Ford used to grow tremendous amounts of cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelons, tomatoes, you name it. In fact, La Junta had a pickle factory and because people sold their water, they shut it down, no more cucumbers, so no more pickles. This Valley here would be the same way as the lower Arkansas valley.

RB: The RWR proposal is based on taking water out of the north valley, in and around San Luis Creek, Merkt Creek, Decker Creek, Wild Cherry Creek, Rock Creek, and dozens of others that drain from the Sangres. Something like a dozen or two wells that will be drilled just north of Crestone through current land ownership as well as other land and water rights that have not been specifically identified. Does that impact the entire Rio Grande basin or just the north valley?

MJ: Well, for years of doing horseback and backpack, Randy, I’m going to give you an example, Cotton Creek. Okay. When it comes out of the mountains, it’s quite a little creek, but you get out there two or three miles out into the Valley floor and there’s nothing. It is all soaked in. That water is going into the aquifer up there. It must go somewhere and everything in this Valley, all the water in the Valley has to go out the south end of the Valley. New Mexico is in severe drought, also, and you shut the water off up there around Cotton Creek, it’s going to impact the people from the north end of the Valley, all the way down into New Mexico and actually all the way down to El Paso, Texas, and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico.

A pause, the phone rings a few times, some chatter in the office, Moe’s head tilts down a bit, looking through his enormous hands, staring at the floor, me wondering what he is considering, then back up in my direction.

Moe continues: That water has to go somewhere, and it’s groundwater and it goes south. If you pull it out of the north, right now the down valley sub-districts want to prevent the bathtub from going dry, but you drill 25 wells at 30 inches, pump 24/7, and this Valley will be dry.

RB: The people in the Valley are not shy about expressing their opinions about water. My sense is that this issue brings people together, folks that may not normally agree on anything, especially politics.

MJ: Everybody that lives in this Valley is very opinionated about it because we know, Randy, if it leaves, it’s going to impact everybody in this Valley. Not only socially, but economically.

RB: Is the Los Angelization of the Colorado Front Range inevitable? Or has it already happened? If so, then ideas about water in that conversation?

MJ: Well, they might come after it, but as soon as they pump the bathtub dry, the water is not going to be here, and neither will the economy of the Valley. This Valley, Randy, is number two potato producer in the United States. It all comes out of this small area. People complain about the price of potatoes at 99 cents a pound. Without competition, what’s Idaho going to do? Idaho has lots and lots of water.

RB: One of the things that people were talking about quite a bit is that with this most recent plan the water is coming from what is essentially the most economically challenged area of Colorado and taking it to the wealthiest county in Colorado and one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Any thoughts about just the idea of that?

MJ: Ethically, I don’t think it’s right. This county up here is poor. This is the sad part, there’s no factories to boost their income. They’re basically dependent upon agriculture.

RB: In Douglas County, really any other massive urban center, are water users really thinking about the impact when they turn on the faucet?

MJ: No. I don’t think they are. It’s the old, we’ve got it today. Let’s use it. We don’t care about our neighbor. That’s something that I found in living in a small community, you care about your neighbors. If you live in the urban corridor, I know a lot of people, they don’t even know their neighbor that’s lived next door for 10 years. It’s a different form of human nature.

Jaime Aguilar in his truck and working on a tank

Jaime Aguilar

AT t about that moment into Moe’s office walks Jaime Aguilar, one of the Jones Oil truck drivers, clipboard in hand, the other reached out for a handshake. Jaime’s eyes are clear, sincere, the handshake strong but not punishing, more friendly. We both walk out of the office, into the Jones truck yard, climb aboard the bobtail with 500 gallons each of gasoline and diesel fuel, an easterly turn on to CO112 and we are en route the Rakhra Mushroom farm just north of Alamosa.

This is life, riding shotgun, bouncing in a bobtail truck, the Sangres to the east, some 40 miles away the San Juan foothills and Rio Grande headwaters to the west, fields being plowed and planted nearby, windows open, trying to make conversation in the face of an enthusiastic, no eager, or is it, passionate(?) wind, windows now rolled up, pointing out a large solar array, a new manufactured home, a new school just south of Mosca, what the kids are up to, where does he live, Center, Jaime’s sons athletics as well as his own time as an athlete.

Later, after the delivery of diesel fuel to Rahkra, we take some time to hang out in the truck front seat to chat a bit.

Randy Brown: There’s maybe a little bit of lack of understanding about how the Valley works, not only as a geographical and geological place but also the value of the people in the Valley. Do you feel that people in the Valley are really together on an initiative like this, water use and exportation?  Does this unify the Valley?

Jaime Aguilar: Oh yeah, definitely. We all depend on each other here, knowing it would impact all of us all together. I mean, from the top to the bottom.

RB: So we’re in Center, Colorado, any sense of what the economic impact might be here if this water effort succeeds and water leaves the Valley?

JA: This whole town is run by warehouses, farm workers, agriculture. I mean, if there’s limited water, we can’t depend on agriculture or the water, then we wouldn’t have jobs. People would abandon the town because of the lack of jobs, move elsewhere, that’s the potential impact.

RB: People that work, checkout your groceries in Center, drive a forklift at one of the ag warehouses you mentioned, stock the shelves at the hardware store, if there’s not many people buying groceries and buying as much gasoline then it really has a potential impact on employment.

JA: Yes. Even in Alamosa, that’s a bigger city, I mean there’s a lot of people from Center that buy their groceries there, spend their money there, and they provide a lot of jobs, so it would slow down for them too. I know everybody here in this town and they all work for agriculture, that I know. Some way they’re linked to that, so it would be a problem for everybody.

RB: Do you have a sense of the people’s level of awareness about the RWR effort to take water out of the Valley? In addition, that every subdistrict in the Valley, because of drought, is already challenged with significant reductions in the amount of water used for agriculture. Do you think people in and around Center know about this or are concerned about it?

JA: They know probably they’re trying to take the water, but they don’t know exactly what’s going on, they’re not really decision makers or anything. They just kind of let it flow with whatever goes.

RB: Anything you’d like to add to this conversation?

JA: Yeah. Well even for me just talking to you, I mean, I’ve learned a lot of things. If the people from here, from Center, would know exactly what’s going on it would freak them out. They would be, it would be a threat to them. They could lose their livelihood here by them taking the water.

A briefly quiet pause, a few feet away another of the Jones Oil trucks roars to life, the driver makes a final check in reviewing the clipboard, then gradually pulls away, turns left through the massive gravel yard, past the office and warehouse building, the fuel depot, then another left on to the blacktop of CO112, gears shift from low to mid gears and as it gains speed, to a higher gear. A metaphor for the speed of life, that we, well sometimes, are deliberate, even calculating in our process of day-to-day walking, dancing, running, navigating, through life, even in the face of adversity, we gather up our resources and look at challenges square in the eye.