Photos and story by Randy Brown | For Alamosa Citizen
NORTHBOUND on the graveled Saguache CR65, a ranch house on the right, cow pasture on the left, a grove of great good Alamosa as some believe is the Spanish name for cottonwoods, provide a backdrop for a couple dozen mostly ground resting cows chillin’ in the early March sun as back-to-back S-turns in the road slow me down enough to take stock of an interested mare looking longingly at a few green sprouts just out of her barbed wire fence reach. She begs me to pause as I willingly oblige only to have her retreat just out of arm’s length, even though I have added a few walnuts retrieved from my empty passenger seat.
Finally and with a fair amount of patience – or is it stubbornness – on my part and acquiescence on hers, she stretches her neck a few inches and the contents of my outreached hand is quickly ingested and with a brief pat on the neck – hers, not mine. Mutual thanks, I’m back in the car
and moving on to my meeting with Mark Jacobi, the facilities manager at the Orient Land Trust and Valley View Hot Springs. Knowing I am on the 1829, 950-mile long North Route Old Spanish Trail which was a “thoroughfare” trade route from Santa Fe through the SLV west through the town of Saguache then eventually to missions in California and early Los Angeles where blankets and other trade goods were exchanged for thousands of horses driven back to Santa Fe and traded to Chihuahua, Mexico, and St. Louis.
The reticent horse left, and Cotton Creek Cemetery
THE evidence of this trade route, other than the signs, is the Cotton Creek Cemetery on my right with many dozens of white cross grave markers, the bulk of which are of the Duran family who undoubtedly settled and passed through more than a century and a half ago set against the backdrop of the great wall of the Sangre de Cristos and the vastness of the valley below.
Now above the valley ridge driving I see Mark waiting at a locked gate. We chat a while about a bit of this and some of that and drive our way to the offices and visitors area of the OLT and VVHS as I follow him down a flight of stairs and am seated on a chair next to his desk as the usual thanks-for-seeing-me’s, how’s-it-goings, fabulous-day-todays. In the background, the staff are readying their day and welcoming customers. Outside the small, warm, geothermal Valley View Creek bubbles up to the surface. From the mountains above runs down the hillside filling a few natural pools, then through the property and down the slope disappearing underground, re-emerging here and there, being guided by the natural geology into the interconnected vastness of this valley and the Rio Grande Basin as the recorder is switched on we get down to the grit and nit of my point in being here, which is a conversation about water.
Randy Brown: So Mark, the indications are that the water in the Renewal Water Resources, RWR, proposal would export from the north valley, actually near where we are sitting. In your opinion how does this impact the entire Rio Grande Basin?
Mark Jacobi: Well, the whole thing is the Rio Grande basin, but it’s like the nomenclature that has been adopted over time has been that it’s the closed basin that is separate from the rest of the valley. That the north end of the valley is a separate thing that it does not communicate with any of the rest of it. And it’s just not true
RB: And part of the RWR argument is they’re going to export the water out of the confined aquifer, put the water that is taken offline through water rights purchases, pump that amount into the unconfined aquifer, then move 22,000 acre-feet to an undefined water buyer to the front range. Nobody gets hurt.
Mark Jacobi is the facilities manager at the Orient Land Trust
and Valley View Hot Springs.
MJ: Well, what they’re doing, I mean, and it’s kind of voodoo economics if you think about it. It’s like what they’re trying to claim is that if we take X number of acre-feet out of production, that water no longer gets pumped out. It stays there. It’s essentially taken out of the equation. And because they’re doing that, now this other water becomes magically available. And all is fine until you subtract it from the Valley. If you take it out of the Valley, it’s not going to go back into the aquifer at all. If you put it into irrigation, a certain percentage of that irrigation goes back into the aquifer as recharge. You don’t use all of it, and so their math is just wrong. And it’s a bit of a three-card-monte sort of thing. Where’s the black queen? Where’s the black queen? And it’s a razzle-dazzle to say, “Don’t pay attention to this 22,000 acre-feet we’re sucking out of here,” and so, that’s part of the flaw. And the other part of the flaw is the fact that they say they’re not going to harm the upper aquifer. And that’s what that whole diagram thing was all about. It will.”
RB: What about the argument that if somebody wants to sell their water, they have the right to do that?
MJ: “By law, that’s the truth. However, let’s put it in a different context. I have a piece of property and you have a piece of property next to me. I decide that my best profit margin is to put a nuclear dump site on my property. All the sudden, tough beans for you. Right? Well, Rocky Flats kind of proved that one. Those poor people couldn’t sell their houses after a certain point, and it’s the same thing here. It’s what others did in the Owens Valley. They suck the water out, suddenly, your property doesn’t have the water it used to have, because you share that water underground. So, me exercising my private property rights diminishes your ability to do the same thing.”
RB: RWR has proposed a $50 million community fund investment in the San Luis Valley that could be used in a manner that would improve economic diversity as well increase efficiency in non-profit organizations in their efforts to serve the community. Any comments?
MJ: The other side of it is that they offer this $50 million to the Valley as a one-time investment and what they would be drying up just in their plan alone takes about $53 million out of the economy every year.
Mark pauses, and addresses this from the point of view of the end user, proposed to be Douglas County:
Douglas County looks at this, apparently like it’s just a commodity. I mean I’ve been through two of these water wars now, this is the third. And the perception on the front range is, where does my water come from, turn on the tap. They don’t know where it comes from. They don’t have a clue. And I don’t blame them. I mean it’s like why would you care as long as it’s coming, but you have to. The nuts and the bolts, the on-the-ground, day-to-day negotiations that continually happen. And this is a process that’s been in place since the Moors ruled Spain. The system is, it’s how you share water, and the people in the San Luis Valley have a real good feel for that. This is the difference, I think, between Douglas County and the San Luis Valley. The San Luis Valley has a working knowledge of what cooperation needs to be between farmers and ranchers. The water rights holders are predominantly in the Valley.
They may not have a suit and tie and a nice haircut, but, man, they know their stuff. And this is the most frustrating thing watching these due diligence sessions in Douglas County is that we have sent some really good information up there.
TWO hours ago, Mark and I were standing roadside looking out over the Valley. The eerie silence of something so immense is difficult to absorb. From this elevated perspective we see the farms and ranches below, the village of Villa Grove a bit north, a car leaving a dust comet-like tail along AA Road, the trees and hills where the town of Saguache sits with the foothills of the San Juans beyond. Looking south, a hint of the town of Center, further south, some 60 miles the ribbon of cottonwoods that defines the path of the Rio Grande, and further south still the broad dome of the across-the-New-Mexico-border San Antonio Mountain, barely a blue hump on the horizon. We both are almost speechless, which is a rarity for either of us.
Rhythm, hopes, dreams, and knowledge driving the passion for the entire Valley, a wholeness, a unity of shared purpose.
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