WE are proud to present the first-ever comprehensive San Luis Valley Rural Poll, which measures quality of life in the six counties of the Valley. We have never seen a survey of Valley residents on the issues of today and so we decided to conduct one ourselves, through a random sampling of registered voters in each of the six counties that make up the SLV.
We turned to Mark Obmascik, a freelance journalist and author based in Denver and an old friend and colleague from other places and spaces, to then review the survey results and present them to our readership.
By Mark Obmascik | For Alamosa Citizen
SAN Luis Valley residents really like where they live. They just wish the Valley had more water, fewer drugs, and better-paying jobs.
Local voters also dislike – really, really dislike – a plan to buy water in the Valley for export to Front Range cities and suburbs.
These are some of the main conclusions from the first survey of Valley voters by Alamosa Citizen. The survey was conducted by Nebraska-based rural survey specialist Craig Schroeder, who has surveyed attitudes of more than 60,000 people in 47 states over the past 20 years. The 48-question survey contacted every tenth registered voter in the six-county San Luis Valley, then followed up for answers.
The result was a detailed view of life in the Valley from 282 registered voters, who gave their opinions on the region’s leading political, social, natural resource, and quality of life issues.
Compared with other rural areas where he has worked, Schroeder said the San Luis Valley has more amenities (national park, forests, wildlife refuges, and a college); a more educated population (likely because of Adams State, though college education was twice as common among survey respondents than among all residents of the San Luis Valley); large numbers of low-income households (local poverty is nearly double the Colorado rate); and far more concerns about water supplies.
The No. 1 concern in the San Luis Valley is “declining water resources,” which was cited by nine of 10 survey respondents. Valley residents had especially harsh words for the Renewable Water Resources proposal, backed by former Gov. Bill Owens, to export Valley water to the Front Range. (More on that tomorrow.)
“Keep our water right where it is,” wrote one survey respondent. “Tell the Front Range to use their own. This water here is ours.”
Valley residents’ views on the Renewable Water Resources proposal to export water to the Front Range
In a state filled with newcomers and transplants, the survey found that the San Luis Valley has many people who are born here and like it so much they stay.
About 28 percent of survey respondents are lifelong residents of the San Luis Valley, with another 43 percent reporting that they have lived in the Valley more than a decade.
In contrast to many rural areas, however, the San Luis Valley is home to a significant influx of newcomers. About one of every six survey respondents reported living here four years or less. Demographers note that the rural population has increased in several areas across America after the pandemic popularized remote work and decreased the lure of more concentrated urban neighborhoods.
One survey result that stands out is the satisfaction of living in the San Luis Valley. Nearly nine of 10 respondents rated the valley as an average or better-than-average place to live. By contrast, about seven of 10 people nationally are satisfied with where they live.
Residents also rated the Valley as a good place to raise children, to visit, and to retire.
However, nearly half of all survey respondents gave the Valley low marks as a place to work. Most Valley voters cited the lack of local jobs as a significant problem. An even bigger problem at existing Valley jobs was low wages, which was noted by nearly two of every three survey respondents.
One area where the San Luis Valley differs from national attitudes is about drugs. A recent national poll found concern over drug addiction waning. Today 35 percent of Americans describe drugs as a major problem in their community, down from 42 percent in 2018.
By contrast, more than 75 percent of San Luis Valley respondents identified drug use as a worse-than-average problem.
“Get rid of the illicit drug dealers,” wrote one respondent. “Police need to crack down on drug dealers,” said another. “Get the drugs off the streets,” wrote a respondent. “War on drugs! Can go almost anywhere in town and find needles lying around,” said a fourth. “Get rid of the druggies and increase police force,” commented a fifth. “Have county sheriff’s deputies deal with drugs and meth houses in Antonito and Conejos County,” said a sixth. “Crime is very high related to drugs,” said another.
The other significant problems highlighted by survey respondents were, in order, lack of healthcare access, inadequate housing, and a lack of retail goods and services.
Among the comments on healthcare: “We need a residential substance abuse treatment center,” wrote one respondent. Another requested “better access to mental health services.” “Treat addiction as a health issue,” said another. A fourth asked for “better hospital care and more doctors.”
About retail: “Stores like Home Depot and / or Lowe’s would help create more jobs and increase pricing competition between stores,” one commenter wrote. “They say to shop locally, but there’s nowhere to go but Walmart,” wrote another. “We need grocery stores with available fresh fruit and vegetables,” said a third. “More entertainment, better restaurants with more variety such as Italian food.”
Some survey comments about housing: “Increase reasonable housing for minimum wage workers.” “Address the homeless problem. Are they being bused in? Seems extremely high for a community this size.” “Less short-term rentals.”
Monte Vista City Manager Gigi Dennis said one of the biggest myths about life in the San Luis Valley is that it offers a cost break.
“People think it’s cheaper to live in a small rural county than the city, but it’s not,” said Dennis, who formerly served as Colorado Secretary of State and Colorado State Director of USDA Rural Development. “Housing might be cheaper here, but the cost of everyday living – the groceries, building supplies, gas – that’s more expensive.”
About one of every four Valley respondents said they worked at home. More than half of all Valley residents said internet access was essential for their work. Eight of 10 respondents reported receiving average or above-average internet service.
Thirteen percent of respondents said they work more than one job. About one of every five residents reported being unhappy with their current job.
One of every three Valley residents said they do not have enough money in savings to take care of small emergencies. One of every five worries about being able to feed the family.
About half of Valley residents rated local schools as average. About half rated local colleges as being average in preparing graduates for jobs in the Valley.
Many residents called for better police protection, enforcement against zoning violations, and crackdowns on litter. Many said they wish there was more for teens. By and large, though, Valley residents expressed pride in their home and a determination to make it better.
“Very glad we moved to this beautiful location,” wrote one respondent.
“My ancestors worked hard to make a living here because of the resources, recreation, and the beauty,” explained another. “I will work hard to continue that legacy in any way. I know many people who have the same mindset. Therefore, educating people about what is happening would be beneficial so we can all work together.”
“Living here requires tenacity, resourcefulness, creativity, and moral integrity,” said a third.
“The Valley is a great place to live,” wrote another. “We need to do everything possible now to preserve our way of life.”
Alamosa Citizen members get the Monday Briefing sent directly to their In boxes – plus a weekly newsletter on Thursdays that summarizes the top stories in the Valley. Member support keeps The Citizen free for all to read.