Photos and story by Randy Brown | For Alamosa Citizen
IN the northern part of the San Luis Valley, T Road in Saguache County seems to be a bit of a dirt road arterial as I crisscross, zigzag to mostly ranches that carve out a living, avenues to satisfaction, hope, to some degree of worry, to waking up fresh with a dab of pressure, going to bed late with crossed-off list items and more often than not more on the “to do” than was on it in the morning. This too is life, apparently.
Turning north off T Road on to 52 Road and on the right are signs on the fence indicating this is an organic ranch and asking no spraying and soon a quick pause at the open front gate a few signs: San Juan Ranch, Whitten Ranch, Certified Grass Fed Beef, Audubon Conservation
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.
Ranch Certification. Then it’s on to the ranch road past a pickup with cattle trailer, high-mounted fuel tanks, a couple of travel trailers, another equipment trailer or two being greeted by a barking yet friendly border collie who quickly becomes my best friend, parked pickups near the front porch, the motor off on my “not a pickup,” and absolute silence – deafening silence – the quiet we hear when we hear nothing.
Taking in the flatness of the 360-view and the spread-out horizontal working home with a lovely feel as authenticity comes to mind, as do the impressions of being somewhere that is welcoming, yes, inviting to be sure, open and yet seriously focused.
A knock on the ranch house front door yields a welcoming handshake as the real recognition comes from George Whitten’s eyes that are also a bit distracted by the day ahead and the challenges of sorting and penning cattle for drought-resistant inoculations. Soon I meet Julie Sullivan, co-owner of the ranch and the wife of George, then next to her are three ranch interns, Noelle with Sam smiling and Daniel, all encircled by the border collie as though suddenly feeling the urge – or is it need – to herd.
A casual chat about the nice day with some thanks for taking time to meet with me and the process of making photographs and these will be for documentary and editorial use, and sensing that there is much to do and me not too quickly pulling a camera from my front seat while looking observing gathering up the motion and make-ready of the day.
Eating a bit of dust seems to be the norm as I bring up the not-too-close rear of a three-vehicle caravan to the nearby home of George’s mother, where there are a few outbuildings, cattle pens, a ramp for loading and unloading cattle followed quickly by one, then a second, fully loaded cattle truck. As they do, the truck crews unload the cattle using stick prods and vocal commands – or are they suggestions, perhaps orders? Either way the cattle resist but are mostly agreeable having been through the routine a few times, but imagining some degree of concern on their part as the other crew of women and men sort and coax the cattle into defined groups then narrow chutes where a drought-resistant inoculation is injected onto the inflexible cattles’ bodies before they are lured again to a larger holding pen.
More dust, cattle-bawling, hoof-shuffling, boot-scraping, ‘organic’-smelling, the almost ballet-like performances of all involved, and they do in fact get the job done of wrestling the cattle back to the trailers, reloading, to their next pasture-bound journey.
Everyone gathers up, as I notice the crew’s body language, a tilt of the hips, likely a knee or two that will be achy later that night, a few textured faces tuned to the sky, expressive hand movements, varieties of boots, some sense of satisfaction of a job well done and knowing that the day is early. The day has many challenges to come.
Of course, and later back at the ranch house, we are all gathered up at the kitchen table, food prep table, table that serves as a ranch office, work table, a table where much is considered and quite a lot is resolved. Quickly conversations are pointed to the area of water, which as we know is a significantly precious commodity and one that is many layered and yes of course, complex.
Randy Brown: Water, water usage and rights seem to be a bit of a puzzle, one that is quite controversial and subject to opinion. Thoughts about that? Is it absolute or a moving target?
George Whitten: Yeah, but I’ve thought about it a lot lately and the whole water rights system “first in time, first in right.” The whole premise of water rights in the Western United States, there’s a very good reason for that, but it happened with European settlement of the west and my ancestors and people before them came out here and they saw this almost unlimited resource. And they had to figure out a way to divide it up and to parcel it out and do the things that they’ve done previously in Europe. We go about things with property lines and ownership and it’s our whole, who we are as a civilization and how we deal with one another, and water is just one of those commodities, or those things, that we deal in.
Julie Sullivan: Well, and I think the other thing about the water rights, which has come home to roost now, is the fact people assumed that their right to the water meant they owned the water, they had the right to use the water, but they didn’t actually own the water and that’s actually a really key point, but that’s not how people understood their right. I think here in the Valley people are trying to really understand the distinction between how they perceive their right to use the water with what they legally have.
So the usage is monitored. The usage is like George was saying, it’s like you have a particular point of diversion and you only get to use so much. And the belief was that the return to the system would mean that the next person’s rights would not be damaged.
RB: Ok, so if I’ve been farming or ranching in the Valley for 120 years, then because I don’t have water, because we are given the tasks of aquifer replenishment, suddenly I can’t. What does that do to my family?
George Whitten: One of the good things about the way we’re trying to approach that is at least people are going to get compensated to retire water rights, rather than just put their mattress on top of their roof and drive off. We’re trying to, it’s a controlled collapse basically is what the Rio Grande Water Conservation District is trying to shepherd here. And so that people are not left destitute, but they also are not drawing on the aquifer.
RB: When we look at the of the RWR plan – and that is to purchase water rights from the unconfined aquifer and replenish that from the confined aquifer – when we look at the science of the RWR plan, pumping water from the confined aquifer through water rights purchases, and then pumped onto the unconfined aquifer for ag use, then another 22,000 acre-feet is pumped to the Front Range, does it hold up?
George Whitten: Yeah. Well, science doesn’t hold up to their claim. The science actually defeats their claim. The confined aquifer is connected to the whole Valley. This well right here on this property is connected to the Rio Grande River and the Conejos River, San Luis Creek and Saguache Creek and we’ve measured it. You turn on a well in the winter when nobody’s pumping and with the system, you can measure it in minutes, because it’s under pressure. It’s a system that is interconnected. So, when you change the pressure in it, it’s hydrology. Water starts to move and move towards that draft (active pumping well site). And so, yeah, that’s very interconnected.
Julie Sullivan: If there wasn’t some controlled reduction, then you would have aquifer collapse. The point is that with any livelihood that’s based on a resource, when the resource runs out, the livelihood collapses whether it’s logging or fishing or mining or whatever. So, then there’s a long history of the boom and bust, not just in the West, but across the planet where there’s a resource. People come in, they build livelihoods, they build communities, they build all these things because the resource is there, but if the resource collapses or disappears or is used up, then all of that will wither away.
Interns Daniel Cleveland, left, and Sam Schmidt.
A brief pause, out the window to the east, the wind kicks up a bit, some dust, grasses bending to the south to its force. Twenty-five miles west the Sangre’s dusting of snow a couple of days ago has been added to by last night’s snow. It is stunning to see Crestone Peak, Challenger Point, Crestone Needle, Humboldt Peak, all fourteeners, all heavy with snowfall. It is a bit of a promise, that there is water, that it will inexorably find its way into the Valley.
Julie continues: I think what the Valley is trying to do is recognize that is going to happen unless we do some very intentional processes of recognizing that there’s limits and humans don’t like to recognize that there are limits on what they can do. George’s work here is trying to help people understand that the limit exists, the planet is creating a limit and we must adjust to it. We can either adjust to it proactively, and in a strategic manner, or we can put the mattresses to the roof of the truck and drive off, but the status quo is not an option anymore. And I think there’s still people who think that somehow, we’re going to magically get back the 1980s water cycle, which we haven’t.
RB: Discussed recently at one of the Douglas County meetings, RWR was saying people should have the right to sell water if they want to, it’s their water, they have the right to sell it. Any thoughts about that?
Julie Sullivan: Well, it’s not their water for one thing. They have a right to use it, but they don’t own the water. So, think, again, that’s that place where water is, it gets back to the commons? If the water is sold out of this system, then there are no return flows for that water. So, it isn’t just their water, it’s actually somebody else’s water too. But if the water is removed from the system, then there are no return flows to make anybody else’s right whole.
Turning to Noelle McDonough, a native of New York and an intern with the ranch.
Intern Noelle McDonough
RB: So, Noelle, what has the impact been through living in the Valley, and does it feel like home?
Noelle McDonough: I think I never really was a city creature. I always felt that wasn’t the right place for me. I don’t know, there was a reason I needed to not be there anymore. It just didn’t feel right. I never felt a good whole, healthy, human there. And as far as I feel, especially being here in the Valley and being in the West in general in ranching, I have a lot to learn, never witnessing drought firsthand. Living in the West with drought, fire, and the stress of that is a completely different ballgame than in the East.
RB: Sam, you worked in the restaurant industry in NYC as well as a butcher further north in New York State. I would imagine some stress there. How would you compare that to living with drought and climate change in the Valley?
Sam Schmidt (ranch intern): I think there’s a difference between coming to a place like this where you’re really confronted with these issues, and you see it. It’s not just you’re being told about it, you’re viscerally aware. I’m sure that the people who are driving this, it is not necessarily their fault on an individual level, but people who are driving this uncontrolled growth in the West, they may abstractly know that there are serious water issues, but they’re not confronting it because for the most part, you move into a city, you turn on the tap and water comes out.
With that we sit back, but not an overly long time as there remains an afternoon of daylight which means I must scoot on my way and back in the “not a truck,” and out the front gate, south to T Road, east to 53 Road, then south toward Center some miles away for an eagerly expected late afternoon lunch at Azteca De Oro. Yielding to the urge to pull over, step out, absorb the iconic experience and its historical reference points which are in fact life itself, living history, that balance of purpose, intent, necessity, of passion, of this, in itself, being enough, and at the same time the urge of us to keep looking at distant horizons, both imagined and real.
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.