The Grit of a Colorado Water War Plan to Pump Water from the San Luis Valley Threatens Future of a National Monument

By Stephen Gascoyne, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 3, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Grit of a Colorado Water War Plan to Pump Water from the San Luis Valley Threatens Future of a National Monument


Stephen Gascoyne, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


A CONTROVERSIAL court battle pitting a Denver-based water development corporation against more than 30 challengers is now under way here.

It's a case that could determine whether developers can pump 200,000 acre feet of water - 65 billion gallons - out of the rural San Luis Valley annually to help quench the thirst of Denver and other heavily populated Front Range communities.

Battles over water are nothing new in the West. But this one has residents in the poorest section of the state so upset they voted 8,700 to 136 last year to tax themselves $472,000 to fight the plans to tap one of the largest aquifers in the West. (Two valley aquifers contain 2 billion acre feet of water, the United States Geological Survey estimates.)

Caught in the middle of this battle is the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, 55 square miles of sand that could be this project's very own "spotted owl," thwarting American Water Development Inc.'s (AWDI) water development plans.

The San Luis Valley has a rich Hispanic heritage and boasts Colorado's oldest community in the town of San Luis. Valley farmers raise a wide range of crops.

AWDI's challengers include the federal government, water conservancy districts, state agencies, local governments, and angry valley residents.

AWDI attorney Jack Ross termed local opposition xenophobic and suggested that the court would have to decide whether the water would be forever locked up to "serve the selfish whim of a few."

The company must prove that the water it seeks is "non-tributary not connected to area streams or the shallow water table that provides the water in most existing valley wells. Colorado utilizes a complex formula for determining whether water is tributary; the state has determined that the water sought by AWDI is tied to the region's other water resources.

But the Great Sand Dunes, at the base of the western edge of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains and square atop the aquifer, might be AWDI's biggest hurdle. The dunes, perhaps 15,000 years old, rise to a height of 700 feet. Experts calculate that if the sand were dumped into railroad boxcars they would circle Earth 20 times.

Despite its dry appearance, the sand is extremely moist just inches beneath the surface. Some argue that the moisture is absorbed from the groundwater and two nearby creeks and is what holds the dunes together; a decrease in that water, they say, could have an extraordinary impact on the dunes.

"The dunes would virtually disappear - not within our lifetime, but within our children's children's lifetime," says Dion Stewart, who last fall headed a first-ever drilling project there. …

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