Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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The San Luis Valley forms the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. Since the 1980s, several companies have tried to export water out of the valley, home to the second-largest potato-growing economy in the nation. So far, all have been defeated. However, with dollar signs in their eyes, they keep trying.

A current plan being proposed by Renewable Water Resources, a Denver development group that includes former Colorado Governor Bill Owens, wants to export 22,000 acre-feet of groundwater via a 200-mile pipeline from the San Luis Valley to the Colorado Front Range. Under the Colorado Water Plan, the Front Range needs more than 500,000 acre-feet of new annual water supply by 2050 to stave off shortages. Douglas County in Colorado is interested in the water.

As a down payment on the proposal’s initial price tag of more than $600 million, Renewable Water Resources asked Douglas County for $20 million of the federal COVID-relief funds the county has received. Then, citing uncertainty over interpretations of the new federal spending rules, in January, 2022 they sent a letter to Douglas County officials reducing their request to $10 million, saying that an “unrestricted” set of the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds be used instead.

“The Douglas County Commission has the opportunity to do the right thing here,” said Tricia Snyder, Rio Grande campaigner for WildEarth Guardians. “Downstream communities don’t want this project to move forward any more than the communities in the San Luis Valley and it’s contrary to the kind of holistic thinking about river systems required to deal with the impacts of climate change.”

Renewable Water Resources says its proposal would bring an economic boost to the valley because it would take some of farm land they had acquired out of production, leaving 8,000 acre-feet of unused water in the valley that could go toward helping restore the aquifers and relieve strain on the Rio Grande. To sweeten the pot, they have also pledged to provide a $50 million community fund, to help create new economic development programs in the valley.

Running for nearly 1,900 miles, the Rio Grande River flows through three states, two countries and the Basin, which includes the San Luis Valley. It supports municipal and irrigation water use for over six million people, two million acres of land, as well as being a habitat for countless native and imperiled species. The amount of water that must flow from the headwaters of the Rio Grande in Colorado, to New Mexico, Texas and Mexico is mandated by two agreements: the Rio Grande Compact and the 1944 treaty between Mexico and the U.S.

“This type of water transfer works counter to local water conservation efforts along the Rio Grande and will impact both farmers and the river itself,” says Paul Tashjian of Audubon Southwest.

On April 12, more than a dozen groups within the Rio Grande Basin sent a letter to the Douglas County Commission expressing their grave concerns over the cascading effects of the pipeline and urged the Commission to reject the proposal. “Every drop that flows through the Valley and more is promised to someone.” Their concerns over the project expand beyond the San Luis Valley, as exporting water from there has the potential to threaten downstream communities and the environment in the entire Rio Grande Basin for thousands of miles. “We must think more holistically about the river systems on which we all depend,” they said.

The letter noted that both surface and groundwater in the San Luis Valley have been designated as over appropriated, with more water promised than actually exists in the system. If Colorado retained more water than allotted under the agreements, they believe it would be “catastrophic for water users across all three states and Mexico.” The groups concluded the proposal would undo years of community-driven efforts to ensure groundwater levels are maintained.

In a video produced by American Rivers, Doug Messick, a fourth-generation San Luis Valley farmer, summed up how important the Rio Grande is to the valley. “Everything we do revolves around it. The river is the community. It makes us whole. It completes us.”