Groundswell on the Rio Grande: How People of the San Luis Valley are Coming Together Around Water

Across the southwest, water is an essential, often scarce resource that communities rely on for their ways of life.

Rio Grande Canal | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Across the southwest, water is an essential, often scarce resource that communities rely on for their ways of life. In south-central Colorado, the Rio Grande, its tributaries and the water flowing underground supports communities across the San Luis Valley,  an 8,000 square-mile high elevation desert that sees less than seven inches of precipitation per year. Water ties generations of people and communities together across the Valley. Married by shared ethics of caring for land and water, everyone across the San Luis Valley depends deeply on the Rio Grande – for their livelihoods, the rich diversity of wildlife and outdoor activities, and a deep connection to the rich history of people who have come before them. 

Rio Grande River, CO | Photo By Sinjin Eberle
Rio Grande River, CO | Photo By Sinjin Eberle

To help tell the story of the San Luis Valley, the interdependent nature of the people, the river and water flowing below their feet and the threats facing the Valley’s way of life, American Rivers developed Groundswell on the Rio Grande, an interactive ESRI Story Map that illustrates the connection between people, communities and water. 

Learn more about the San Luis Valley, visit Groundswell on the Rio Grande

In developing the Story Map, we had the pleasure of engaging with a wide cross-section of people that rely on and appreciate the Valley’s waters for different reasons. Whether we talked to a rancher, small business owner, recreation advocate, retired bus driver, brewer or water manager, it was clear how important the Valley, and the Valley’s water is to them. Water undeniably touches everyone in the Valley, but it is the threats to the rivers and aquifers that bring communities together to fight for their water. 

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The San Luis Valley is facing a real threat from Renewable Water Resources (RWR), a proposal to export groundwater out of the San Luis Valley to Colorado’s southern Front Range. In late 2021, RWR approached the Douglas County Commission, asking for $20 million of federal rescue plan funds to pipe water out of the San Luis Valley to the Denver suburbs. 

As the Story Map describes, water flowing through and beneath the Valley is essential for communities, agriculture, recreation and the environment. The inextricable link between groundwater and surface water in the Valley means that the RWR proposal would have direct, negative impacts for everything from agricultural communities and culture to fish, wildlife, and a growing recreation economy, specifically at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Douglas County Commissioners are currently considering the proposal from RWR as they grapple with a growing population within their communities. However, there are other options – such as water conservation, efficiency and reuse – that are lower in cost and create local jobs that the County should consider instead.  Join us in urging the Douglas County Commissioners to reject RWR’s proposal to pipe water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range.  Click here for petition

Sandhill Cranes, Dunes, Mt. Herard, Rio Grande River, CO Photo Credit: National Park Service
April 30, 2006 Sandhill Cranes, Dunes, Mt. Herard, Rio Grande River, CO Photo Credit: National Park Service

As you view the Story Map we hope you gain a better understanding of why protecting and preserving the health of the Rio Grande, the viability of aquifers, and the deep history of the San Luis Valley is as critical for communities that rely directly on the river as it is for the state of Colorado and the Southwest. Make your voice heard and speak up for the San Luis Valley, and the rivers and waters that flow through and underneath such an incredible part of  Colorado.

27 responses to “Groundswell on the Rio Grande: How People of the San Luis Valley are Coming Together Around Water

  1. This proposal is a disaster and shouldn’t even be considered. Douglas County needs to live within their means. 70000 new folks can buy a pick- up, a trailer, a water tank and haul their own water from their nearest water station in Douglas County. They can live the true Colorado experience of water shortages, fire mitigation, decreasing snowpacks in Douglas County. The San Luis Valley has no resources to spare.

  2. I can reference a few examples of towns/counties from other resources with land with no water rights left (“Buy and dry” describes a class of water transactions that typically involve a municipality or other local government paying the owner of a farm for some or all of their available water rights.)
    Penrose, Colorado – As a child, our family visited orchards and farms but most landowners sold their water rights. We could have had more local fruit and vegetables in the Front Range instead of buying produce shipping 100s, if not 1,000 miles.
    Crowley County was featured in a 5280 article several years ago at
    Pueblo Board of Water Works’ 2009 acquisition of nearly a third of the Bessemer Ditch water rights makes the dry-up challenge imminent in Pueblo County. The Bessemer Ditch provides high-quality water to farms around St. Charles Mesa, Vineland, and Avondale. Though Pueblo Water’s shares are currently being leased back to farmers, these agreements are set to expire in 2029, at which point these critical production areas could be lost forever. Pueblo Water is in the process of a change case to convert the agricultural water rights to municipal use. Historically, once agricultural water is converted to municipal use, the land on which the water was used must remain out of agricultural production permanently. Without a community-based, large-scale solution, Pueblo County risks losing its farming base to the devastating buy-and-dry outcomes seen elsewhere in the region.

  3. The water here is so critical to the livestock and farming throughout Colorado. This would greatly impact hay sold all over the state as it relates to cost and availability. Please reject this.

  4. Please keep the water in the San Luis Valley where it has Sandhill Cranes for thousands and thousands of years. Growth on the Front Range needs a plan other than taking water from this precious valley ecosystem.

  5. I live 200 miles from Denver and even father from the Valley so this has no effect on me either way. There is one thing I think people need to consider about this that is not being brought up. Population. Our ever increasing population is causing people on both over crowded coasts to look elsewhere to live and many are choosing Colorado and specifically , the Denver area and COS. If they can’t move to either of these areas because of water problems and The Valley has plenty , Might The Valley become the next growth area?

  6. Taking water from one of the poorest and driest counties in the state to feed high population growth? Surely there has to be a better solution. I am a land owner in SLV but live on the front range in Douglas County. I tried to drill a well on my property and was unsuccessful due to the depth of the water table. The SLV already struggles for water and many people transport the water they live off of by tanks just to have water. Water is quite possibly the most precious resource in the valley and we have none to spare. Look elsewhere for your water needs.

  7. I live in Douglas County. Our shameful, ill-conceived, and selfish growth shouldn’t impact the San Luis Valley

  8. The San Luis Valley has the right to continue to make a living without water siphoned out for unsustainable growth along the front range!

  9. OMG! Leave the Valley alone! Too much water is wasted. As well as the other gifts in the San Luis Valley. Douglas County! Learn to live with what you have.

  10. The Denver local council members need to STOP this environmental injustice and devastation that RWR could cause if allowed to go forward.

    Just like the many fights across the planet , the issues of balancing climate change, community resources, infrastructure and environmental rights is coming to every neighborhood and community around the world in various shapes and forms over the next decades and WE MUST ALWAYS REMIND ALL political leaders that there are right and wrong ways to make environmental decisions and that there is no longer any time for wiggle room in making POOR environmental decisions especially as regards fragile ecosystems going forward AND THAT WE ARE WATCHING THEM ALL VERY CLOSELY to ensure they do not create cascading domino effects of environmental misuse, injustice and environmental RACISM against underserved and poorer communities and the fragile ecosystems they rely on to live.
    The planet is demanding that we start to work with it, not against it, and that the old methods of human progress and consumption at the expense of natural habitats have proven to no longer be a way forward.
    Political Leaders that DON”t get this point about environmental rights and injustice will be an embarrassment and that is a good talking point!
    One thing we learned is to fight these kind of things with as many groups in solidarity as possible so, it may be good thinking to join in the fight and write letters from separate entities and organizations and when the time comes to use social media like Twitter and Instagram to call them out, threaten them at the voting booths and make noise publicly to call attention to their environmental injustice, racism and ignorance.
    I am excited and honored to jump into this fight for the San Luis valley and am ready to bring what I have learned in our fight against some very corrupt and greedy political interests here in NYC to help the San Luis Valley!
    How DARE YOU divert water from underserved poor communities to the wealthy suburbs of Douglas county on the outskirts of Denver where the richest 1% of Coloradians live
    Hands off our water ..Hands off our LAND. It is not yours and you need to find a way to balance your communities and live sustainably with nature and not to overextend your consumption of its resources..

  11. Leave the water in the SLV alone. There is not enough to solve any front range problems. There is barely enough for the SLV!

  12. The San Luis Valley is a desert. The water it has, it uses and it needs. Take this deal somewhere else. It’s no good for the SLV.

  13. FYI: The land in the picture with the sand hill cranes has already been decimated by the Closed Basin Project. They turned what was once a thriving recreational are into a foot deep mud hole. The RWR needs to be stopped but something must be done about the Closed Basin or it won’t matter.

  14. I was born and raised in the SLV and everything in our valley is a precious commodity. Especially our water which is vital to our agriculture, and keeping our communities flourishing economically. Why these big cities think that we don’t need our water or we have enough water to supply them because of their growing communities is wrong. In order for them to flourish at the cost of drying up our valley and our aquifer is foolish and selfish. They need to rethink about slowing down their growth if the don’t have the water to sustain it. We have fought for our water and we will continue to fight off those vultures. If they don’t have water it’s their problem not ours. WE ARE SLV STRONG!

  15. Who will be making money off of the RWR proposed pipeline? How dare Ex Gov Owens think that it is morally OK to take the lifeline from the generally poorer people to make more affluent populations places to live where there is no water!

  16. It is a shame that the Colorado government doesn’t see that encouraging a balanced growth across Colorado would be a much healthier alternative to the out of control front range. I’ve watched the destruction of the Arkansas valley as the farmers water was purchased for the needs of the growing metro. I don’t want to see that happen to the San Luis valley. I’d like to see our leaders encourage population growth outside the front range. Most of the small towns around Colorado could double in size without trying to steal resources from their neighbors. There are so many benefits to balancing growth. Please take a look.

    1. Given the dire state of the Rio Grande water supply downstream of the SLV, I don’t understand why anyone would be allowed to take water out of the watershed and diminish the river’s flow. Groundwater and surface water are part of the same hydrologic system. Pretending one doesn’t affect the other is ridiculous, but a widespread practice.

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