“The way we have given away water in the West isn’t working,” said Gleick. “I consider water markets to be a small part of the comprehensive set of changes we need to make,” he added. “We need to revamp water rights, but politically and legally that is the most difficult thing to do.”
One of the world’s largest philanthropies, with a history of using its money to privatize natural resources and social systems, The Walton Family Foundation, spent about $200 million over the last decade to guide planning and research toward a market-based approach, a Wall Street Journal analysis found.
RWR’s export proposal has reignited a long-standing debate over how to balance producers’ private property rights and prevent profiteering off the dwindling resource.
The foundation, established by Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton, spreads grant money among activists, the media, and universities, often expecting support for their positions in return, said Gary Wockner, whose nonprofit, Save the Colorado, received its grants from 2011 to 2014. “It’s like they fund all the environmental groups and half the media, and now they fund the scientists. And one of their staffers—Tanya Trujillo—was just pegged by President Biden to be the main person who sets water policy for the Bureau of Reclamation.” He called Trujillo an “architect” of the Walton’s water market policy.
Equity Goes Both Ways
The San Luis Valley, is home both to the wettest part of the state—Wolf Creek Pass, which can receive up to 400 inches of snow in winter—and the driest, Center, which averages just seven inches of rain a year. It is also Colorado’s oldest agricultural community, which makes its farmers the keepers of the state’s most lucrative water rights.
To nurture crops in this high desert, Spanish settlers relied on ancient irrigation ditches, known as acequias. They brought the technique to Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, in the 1850s, where they filed for the state’s first water right.
Settlers from across the country followed and also dug ditches, which they connected to creeks coming off mountains and lined with metal head gates to control the flow of water. When stream water declined as the climate warmed, farmers and ranchers tapped the region’s two aquifers.
Now, the valley’s economy and unique federally protected ecosystems are reliant on ever-complicated ways of moving water around, ways that are failing. Water withdrawn by wells exceeds the amount of snowmelt refilling aquifers and there are more claims to water rights than there is water in streams. Over time, state regulators and regional water managers have put in place a suite of conservation measures. Yet even after producers cut pumping by a third, water in the upper aquifer fell to its lowest level on record earlier this year.
Scarcity isn’t new, but RWR’s export proposal has reignited a long-standing debate over how to balance producers’ private property rights and prevent profiteering off the dwindling resource. Many farmers and ranchers consider water rights their retirement fund and bristle at anyone telling them they cannot sell them. Former Governor Bill Owens, an RWR principal, has capitalized on the sentiment, writing in a recent op-ed in Colorado Politics, “Water rights are just as much private property as a person’s ranch, livestock, or family home.”
Finding this balance has proved thorny for Colorado state legislators, who failed in 2021 to reach an agreement about how to strengthen anti-speculation law. Lawmakers in May also tabled a bill drafted with feedback from numerous hearings about speculation following pressure from producers who were adamant that their right to sell their water not be curtailed. The conversation is so fraught, that Douglas County Commissioners said in a public meeting that some farmers approached them saying they wanted to work with RWR, but were unwilling to say so publicly.
“Trying to farm within our water restrictions means changing how you grow, what you grow, and when you grow it.”
Much is at stake. Agriculture contributes up to $435 million to the San Luis Valley’s economy annually. Imperiled wetlands here also support 360 bird species, including migrating Sandhill cranes with wingspans as long as Shaquille O’Neal is tall. Unique ecosystems at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Baca National Wildlife Refuge also depend on the region’s vulnerable hydrologic system.
“It’s approaching the point of a real economic and cultural crisis in our community,” said Cleave Simpson, a state senator, fourth-generation farmer and rancher, and general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “About 168,000 irrigated acres are at risk . . . if we can’t solve this.”
RWR’s proposal to withdraw more water complicates officials’ efforts to restore water to the Rio Grande River to meet delivery obligations to New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. Thousands of acres have already been allowed to dry up and farmers who pump water pay a fee to compensate producers who fallow land in attempts to return rivers and aquifers to sustainability.
“This is unheard of in the West,” said Greg Peterson, executive director of Colorado Agriculture Water Alliance, during a February county commissioner study session on the RWR proposal. “Less water and less acreage is less income.”
The fact that other buy and dry deals between municipalities and farmers and ranchers have already led to economic and environmental disaster for California’s Owens Valley and Colorado’s Crowley County is a concern. After the water was gone in Crowley County, farms dried up, causing support businesses like equipment dealers, restaurants, and gas stations to go belly up and leading to steep declines in tax revenue, which impacted schools, law enforcement, and other services.
“You always have to be careful of the unintended consequences of some of these experiments,” said Lisa Dilling, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, and co-author of a paper that found that “Crowley County proved a tragic but useful lesson . . . for how bad it can get.”
“I think this is where communities need to be listened to—they need to be brought into the process,” she added.
San Luis Valley residents say Douglas County Commissioners failed in this regard when they canceled a town hall meeting in the valley to hear testimony on the RWR proposal in early spring. The decision came after residents spent weeks arranging meetings for commissioners with local officials. In a statement, the board said it took the action after it, “Became convinced from social media postings that a ‘protest’ was being staged instead of the open dialogue with which they welcomed Valley guests when they visited Douglas County.”
Young farmers in the Valley, like the Joneses, are on the cutting edge of a burgeoning movement to help farmers and ranchers remain profitable and ultimately preclude the necessity for them to sell their water.
“Trying to farm within our water restrictions means changing how you grow, what you grow, and when you grow it,” Michael Jones said as he stood near a motley collection of rusting, castoff farm equipment he had refurbished. “We went from farming whole circles, to farming half circles, and now quarter circles. If we can’t get more value off of these crops, then it’s not going to work.”
To make money, they are negotiating contracts with customers like Whole Foods and Amy’s Kitchen. They are experimenting with many other crops, such as safflower, for high-end cooking oil. They reimagined the idea of cover crops—selling off-season rye to distillers to use for whiskey. The enterprising couple also works with award-winning chefs to incorporate their produce into restaurant menus.
Meanwhile nonprofits, some backed by the Walton family, are forging flexible water sharing agreements with producers aiming to replenish rivers. Such “market-based environmentalism” is a way to preserve agriculture, ecosystems, and municipal economies rooted in water-based recreation as climate change intensifies, said Andy Schultheiss, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust.
The Walton Family Foundation referred Civil Eats to the trust, which is considered a thought leader on the future of water and has been substantially supported by Walton grants since at least 2009, paying for staff, office space, and to develop water markets. It does so by leasing water rights from farmers and ranchers and returning the water to reservoirs and streams—ostensibly to benefit the environment and recreational uses. The trust has also permanently acquired water rights worth at least $624,650.
“To us, water markets represent the idea that if water rights are easily transferable, at least short term, that it will be easier for water to be shared across different uses in Colorado and shared in a nimble way, quickly, with compensation. That’s always been hard because there is so much friction in the market,” Schultheiss said.
He added that his organization is wary of water speculation, which is against Colorado law, and he rejects claims that the trust keeps water in streams so it can flow out of state, saying that lease agreements return water to a few miles of stream in various parts of the state “before it gets picked up by someone else.”