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Water Exports and the San Luis Valley: Understanding the History and Current Regulatory Framework

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Document pages: 21 pages

Abstract: The Acequia Project’s work is centered in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, where water is both scarce and essential for survival. The hydrology of the Valley relies on an aquifer system that sits beneath the Valley floor. Maintaining the health of the aquifers is a matter of life or death for the towns and large-scale farming operations that draw groundwater from wells, and for the communities that use surface water to fill their irrigation acequias. The aquifers also underpin the ecology of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, and water from the Valley feeds into the Rio Grande River, thereby helping Colorado to meet its legal obligations under the interstate Rio Grande Compact.Despite the many longstanding demands on the Valley’s water, over the last three decades various developers have looked to the Valley as a source of water for Denver and the other rapidly growing cities on Colorado’s Front Range. Water in the Valley is precious, but it does not fetch the same prices locally that municipalities will pay in the Denver metropolitan area. This profit potential attracts developers looking to buy up water rights in the Valley and then pipe the water over the mountains to growing populations on the Front Range.So far, these export proposals have withered in the face of fierce opposition from local residents. Residents understand that threats to the Valley’s water are also threats to their way of life, and have fought hard to preserve their region’s resources. Over the course of these fights, various laws and regulations have been built up to safeguard the Valley’s hydrology. But despite local opposition and a growing body of legal hurdles, water export proposals continue to this day. This threat of water exportation is a constant concern hanging over the acequia communities and other local residents that rely on the Valley’s water to survive.As part of the Acequia Project’s partnership with communities in the San Luis Valley, a team of CU students have spent two years studying water export proposals in the Valley. The students sifted through the array of laws governing water use in the Valley, interviewed community leaders and Colorado water law experts, and tracked the history of water export proposals from the 1980s through the present day. Their final report, Water Exports in the San Luis Valley, draws on Colorado statutes and regulations, water court decisions, investigative reporting, and the work of expert agencies and other scholars to build a nuanced picture of the issue.Water Exports in the San Luis Valley is intended to be a practical resource for opponents of water export in the Valley. To this end, it reviews the hydrology of the region and the critical roles played by the aquifers. It tracks the history of water usage and export attempts in the Valley. Finally, it catalogues and explains the various legal protections that have been built up over the years to prevent the looting of the Valley’s hydrological heritage.

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