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Water flows toward money By Byron Harris Dallas The coal-slurry pipeline issue has cooled for the moment in Texas, but it’s just beginning to heat up in Colorado, where the Houston Natural Gas pipeline would originate. Water is key in Colorado. Water rights are family treasures, and residents are already girding to protect them from Texas coalmen. Water for the pipeline would come from the San Luis Valley, one of the largest high-mountain valleys in the world, covering 6,000 square miles and spanning six counties in south central Colorado. The Rio Grande flows through, but the land is semiarid, with annual rainfalls averaging less than ten inches. Agriculture, the main industry, flourishes only with heavy irrigation, and residents rightly view their water as their lifeblood. The pipeline backers have made the already-sensitive water issue even more controversial by what must be either unintentional blunders or deliberate stupidities. Last year, San Marco Pipeline Co., the developing consortium led by Houston Natural Gas and Rio Grande Industries, bought a 960acre, $105,000 valley tract through an agent who did not tell the seller he was buying the land for San Marco and for its water rights. Texans are some of the biggest absentee landowners in the valley, and they aren’t popular. The camouflaged land purchase amplified mistrust of Texans and hardly improved the pipeline’s image. Miles Porter IV, a reporter for the largest newspaper in the valley, says San Marco has been less than candid about its local intentions. “They’re not up here offering us news,” he says. “I mean we have to call them up. We have to dig it out, and I don’t think that’s good business practice.” Kelly Sowards, president of the Conejos Water Conservancy District, also worries about Texans’ reluctance to talk about their activities. “We’ve gotten very little feedback,” Sowards says. “Only a couple of items have been placed in the local newspaper as to what happened. We were told about a year ago that anything they developed as far as engineering or geology in 6 The Texas Observer the area would be forthcoming. But we haven’t seen it.” San Marco intends to draw 15,000 acre-feet of water a year from wells in the northern part of the valley. It would be brackish water, currently useless in agriculture. But local residents fear that the salty water connects to an underground aquifer that could contain sweet water good for farming. People in the valley know underground water supplies often connect in surprising ways. Recently they’ve seen the water table in parts of the valley recede dramatically. That’s one reason why they’re now suing to prevent the Texans from tapping their water. In all, 21 groups have filed actions against the export of San Luis water. Some groups argue that the state constitution prohibits the exportation of Colorado water. Others object to the way San Marco conducts its business. One plaintiff alleges that San Marco began drilling test water wells without the proper permits. The state’s water courts, special bodies set up for the adjudication of water disputes, will hear the suit. Living alongside the opponents are some pipeline backers. In Walsenburg, the proposed pipeline terminus, the project would set off boom times. City fathers predict a yearly tax income of $1.7 million from pipeline properties and upwards of fifty new jobs to maintain the system once it’s built. Economically, Walsenburg has been down on its luck in recent years, and the new jobs would be welcome. Walsenburg is also a railroad town. A Burlington-Northern line splits it in half, crossing many main roads. Chamber of commerce representatives are backing the pipeline as a way to avoid the din and disturbance of long, noisy coal trains. The pipeline struggle is shaping up as one of the fiercest water battles in Colorado history. Currently, the numbers favor those opposing the project. But locals fear that an old saying will hold true”Water doesn’t flow downhill, it flows toward money.” And all the money is in Texas. D Byron Harris, a reporter for WFAA-TV in Dallas, covered pipeline developments in the San Luis Valley this spring. Flurry over slurry Railroaders By Mary Alice Davis and Jo Clifton Austin When the first act of the Great CoalSlurry Pipeline Battle of Texas ended, everyone agreed it had lived up to its advance press billing as a “classic.” Money flowed freely. Seasoned railroad and pipeline lobbyists toiled for the hearts and minds of the Legislature. At the curtain, pipeline interests had won the power of eminent domain in Texasa key weapon in their ongoing struggle with the railroads. Eminent domain is generally reserved for governmental bodies, but both houses of the Legislature approved the authorizing bill the pipeliners sought, and Gov. Dolph Briscoe cheerfully signed it last month. A serious review of the entire performance would find it a sorry affair. Big business hogged the spotlight, while the public interest in the coal-hauling wars never even came on stage. The drama such as it wasrevealed the fuzzy, disjointed nature of national energy policy. Ultimately, the coal-pipeline controversy will be resolved outside Texaschances are national eminentdomain legislation will pass. But the state has a huge stake in how pipeliners and railroaders split the business of transporting coal out of the West. Of the five coal pipelines proposed for the near future, two would cross Texas