It’s a relief to see snow in the mountains surrounding the San Luis Valley as spring approaches. Farmers and ranchers, along with everyone else, appreciate that the snowpack is in pretty good shape, at least for the time being. We know that the high-country snow is our “reservoir” and our water supply for the growing season, for vital wildlife habitat and for our summer recreation ahead. We also know how quickly that supply can disappear with a warm, dry and windy spring. Likewise, we know that a good water year, while most welcome, will not resolve the long-term water challenges that the Valley faces. Yet, when our water is at risk, this community comes together, to protect our water and to face the challenge of securing our water future,

So, what is the current status of our water situation?  To provide the latest information, updates and future forecasts for 2021, and discuss key threats and new opportunities, the third annual “Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium” will be held virtually, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturday, March 20. Hosted by the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center at Adams State University, the event is free and open to the public. Register now. Registrants will receive a link to access the Zoom meeting before the event.

DNR Executive Director Dan Gibbs to be Keynote Speaker

“We’re especially looking forward to hearing from our keynote speaker this year, Dan Gibbs, Executive Director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR),” said Salazar Center director, Rio de la Vista. “From the Division of Water Resources to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado State Forests, the State Land Board, and other key natural resource divisions, DNR’s work touches many aspects of our daily lives here, in so many ways. These agencies are core partners in conserving, managing, and restoring the Valley’s resources that sustain our livelihoods and communities.”

Dan Gibbs
Dan Gibbs, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources

Even while leading the DNR, Gibbs continues to work as a wildland fire fighter when the need is there, giving him first-hand understanding of the critical role of healthy forests in Colorado’s economy and water supply. Gibbs has served as County Commissioner, and as both a representative and senator in the Colorado Legislature, providing him with both experience and insights into how the state intersects with local communities. His talk will wrap up the program over the lunch hour.

Symposium Agenda Overview

The morning will begin with a report on the current “State of the Basin,” including the latest data on snowpack measurements, flow forecasts, and groundwater conditions by Division Engineer, Craig Cotten with the Division of Water Resources.  He will also provide information about the new groundwater regulations that go into effect on March 15th, and other updates.

Given the challenges ahead and the varying and sometimes divergent views here in the community, the program will then offer an interactive session entitled: “Now We’re Talking!” How to Navigate Difficult Conversations.  Facilitator Dan Birch of the Consensus Building Institute will lead the session, drawing on over 30 years of experience in water management and as a water referee, working in rural areas of Colorado. “We need to be able to talk with each other about these difficult issues, even if we may disagree about them,” noted de la Vista. “We’re a small population in a large rural area, with a limited water supply. So, we need each other, and we need to find ways to work together to address our water challenges, to be innovative and find solutions. And that means we need to sustain those relationships that we value, with friends and neighbors, and the collaborative spirit that defines our rural community.”

The panel to follow will be about just such difficult issues: the buying and selling of land and water that has, is, and will occur here and across Colorado. This discussion will look at questions of “Who’s Selling Water? Who’s Buying Water?  For What Purpose? For Whose Benefit?”  Panelists will discuss how land and water has been and is changing hands, across Colorado and here in the SLV, whether to meet local needs or for attempts to export water from rural areas to meet the needs of growth elsewhere. The presenters will examine the related and growing concerns about how to prevent water speculation, as is enshrined in Colorado’s state constitution, while respecting private property rights and working within Colorado water law. The panelists will include the following people and perspectives:

  • Representative Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins will discuss the work of the legislatively established Anti-Speculation Working Group that is currently examining the restrictions against speculation. She will address ideas about how that doctrine may need to be adapted or implemented to sustain our water resources in a time of rapid population growth and changing climate.
  • Northern SLV rancher and member of Colorado’s Ag Commission, George Whitten and southern SLV farmer James Henderson, Vice President of the Colorado Farm Bureau, will discuss their perspectives on the increasing pressures on Valley agriculture and how that can lead to sales of land and water to investors, and/or possible purchases of land and water to meet community needs.
  • Adams State’s Assistant Professor of Business and Vice President of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Armando Valdez, will share his views as yet another multigenerational farmer and rancher in the southern SLV.
  • Sociologist and CSU Ph.D. candidate Kelsea MacIlroy, who has done research here in the SLV, will address the related pressures imposed on people, from individuals and families to the fabric of our communities.

This session will provide for moderated questions and interactive discussion with panelists and participants.

The program will also include information about the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center’s upcoming water education programs for Adams State and the community. John Shepard of the Sonoran Institute will provide a brief overview of their “Growing Water Smart” workshop, which the Salazar Center will co-host for the Valley’s local governments in 2022.

Hosts and Sponsors 

The Salazar Center and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District are co-hosts of the annual Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium, with generous support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Gates Family Foundation. Symposium sponsorships from the SLV Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Conejos Water Conservancy District, the SLV Irrigation District, the SLV Water Conservancy District, and Headwaters Alliance are all part of making this event possible and free to the community.

For more information about the 2021 Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium, follow the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center on Facebook or contact them directly at

To learn more about water issues in the Rio Grande, view videos of keynote presentations from the 2019 and 2020 Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposiums and other past water talks.  The 2021 Symposium recordings will be posted there as well, as part of the Salazar Center’s on-going work to develop a Rio Grande Library of water information and resources.