State work group trying to balance risks from investors, negative impacts to agriculture by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism & Luke Runyon/KUNC

May 5, 2021

Harts Basin Ranch is a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge in Delta County. The ranch is owned by Boulder-based Conscience Bay Company and has the oldest water right on the Alfalfa Ditch. Harts Basin Ranch is a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge in Delta County. The ranch is owned by Boulder-based Conscience Bay Company and has the oldest water right on the Alfalfa Ditch.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

ECKERT — Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado. 

Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water. 

Twelve hundred of the ranch’s acres are irrigated with water from Alfalfa Ditch, diverted from Surface Creek, which flows down the south slopes of the Grand Mesa. The ranch has the No. 1 priority water right — meaning the oldest, which comes with the ability to use the creek’s water first — dating to 1881. 

What makes the ranch unique among its Grand Mesa-area neighbors is its owner. Conscience Bay Company, a Boulder-based private real estate investment firm, bought the property in 2017. 

That fact alone has brought its owners scrutiny from neighbors and Western Slope water managers. Conscience Bay and its president, Eli Feldman, have been accused of water speculation — which means buying up the ranch just for its senior water rights and hoarding them for a future profit. 

That is an accusation Feldman denies.

“Any time you come into a place that you’re not from, people are curious at best and skeptical and concerned at worst,” he said. 

The ranch raises organic beef using regenerative techniques that operators say are better for soil health. Conscience Bay holds grazing permits on tracts of public land in western Colorado and Utah where the cattle feast on grass before being sent to California to be finished, slaughtered and sold under the brand name SunFed Ranch. 

To the charges that he’s doing something untoward by investing in the ranch’s land and abundant water rights, Feldman said he’s just like any other major water user in the state putting it to beneficial use. The ranch is using the water to irrigate, he said. 

“We’re growing grass and feeding it to cows and trying to improve the ground, improve the soil health and make a business out of it,” Feldman said.

Speculation work group

The conversation around water speculation has been heating up in Colorado in recent months. At the direction of state lawmakers, a work group has been meeting regularly to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law. The topic frequently comes up at meetings of Western Slope water managers: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, basin roundtables and boards of county commissioners. 

Investments such as Feldman’s have been of interest to the work group, which consists of water managers and users from around the state and is chaired by Kevin Rein, state engineer and head of the Division of Water Resources.

“I think it’s a valid concern because they do see unusual parties, large parties that, again, aren’t the typical parties, purchasing those water rights, and so that’s the concern,” Rein said. “Are they speculating or are they purchasing just so they can flip it, as people say, in a few years for more money?”

Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning continuing to use the water for what it was decreed in order to hang onto it. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights, change what the water is allowed to be used for and, if given a court’s blessing, move the water from agricultural use to growing cities.  

This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A private-equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the intensely irrigated valley, a short drive from Harts Basin Ranch. The purchases of the New York City-based company have raised suspicions among water managers and prompted the formation of the speculation work group. 

Similar concerns have cropped up in agricultural communities throughout the West. A water transfer in Arizona from agricultural lands on the Colorado River to a rapidly expanding Phoenix exurb recently stirred up controversy. In Nevada, Water Asset Management is trying to market water held in an underground aquifer.

Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.

The work group has identified the following risks from speculators: investors’ obtaining a monopoly over a local water market; large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands; less water availability for other water users; and violation of Colorado’s values to see a vital public resource traded as a commodity.

Part of Harts Basin Ranch’s hayfields are irrigated with sprinklers. The ranch is owned by Boulder-based Conscience Bay Company and has the oldest water right on the Alfalfa Ditch. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Potential risks and solutions

The potential solutions to these risks are many, according to a draft document. The work group is exploring several of these, including creating a process to determine the intent of the purchaser; taxing profits from the sale of water rights at varying rates to encourage beneficial use and to discourage profiteering; imposing time limits on turnover of ownership to discourage short-term “flipping”; encouraging local governments to police investments through their 1041 powers; and creating a public-review process for water transfers that exceed some threshold. 

The group has not coalesced around any of these potential solutions, but state officials said they are zeroing in on using the water court process to evaluate transfers as a way of spotting speculation.

The work group is supposed to submit a report, along with any recommendations from members, to state officials by August. But so far, the group has had a difficult time making sense of the thorny questions raised by these issues. Even trying to define what speculation is (and isn’t) and who is considered a speculator has been a struggle.

“It’s one thing to point at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s probably speculative.’ Another to actually put the legal definition on it,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water-resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Funk is also a member of the work group. 

Discussions so far about reining in speculation have focused on the intent of the buyer. Can the state determine whether someone who is purchasing water rights intends to grow hay or build a residential subdivision? Or are they solely focused on the water rights’ future value? And how do you tell the difference?

“Do we want to protect against certain types of intent?” Rein said. “And then how do we determine that?” 

Predetermining a water-right purchaser’s intent could prove to be a difficult task, akin to stopping a crime before it’s actually committed. Funk invoked the 2002 film “Minority Report,” in which a police detective (played by Tom Cruise), with the help of three psychics, tracks down would-be murderers and arrests them before any gun goes off.

“There aren’t speculation police running the state and breaking up these investments, right?” Funk said.

A parshall flume measures the water in the Alfalfa Ditch, which diverts water from Surface Creek, near Cedaredge. The water is used to irrigate hayfields at nearby Harts Basin Ranch. CREDIT: LUKE RUNYON/KUNC

Financial water speculation

A draft report by the work group attempts to define two different types of speculation. 

The first is traditional water speculation, which involves obtaining a water right without any plan or intent to put that water to beneficial use. The intent is to obtain a desirable priority date and then sell the water right to others who have a beneficial use. 

This type of speculation has been addressed before in Colorado water law in what is known as the High Plains case. In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that a water-investment company was speculating because its plan for using the water was too expansive and nebulous, and the plan did not identify either the structures through which the water would be diverted or the specific locations where the water would be used.

The second type of speculation — and, because of WAM’s dealings in the Grand Valley, the one on which the work group is more focused — is financial water speculation. The work group defines this as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from increased value of the water in a short period of time. Financial water speculation may run counter to Colorado’s prior-appropriation doctrine because the primary intent is profit rather than beneficial use. 

The concerns over speculation tap into a deep-seated anxiety that is prevalent in Western farm towns: the transfer of water from agriculture to cities. There are real examples of agricultural water being sold to cities, sometimes derisively described as “buy and dry,” and some rural communities have suffered economically as a result. 

In some ways, the work group’s discussion of how to prevent speculation is really a broader discussion of how to prevent water transfers away from agriculture. The group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. Part of Funk’s job is to head up a program of “alternative transfer methods,” which allow cities to temporarily buy or lease water from agriculture, but without the severe economic impacts.

“I think the issue with speculation is that what on paper might seem a very sort of small, isolated issue, as soon as you start sort of unpacking it a little bit, it’s essentially all the problems that Western water and rural communities are facing in, like, one issue,” Funk said. “So, as soon as you start unraveling it, you start running into other forces at play that are really beyond the state’s control or any one individual producer’s control.”

Cowgirls lasso calves so they can be branded and vaccinated at Harts Basin Ranch in April. The Delta County ranch, whose owners have been accused of water speculation, raises organic cattle. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Impacts to ag

The work group is walking a fine line to come up with ways to deter speculation while not harming traditional agriculture producers in the process. In a big-picture sense, irrigators may worry about the impact to their community and way of life if all their neighbors sell to hedge funds. But when it’s their turn to receive a check for their water rights, they don’t want regulators doing anything that would make the process harder or devalue the ranch they have put their lives into, including restricting whom they can sell to. 

It’s an oft-repeated adage that a rancher’s land and water rights are their 401(k) or their child’s college fund, and some say any new rules aimed at speculators should not make it more difficult for traditional ag producers to cash out if and when they want. 

So far, the investment firms active in western Colorado have continued to lease their land back to farmers, or farm it themselves.

Carlyle Currier, a rancher in Molina and president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, has a seat on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and his family has ranched in the Grand Mesa area for more than a century. Currier said until the investors attempt to sell it off, they’re not doing anything illegal.

“If the government can tell (someone) they can’t buy a farm and farm it, well, then they could tell me that, too. And I don’t want them telling me that,” Currier said. 

The speculation discussion is also set against the backdrop of a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying. A demand-management program would pay irrigators on a temporary, voluntary basis to fallow fields and leave more water in the river. This water would be sent to Lake Powell to fill a 500,000-acre-foot pool that could be used to help the upper-basin states avoid a protracted legal battle with states downstream on the Colorado River. 

Some say the exploration of demand management — including pay-to-fallow pilot projects in the Grand Valley — could have opened the door for investors who want to take advantage of the program to make easy money. Where there are opportunities, there are opportunists. 

“Here in Mesa County, we’ve been watching a Wall Street investment firm buying up agricultural properties all with pre-compact water rights,” Steve Aquafresca, Mesa County’s Colorado River District representative, said at a board meeting last month. “I think it could be safely said that these actions probably would not have occurred if the state were not discussing the possibility of a demand-management program and if one particular major irrigation-water provider was not showing some willingness to entertain a demand-management program.”

The Alfalfa Ditch, seen here in April, takes its water from Surface Creek. The owners of Harts Basin Ranch, which has a water right on Alfalfa Creek dating to 1881, have been accused of buying the ranch just for its old and valuable water rights. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Suspicion of outsiders

For all the concern about water speculation, there’s scant proof that it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. Even WAM is not speculating, according to the current definition, as long as they keep the land in agricultural production. 

“It does seem like there’s a lot of speculation about speculation,” Feldman of investment firm Conscience Bay said.

Instead, he said, old-fashioned suspicion of outsiders is at the heart of the issue. 

“There’s people that view us as outsiders and we are not from here,” he said. “We know that. We know that damn well. And that’s not news to us.”

And there’s some evidence that he’s right. The Colorado River District, which protects Western Slope water interests, is developing a policy statement about water speculation. A draft of the policy says the district “recognizes the importance of locally owned agricultural lands and waters” and will work “to protect our state’s water resources from out-of-state special interests.” 

And although these ideas didn’t get much traction, the work group has also floated two more potential solutions targeting outsiders: restricting the ability of out-of-state entities to participate in Colorado water court proceedings and prohibiting out-of-state entities from holding water rights.

“Is speculation just another word for investment (but it has) a negative connotation to it because it’s somebody that’s not from here?” Feldman said. “OK, well, do you not want to have investment in rural Colorado? Is that what we’re after? That’s where it would go if you put up enough barriers and hoops.”

Feldman says he is not the enemy. His operation isn’t the mom-and-pop homestead ranch of the Old West. It’s the investor-owned, employee-operated, risk-taking ranch of the New West. Harts Basin Ranch is looking for innovative ways to adapt to water scarcity and is participating in a program with environmental group Trout Unlimited to study consumptive use and how agriculture can stay productive while using less water. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River reporting. 

Feldman sees the heated discussion about speculation as a symptom of how Western communities are choosing to grapple with increasing water scarcity under climate change. There are those who explore new ways of running an old business and there are those who want to protect the status quo.

“At its core you see a real friction or conflict between a group of people that’s trying to make water policy more flexible to adapt to a changing climate,” Feldman said, “and those that are trying to impose more rigidity and prevent any change from occurring.”

This story was part of a collaboration between KUNC in Colorado and Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues. KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content. 


More than $15 billion in property sales in 2020 in seven resort communities marks a 61% increase over 2019. Historic sales volume and sky-high prices are pushing locals out of mountain towns.

Jason Blevins

May 11, 2021

Yampa Valley Housing Authority Executive Director Jason Peasley watches as the first slab is poured at his organizationÕs latest affordable housing project along U.S. Highway 40 in Steamboat Springs on May 7, 2021. The Sunlight Crossing development will have 90 rental units priced for residents earning between 80 and 120 percent of the average median income. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Brianna Anthony and her boyfriend, Keenan Montague, have lived in three homes over the past six months in Telluride. The five-bedroom house that the local bartenders rented with friends sold last fall, and the new owner, an East Coast doctor with a home in nearby Mountain Village, launched a major renovation. They moved into another house, which this spring sold — sight unseen — for $2.2 million. And they moved again as that owner began renovations. 

They found a rental home in Rico, about 30 minutes away. And, yes, that house just sold. Now they are looking again for a place to rent. 

“I feel like Telluride is becoming a community where locals are not welcome but the people who are there six weeks a year, they are welcomed,” Anthony said. “What happens when the only people in these ski towns are here for a month or so a year?”

When Anthony and Montague were living in a long-term rental home on the east side of Telluride last fall, they watched four long-term rental homes sell and get ripped down to studs as new owners renovated. The renters in those homes, some of whom lived in Telluride for decades, left town, they said.

“The culture is definitely changing in Telluride,” Anthony said. “I wonder if these new owners know the dramatic effect they are having.”

The gondola above Telluride connects the town with Mountain Village. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

It’s not just Telluride. Across Colorado’s resort communities, a real estate frenzy is breaking records and transforming cultural landscapes. The record-setting pace of sales over the past year has turbo-charged a trend that has unfolded in recent years with more urban refugees relocating to mountain towns. This resort-home mania has happened before — and it didn’t end well.

In the few years leading up to 2007, mountain real estate brokers trumpeted their successes like a broken record. And, in fact, every month, quarter and year did break a record, thanks largely to loose lending that pushed ill-qualified buyers into homes with no money down and principal-only mortgage payments. When that lending fiasco fell apart, a yearslong recession and mighty crash in real estate values followed, leaving long-lasting impacts. 

Last year’s real estate sales in Colorado’s high country looked eerly similar to 2007, with every month in the last half of the year setting sales volume and pricing records. More than $15 billion changed hands in property deals last year in eight resort counties, a historic 61% increase over 2019 despite a nearly three-month shutdown of all real estate activity. Land Title Guarantee Company reports show Eagle County with a 153% annual increase in sales volume in 2020. Pitkin County was up 129%. Sales in Telluride more than doubled, as did sales in Crested Butte.

Homes are selling sight unseen for highest-ever prices. Ultra-wealthy buyers, flush with 2020 stock market millions and the recognition they don’t need to be in an office, are flocking to mountain communities. Those who are not quite as rich are swarming into downvalley enclaves. Prices are at all-time highs while supplies of homes are at all-time lows. It’s a frenzy that leaves even the hardened longtime locals and brokers agape. And it’s forcing some locals to leave, which suggests that the real estate boom of 2020 in the high country could forever alter the cultural identities of mountain towns.

“It’s wrenching what’s happening in our communities,” said Amy Levek, executive director of Telluride’s Trust for Community Housing and a former mayor of the town, which has seen a mass migration of newcomers replacing longtime locals. “I don’t know of anywhere that isn’t saying, ‘What are we going through and what are we becoming?’”

Levek counts about 125 Telluride workers who have lost their rental housing in the past year because it sold. She talks about urban newcomers shopping for homes with a budget in the several millions. If they can’t buy, they are ready to rent for as much as $15,000 or more a month. That shift has left local employers struggling to find workers. 

“There is a real shortage of people here right now,” Levek said, describing how the town of Telluride and San Miguel County are raising their subsidies for affordable housing to “obscene levels” to help offset the sudden spike in both homes and construction costs.

“I hate to be negative, but we are in a bad place,” she said. “The pace of change is so extreme. From month to month, we are seeing costs go up and our community change and our culture change, and it’s unsettling.”

Wealthy urban refugees spending big

The wealthy from big cities such as Chicago, New York, Miami and Dallas are driving some of the biggest shifts. In Eagle County in 2020, there were 83 deals for more than $5 million each, up from 40 in 2019. In Pitkin County, 51% of buyers were from out of state, marking the highest percentage of non-Colorado buyers in recent memory. The majority of out-of-state buyers in the Roaring Fork Valley came from Texas, followed by Florida, Canada and New York. 

And those out-of-towners were dropping big dollars. In 2020, Pitkin County logged 106 deals for more than $10 million each, up from 27 in 2019. 

And so far this year, homebuying in Pitkin County’s Aspen and Snowmass “has been off the charts,” said longtime Roaring Fork Valley broker Tim Estin

From July to December, real estate records were set nearly every month in Aspen and Snowmass. 

“A constant refrain last summer and fall was this can’t possibly sustain itself,” Estin said. “But at present, it is and even more.”

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Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” by Georgia O’Keeffe.Art work courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art / © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / ARS

Maybe the word most associated with Georgia O’Keeffe is “vagina,” but it could just as easily be “cash.” Sold in 2014 for $44.4 million, “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a painting by a woman. A single white trumpet flower, cropped so close against an emerald tumult as to seem almost like a periscope peering out of a sea, it now hangs in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas. A companion piece, less expensive, less vaginal, belongs to the Indianapolis Museum of Modern Art, about twenty minutes from where I grew up, in a suburb where fathers presented their daughters with promise rings.

For her entire career, O’Keeffe vehemently denied that her paintings had anything to do with female sex organs. This Freudian interpretation of her flowers originated not with her but with Alfred Stieglitz, the powerful photographer and gallerist who launched O’Keeffe’s career and who later became her husband. His association of her floral portraits with vaginas was, in retrospect, a brilliant bit of marketing, in many ways leading to the financial success of a work like “Jimson Weed.” It was also a brand that O’Keeffe struggled to escape for the rest of her life. In an introduction to a catalogue for a 1939 exhibition in New York, O’Keeffe made a bitter address to fans of her floral paintings: “You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.”

In this way, flowers became for O’Keeffe a kind of prison. Jimson weeds and irises overwhelmed and overshadowed her later renderings of deserts and red hills, “because,” as she wrote in the same introduction, “a red hill has no particular association for you like the flower has. . . . I fancy this all hasn’t much to do with painting.” Certainly, it would seem to have something to do with Stieglitz, but perhaps even more with the flowers themselves.

O’Keeffe was not the first to lament the expectations flower painting placed on women. For centuries, excess floral emphasis gaslighted the fairer sex into overidentification. In 1883, a cantankerous male contributor to The Massachusetts Ploughman complained that women had come to believe themselves endowed with an “innate comprehension” of flowers. The culmination of this overconfidence, he lamented, was the overrepresentation in local exhibitions of women artists (responsible for “more than half” of the flower paintings shown), when, in fact, there are “many who paint flowers creditably, and only a few, and those not usually women, who paint them worthily.” One detects in this charge a note of jealousy, but also genuine aesthetic dismay of a tenor not incompatible with the views of America’s Flower Queen: “Still—in a way—nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small—we haven’t time—and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time,” O’Keeffe wrote in the 1939 catalogue. Not everyone can see a flower “worthily,” let alone represent it.

And yet, for all the care that O’Keeffe took—to see flowers as they are, to be “surprised into” seeing them—flowers, in the end, screwed her over. Flowers do this a lot, and not only to women. Following the Dutch and English penetration of Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa, Renaissance Europe was abuzz with bio-speculation; it is impossible to separate the rise of the Western floral arts from colonialism. In the seventeenth century, the tulip, native to Turkey, became to the Netherlands what the tomato was to Italy, plus rampant financial speculation: for a brief time, a single bulb cost more than the average Dutchman’s annual salary. The 1637 bubble in tulip prices is now a textbook case for the first failure in futures markets, with the subsequent collapse wiping out the mortgages of the Dutch middle class. The following decade brought on a frenzy in hyacinths.

The real beneficiaries of tulip mania were, perhaps, the flower painters. It should be no surprise that the genre’s most accomplished forebears are Dutch. Among them was Rachel Ruysch, whose delicate, bountiful bouquets populate urns and dark niches—a play of chiaroscuro in the style of the times. The daughter of a horticulturist and physician, Ruysch’s career was boosted, in an auspicious turn for capitalist feminism, by consumer demand for floral specimens rendered in oil paint. The city of Amsterdam sent one of her contemporaries, the naturalist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian, to Suriname to draw plants.

For years, this was the status quo: men painted women, women painted flowers. As the center of painting shifted from the Netherlands to France, men’s paintings of women ended up in the grand salons, while women’s paintings of flowers landed in the apartment foyers of the type of Parisians who attended the salons only to be shocked by the unveiling of Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.” One can hardly hang a vagina in a respectable entryway, unless it’s disguised as a flower, of course. But if women continued, disproportionately, to paint bouquets, it wasn’t necessarily by choice. As the French painter Marie Bracquemond, one of only three women to be featured in the Impressionist exhibitions, complained, women in art school in nineteenth-century Paris were assigned “only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still lifes, portraits and genre scenes.” Formal painterly education for men, meanwhile, revolved around the anatomy of the nude—in particular, nude women.

However much she may have resented the suggestion, O’Keeffe’s flowers might have served, several decades earlier, as a subversive hack, an anatomical study of the sort from which women were barred. There is an undeniable symmetry between a painting like “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” from 1932, and “The Origin of the World,” from 1866. Courbet’s composition parallels O’Keeffe’s signature close-cropping. We see a breast, a torso, a sliver of buttocks like another fold in the sheets, and there, smack center, the “origins” of man. Viewed side by side, it’s hard not to see how the focus of the earlier work, the vagina, might be transposed onto the focus of the later, a flower, and back again. Anticipating the uproar that his painting would cause, Courbet—presumably wanting to spare his model any infamy—refrained from painting her face.

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Rancho Desperado afternoon matinee, The Milagro Beanfield War

I remember talking with John Nichols after Redford’s making of the Beanfield War from his classic novel. He wasn’t entirely happy with the results but what’s to be expected converting a beautiful novel to the screen. The Great Compromise … It wasn’t a great film but a very fine film that captured some of Nichols novel and the magic of the Taos/Northern New Mexico scene of the 70’s early 80’s as the wealthy white population invaded full force with money and desire to create a new paradise when it already existed. Nichols novel captured the real spirit of the times and the film got close. Definitely a movie to watch, it’s a beautiful little cult film for northern New Mexico aficionados.



The Milagro Beanfield War is a 1988 American comedy-drama film directed by Robert Redford from a screenplay written by John Nichols and David S. Ward based on Nichols’s novel of the same name. The ensemble cast includes Ruben BladesRichard BradfordSônia BragaJulie CarmenJames GammonMelanie GriffithJohn HeardCarlos RiquelmeDaniel SternChick Vennera, and Christopher Walken.[3]

The film tells of one man’s struggle as he defends his small beanfield and his community against much larger business and state political interests.

Filmed on location in Truchas, New Mexico, the film is set in the fictional rural town of Milagro, in northern New Mexico with a population of 500, a predominantly Hispanic and Catholic town, with a largely interrelated population face a crisis when politicians and business interests make a backroom deal to usurp the town’s water in order to pave the way for a land buy-out. Due to the new laws, Joe Mondragon is unable to make a living farming because he is not allowed to divert water from an irrigation ditch that runs past his property.

Frustrated, and unable to find work, Joe visits his father’s field. He happens upon a tag that reads “prohibited” covering a valve on the irrigation ditch. He kicks the valve, unintentionally breaking it, allowing water to flood his fields. He decides against repairing the valve and instead decides to plant beans in the field. This leads to a confrontation with powerful state interests, including a hired gun brought in from out of town.

An escalation of events follows, leading to a final showdown between law enforcement and the citizens of Milagro.


Scientists identify possible connection between the solar cycle and whether El Niño or La Niña is present

Sea surface temperature anomalies during the 2015-2016 El Niño event. (NOAA) 

By  Matthew CappucciMeteorologist

May 8, 2021

When it comes to long-term hurricane forecasts, tornado predictions in the Plains or prospects for winter rain in California, you’ll often hear meteorologists refer to El Niño or La Niña. They’re phases in a cycle that starts in the tropics, spreading an influence across the globe and shaping weather both close to home and on different continents.

Now there’s emerging research to suggest that cosmic rays, or positively charged, high-energy particles from space, might be the mechanism that flips the switch between phases. Cosmic rays come from outside our solar system, but the number and intensity that reach Earth hinge on the magnetic field of the sun.

A swing between El Niño and La Niña can have dramatic implications on global weather, bringing widespread shifts in precipitation and changes in temperature that can be problematic for vulnerable populations and have massive economic effects. In California, for instance, flood events during El Niño periods have proven 10 times more costly than those during La Niña events. In some parts of the world that depend heavily on agriculture and marine commerce, a flip from El Niño to La Niña can alter daily life.

A paper recently published in the journal Earth and Space Science links terminator events, or the end of a cycle on the sun, with the flip of a switch between El Niño and La Niña. The solar magnetic cycle, which is mirrored by fluctuations in the number of sunspots on the solar disk, is made up of roughly 22-year periods. Each span features two maxima and minima each of sunspot frequency and coverage  one of each magnetic polarity lasting roughly 11 years.

Sunspots behave like bar magnets: Imagine that the bar magnets rotate 180 degrees every 11 years.

Robert Leamon, a research scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and one of the researchers credited with the discovery, said that, if more can be learned about the relationship between solar activity and the El Niño-La Niña cycle, or ENSO, it could be a game-changer for disaster preparedness.

In Australia, for example, El Niño events, associated with warming waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean, tend to substantially increase the risk of drought, while La Niñas, tied to cooling waters, increase rainfall and flooding.

“I have some attention from the Australians,” said Leamon in a recent phone call. “I think of the massive wildfires and droughts that dominated headlines before covid. I hope here will come a time soon that people recognize that, based on the phase of the solar cycle, there is a likelihood of there being El Niño or La Niña.”

How the relationship works

The key to this proposed solar-weather connection lies in “terminator” events, which spell the end of a solar cycle. Over the course of 22 years, bands of magnetism wrapping around the sun slowly migrate toward the equator, interacting with one another to produce sunspots. Those sunspots, or cool, dark discolorations on the sun’s surface, pulsate with magnetic energy, occasionally hurling it into space in solar storms that can spark displays of the northern lights.

There are two bands of magnetism per hemisphere on the sun. At solar minimum, both sets of bands are of equal and opposite strength, so the sun’s magnetic output flatlines. That drop changes the sun’s magnetic field, resulting in a decrease in the number of cosmic rays hitting Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The prediction of the NASA/NOAA panel for Solar Cycle 25, with the previous two cycles plotted. (NASA/NOAA) 

Leamon explained that the flip from El Niño to La Niña usually comes a couple of months after a cycle’s terminator. Since the terminator event is associated with a drop-off in cosmic rays, Leamon thinks the triggering mechanism is electrical in nature.

“Yes, it has to be,” said Leamon, who suspects that the abrupt drop-off in conductivity of the upper atmosphere, or ease through which electrical energy flows through it, is having a chain reaction of effects that percolates down to the surface, where weather occurs.

“The solar effects on the upper atmosphere predispose the atmosphere to be in La Niña,” he explained.

How the sun might flip the switch to La Niña

Timeline of cold (La Niña) and warm (El Niño) events since 1980, based on the Oceanic Niño Index of sea surface temperature. Colored bars show the duration of each event. (Graphic by Bob Henson, based on data from NOAA/CPC) 

But that’s where things get hazy — namely because Leamon and his colleagues have yet to establish an understanding of how a change in electrical field would influence the oceans and induce a La Niña. He does have a few hunches, though.

“It changes how the [large-scale atmospheric] waves that the likes of thunderstorms or clouds or moisture upwelling generate in the Pacific,” Leamon said.

While the researchers didn’t link the strength of a terminator event with the strength of an El Niño or La Niña pattern, they said there was a connection between bigger terminator events and a more dramatic shift from Niño to Niña.

“One of the things we’ve keyed into is, as this correlation gets stronger, whatever the mechanism is, produces the biggest swing,” said Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a co-author on the project. “We’re talking peak to peak El Niño into La Niña, … the peak of heating [in the east tropical Pacific] to trough of cooling.”

Lingering La Niñas may help forecasters spot costly weather patterns two years away

Applications of the findings

If their theory holds up, it could become a big player in seasonal hurricane forecasts, because the first year after a shift toward La Niña often brings a busy Atlantic season. That’s because water temperatures in the Atlantic remain comparatively mild, while upper-atmospheric winds are weak, allowing storms to develop without being shredded apart.

El Niño and La Niña are the warm and cool phases of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The pattern can shift back and forth irregularly every two to seven years, triggering a cascade of global side effects. (NOAA) 

Leamon endeavors that, down the road, their techniques may allow for rough El Niño/La Niña forecasts up to a decade in advance.

Reaction from climate and space scientists

Farmhands observe wheat grain falling from a combine harvester into a truck in the Panipat district of Haryana, India, on April 11. India’s monsoon, which provides water for agriculture, depends heavily on ENSO, or El Niño/La Niña conditions. (Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg News) 

Despite the strong correlation and the efforts ahead, the study has been met with mixed reviews from the climate science community. That’s usually the case in science with any new, novel ways of looking at an issue. In this case, the multidisciplinary element — combining space weather with Earth’s climate — blends two different communities together.

Mathew Barlow, a professor of climate science at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, described the findings as a “potentially interesting empirical relationship,” but said the proof is in the pudding when it comes to using those findings.

“We have yet to see whether the relationship, even if truly robust, can measurably improve current forecasts,” he wrote in an email. “My own personal interest level would tick up noticeably based on … the identification of a plausible physical mechanism underlying the relationship.”

Others point to the short time scale over which observations were used to draw conclusions. Among them is Mark Cane, a climate scientist at Columbia University and an El Niño expert.

“Intuition should warn you that roughly 60 years of data is not enough to tell you anything conclusive about a 22-year cycle,” he wrote.

Among space scientists, the research is beginning to catch on. Tamitha Skov, a space weather physicist who goes by “Space Weather Woman” on social media, described the work as “a [wake-up] call to terrestrial meteorologists and solar/space weather scientists.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to call the results of this work a ‘conclusion’ per se — rather something akin to a steppingstone in a new direction,” wrote Skov in an email. “But to take the next step, these improved observations of the sun and those of the neutral atmosphere are only a part of the puzzle that needs to be pieced together.”

For now, it remains to be seen if the relationship will hold during the next solar cycle — but Leamon and McIntosh plan to continue forging ahead in hopes of next figuring out why the link between solar activity and El Niño and La Niña exists.

“It has sort of been an uphill struggle,” Leamon said. “But one man’s noise is another man’s data.”

~ la puerta del misterio ~ El Mercurio

I had to repost this because, well just because … rŌbert

After nearly 15 years of investigation into the disappearance of private property near Silverton Colorado …several articles were found in a small mountain community in the central Chilean Andes, tacked to the door of a rundown hut.

Authorities still remain baffled. President and founder of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, Chris Laundry commented, ” We’ve exhausted every lead ..even as far as Gulmorg on the Kashmir-Pakistan border. These signs and their investigation has cost the American taxpayer dearly …which almost brought our project to its knees.”

Chris Laundry

The US embassy in Santiago is looking into this matter and hasn’t ruled out bringing in the FBI.

Several individuals under suspicion commented, “We cannot confirm nor deny the accusations.”

Dust, snow, and diminishing albedo ~ The Land Desk




Spring dust storms further shrink the snow “reservoir” that feeds the Colorado River 

Jonathan P. Thompson
May 7, 2021

Most of us are poor now, like I am. Many of them blame John Collier, who made us reduce our flocks and herds because there was not enough grass for all. But I think the true reason is a change in the climate. When I was a young man this whole country was covered with tall grass. We had rains enough in summer to keep it alive and growing. Now the rains do not come and the grass dies. There are fewer sheep and horses now than when our family claimed this valley, yet all you can see is sand. The grass is gone. 

All we need to be rich again is rain.

—Navajo elder Hoskannini-Begay, who lived on Naatsis’áán, or Navajo Mountain, near the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers, to Charles Kelly in 1945 

The McElmo Dome, Mesa Verde, and Ute Mountain, obscured by dust. Heavily grazed lands are in the foreground. The view was blotted out altogether later that day. Jonathan P. Thompson photo. 

It’s springtime in the Southwest, which means that on four days out of five a dry wind blows incessantly, tossing hats and untethered tents high into the air. The Mistral of southern France is said to drive people—and even horses—insane. The Four Corners Country’s April and May gusts are every bit as maddening, sending humans into paroxysms of mental distress.

And if the wind doesn’t drive you to the brink, then the dust carried by that wind will—dust that blots out desert views, coats your dinner with teeth-grinding grit, and somehow manages to get into every nook and cranny imaginable. Worse, that stuff will eventually fall on what remains of the snow in the mountains, coating the surface with a reddish-brown tinge that kills the snow’s albedo (not libido, silly, albedo). That speeds up snowmelt, which has ripple effects across the ecosystem and water supplies in the lowlands, which, in turn, dries out and frees up more dust for the wind’s taking. 

During some years the “dust events” manifest as just that, distinct events during which the wind kicks up, followed by a growing volume of dust in the air, followed by a thick layer of dust on the surface of the snow. Dust stormfeels too dramatic a phrase to describe the phenomenon. The incidents in the Four Corners country usually don’t involve a wall of airborne sand, thousands of feet tall, rushing across the desert and gobbling up everything in its path, as sometimes happens further south in the Phoenix area. Dust event, on the other hand, feels too clinical. I prefer aeolian—or windborne—dust cloud, since its root is the Ancient Greek god of wind, Aeolus. 

These episodes are not uncommon in these parts, happening several times a year, most often in late winter and early spring. “Our party experienced a violent windstorm when we were several miles above the mouth of Piute Creek,” wrote Hugh D. Miser in a 1924 report on a trip down the San Juan River in Utah on 16-foot boats. “It blew in gusts and picked up sand and fine yellow dust, which were carried up into the air for hundreds if not thousands of feet.” Eight years later, during the severe drought of the early 1930s, newspapers reported that a good two inches of red, dust-infused snow fell on Durango. In that case, the dust even may have “seeded” the clouds, giving something around which the snowflakes could form. 

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Story from the Feb. 5, 1932, Steamboat Pilot

All that dust on (or in) the snow brings about subtle but significant changes by throwing the snowpack’s albedo out of whack. “Albedo is a non-dimensional, unitless quantity that indicates how well a surface reflects solar energy,” notes the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “Albedo varies between 0 and 1. Albedo commonly refers to the ‘whiteness’ of a surface, with 0 meaning black and 1 meaning white.” If a surface’s albedo is zero, or black, then it absorbs all of the solar energy. If it is one, or totally white, it absorbs none of the solar energy, or reflects all of it. When dark-colored dust (or ash, or carbon, or what have you) coats the snow, it reduces the albedo, causing the snow surface to absorb more solar energy, thereby melting the snow more quickly. 

In 2003 a group of snow-focused scientists founded the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies to study the dust-on-snow phenomenon in the San Juan Mountains and to better understand its long-term effects. The San Juan Mountain snowpack is considered to be a giant, natural reservoir that stores up vast amounts of water in the form of snow during the winter months, slowly releasing it to flow down to the arid, surrounding lands in the spring. Most of the snowmelt ends up in the Colorado River watershed, but the San Juan Mountains also contain headwaters for the Rio Grande. 

Those who use the water, whether they are irrigators or river rafters or fish, want an abundant but slow-melting snowpack. Dust on snow speeds up the snowmelt, disrupting alpine flora phenology,¹ or the natural calendar that tells plants when to bloom and so forth, and pushing the spring runoff earlier into the year. Reduced albedo enhances evapotranspiration and snow sublimation², thereby reducing the amount of water that goes into the streams and rivers. Aeolian dust on the snow, alone, has pushed the peak of spring runoff of the Colorado River watershed up by three weeks, when compared to the period prior to the 1850s, and it has also reduced the total runoff volume.  

These aeolian dust events are natural and have probably been taking place every spring since the end of the Pleistocene era and the retreat, some 12,000 years ago, of the glaciers that carved many of the region’s valleys. Maybe the dust events occurred during the last ice age and contributed to the melting of the glaciers, which was mainly caused by global warming resulting from a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That, too, was natural. But just as human activity is again causing an increase in carbon and a warming climate, so, too, has human activity exacerbated the aeolian dust cloud phenomenon. 

By examining the sediment that had built up over nearly six millennia at the bottom of alpine lakes in the San Juan Mountains, researchers in 2008³concluded that most, if not all, of the dust deposited on the San Juan Mountain snows is from the Colorado Plateau, not Asia or other distant lands, as has been hypothesized in the past. And they found that dust events have been occurring for thousands of years but picked up significantly beginning about a century and a half ago, coinciding with the white settler-colonist influx of the mid-1800s and peaking in the first few decades of the twentieth century, when volumes of dust were five times higher than they were prior to colonization. The timing leaves little doubt regarding the cause of the uptick in dust: a combination of the newcomers’ land-disturbing ways, which include mining, development, tilling for farming, logging, and, perhaps most dust-raising of all, cattle grazing, which has drastically altered the landscape of the Colorado Plateau. 

The cattle and sheep ate the native grasses and trampled the fragile soil, making way for non-native grasses to invade and preclude the return of the native vegetation, while also encouraging gulley-forming erosion. Where once ran braided, intermittent streams along wide, flat, sandy beds, now there are deep channels. Streambeds are choked with cheatgrass and other invasive species. These gullied arroyos are so common in the West—the Rio Puerco in northern New Mexico offers one of the most striking examples—that many observers assume that it is the “natural” state, and that they’ve always looked that way. Call it normalized degradation.

Cattle hooves will also wreck the fragile cryptobiotic crust that is critical to the desert ecosystem, and which, as renowned cryptobiotic crust researcher Jayne Belnap put it, holds “the place in place.” Cryptobiotic crust, sometimes known as cryptogamic soil, is ubiquitous, or once was, in most of southeastern Utah. At first glance it looks just like, well, dirt, only with a dark-brown-to-black hue that resembles desert varnish. Bend down and look more closely, however, and you’ll see a miniature, living world—a symbiotic mingling of cyanobacteria, lichen, and mosses—which is particularly noticeable when the crust is wet. The cyanobacteria are made up of filaments wrapped in sheaths. Writes Belnap: “This sheath material sticks to surfaces such as rock or soil particles, forming an intricate webbing of fibers in the soil. In this way, loose soil particles are joined together, and otherwise unstable and highly erosion-prone surfaces become resistant to both wind and water erosion.” And when the crust is destroyed, it leaves those same soils vulnerable to erosion and to the types of winds that scrape across the region every spring. 

And the damage is, indeed, irreparable. Once wrecked, cryptobiotic crust may take decades, even centuries, to fully recover. In 2005 Belnap published a paper⁴ on the impacts of decades of grazing on soils in southeastern Utah. She and her co-researcher ventured into the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park and compared an area that had been grazed from the 1880s until 1974 with Virginia Park, an area where an impassible cliff kept cattle at bay, and which is now a “relict area” shut off to people entirely, save for researchers with a light touch. Belnap’s findings are disturbing. Even 30 years after the cattle had been removed from the historically grazed site, the land had not recovered. The cyanobacteria were distributed spottily, the lichen and moss were only beginning to come back, nutrients and organic material were more sparse than in the ungrazed area, and the soil remains far less stable, which means it more easily can get picked up by the wind and carried to the snow in the San Juan Mountains. Also troubling is the difficulty the researchers had in finding plots of land that had never seen grazing at all, even in a national park. Somehow the cowboys of yore were able to squeeze the cows and their attendant effects into just about every corner of the region. 

Back in 1965, James Rodney Hastings and Raymond M. Turner compared historic photographs of a section of Sonoran Desert with modern ones and determined that cattle grazing in the late nineteenth century had caused a “shift in the regional vegetation of an order so striking that it might be better associated with the oscillations of Pleistocene time than with the ‘stable’ present.”⁵ If we are currently living in the Anthropocene, then an appropriate subset might be the Bovineiferous period or, more appropriate still, the Beefocene. 

Clearly cattle are not the only culprit. ATVs, mountain bikes, cars, and bulldozers can wreck cryptobiotic crust and mobilize dust. Chaining huge swaths of juniper forest to make way for forage or even sagebrush is hugely destructive and dusty. Before each of the tens of thousands of oil and gas wells were drilled across the San Juan Basin, more than an acre of land was scraped clean of all vegetation, top soil, cacti, sagebrush, and even centuries-old juniper trees. Every new house or hotel built on Moab’s, Durango’s, or Farmington’s fringe stirs up dust. Springtime tilling of corn, bean, sunflower, and alfalfa fields kick up huge amounts of dust. Even a single human backpacker trodding through the P-J forest in hiking boots can crush and break up the living soil, liberating the dust underneath for the wind’s taking. 

And just as dust on snow can exacerbate aridity, so too can aridity exacerbate the dust problem. The winter of 2013 was one of the skimpiest snow years on record in the Four Corners Country, parching the Colorado Plateau and turning what should have been moist soils and muddy lands into dust patches. The March winds lifted the earth up into the air and carried it across the mesas and canyons, leading to a number of severe dust events. In Durango the dust was so thick that it fell with rain as a gritty red slime, coating cars and buildings and just about everything else; the Durango Herald ran a woe-filled article about a window washer whose work was destroyed by the storm, forcing him to start all over again. Another dust event a week later would whip up a nasty wildfire near Farmington and contribute to a fatal car crash. The dust ended up on top of what snow was left in the San Juans, reducing rivers and streams to a trickle that summer.

This water year—taken in isolation—hasn’t been quite as meagre, moisture-wise, as 2013 was, meaning a little more of the place seems to be staying in place, despite the maddening winds. But the effects of 20-plus years of aridification and warm temperatures has left the region unusually dry, and the relentless wind has filled the air with a constant, mid-level dust-haze, which thickens during especially gusty times. 

A few weeks ago I unwittingly followed the aeolian dust cloud from northern Arizona into southeastern Utah, where I watched Ute Mountain and the Abajos slowly vanish behind a sepia-toned gauze that seemed to hang from the otherwise clear sky. A few days later I drove over Red Mountain Pass and pulled over to inspect the snowpack. A dusting of new snow had fallen atop the dust layer, partially covering it up for a brief moment. But it was springtime in the San Juans, another dry year in the unrelenting string of dry years, which meant that another dust cloud would arrive before long.

It felt strange but also revelatory to be in the thick of this big cycle of soil disturbance, aeolian dust events, reduced albedo, faster-melting snow, diminished river flows; to be experiencing the interconnectedness of the region, the intimate link between desert and mountains, in real time. 

Parts of this essay are excerpted from Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands, by Jonathan P. Thompson, to be published by Torrey House Press in August 2021. Become a Land Desk Founding Member ($100 or more) and get a free signed copy, along with other swag, to be delivered this August.