Pueblo Chieftain publisher Bob Rawlings is standing in the middle of a narrow bridge that spans the Arkansas River at its confluence with Fountain Creek. Tall, imposing, supremely confident, Rawlings pays no attention to the cars whose drivers, cowed by his presence, have simply stopped and waited.
Photographer John Suhay snaps a dozen pictures as Rawlings comments on the obvious: The Arkansas' waters are a clear, limpid blue, while debris-laden Fountain Creek looks like Mark Twain's Mississippi -- "too thick to drink, too thin to plow."
"Look at that," Rawlings says, with an elegant calm that doesn't seem to go with the words. "Garbage and raw sewage, used condoms and a few dead cats. The sewers of Colorado Springs, dumped straight into Fountain Creek and sent to Pueblo. We send you that clear, pure mountain water, and that's what we get back -- your sewer water!"
With that, Rawlings strides off the bridge, followed by Suhay and a reporter. The stopped traffic begins to move, and not a single person honks, yells or gives us the finger. Several give friendly waves. They know Bob.
At 81, Rawlings seems 20 years younger. Infallibly courteous and craggily handsome, he carries himself with quiet authority. Since 1963, he's run the family newspaper, first as general manager and, since 1980, as editor and publisher. He runs it, he owns it and, unlike his counterparts in corporate media, he alone controls its editorial voice and direction.
Look at the masthead of the New York Times. Only five people have held the publisher's job in the last 100 years, and they're all from the same family. Now look at the Chieftain's. Since 1905, there have been three publishers: Rawlings, Rawlings' uncle and Rawlings' grandfather. Like the Times, the Chieftain is a throwback, a reminder of a time half a century ago when daily newspapers belonged not to faceless corporations, but to prominent families deeply rooted in their communities. And for Rawlings, being a newspaper publisher means more than selling advertising and reporting the news -- it means being a passionate, stubborn and tough-minded advocate for your community.
So why should people in Colorado Springs be interested in Pueblo and the publisher of its daily newspaper? Well, maybe you've read about the Southern Delivery System (SDS), our city's plan to pipe water from the Pueblo Reservoir north to Colorado Springs to provide for future growth.
Advocates say the pipeline will take care of our needs for the next 50 years and, if questioned about its $1 billion-plus cost, point out that we have no alternative. City leaders, including Mayor Lionel Rivera and Colorado Springs Utilities honchos, admit there are still minor stumbling blocks: a couple of intergovernmental agreements still be to be completed, a few details about wastewater discharge. But, they maintain, everything should be ready to go within a year.
Ask Bob Rawlings, though, and you'll get a different story. He's been fighting the project for several years now, trying to persuade voters and elected officials in Pueblo and the lower Arkansas Valley that SDS is a rip-off, a potential economic disaster, a health menace and just another example of the out-of-control arrogance of Pueblo's neighbor 40 miles to the north.
Rawlings has had some success -- so much that we in Colorado Springs may no longer control our destiny. How and even whether this city grows may be up to Rawlings and his allies, not local political and business establishments. While Mayor Rivera, former Utilities director Phil Tollefson and former Economic Development Council chief Rocky Scott were pumping out promises, Rawlings saw a fatal weakness and moved ruthlessly to exploit it. He may succeed in stopping the project cold.
But before analyzing his power move and its possible consequences for Colorado Springs, let's talk about the man himself.
He didn't disappoint
Rawlings was born in Las Animas, a small farming town in the lower Arkansas Valley, 125 miles southeast of Colorado Springs. His father was a farmer; his mother the daughter of Frank Hoag Sr., the Chieftain's publisher. Rawlings grew up with stern, disciplined parents who, he says, expected the best of their son. He didn't disappoint them. He was valedictorian, class president and a superb athlete.
He served in the Navy in World War II and graduated from Colorado College in 1947. But that's not what Rawlings remembers most from his youth. He remembers the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s when, during the Great Depression, the region was gripped with drought.
"It was a frightening wall of dirt, 2,000 feet high and as wide as you could see," Rawlings remembers. "Tumbleweeds, cardboards, pieces of dilapidated old outhouses.
"It was impossible to hide ... we children had dust masks to protect our lungs, but the dust seeped right through."
In 1947, newly wed and just graduated from college, Rawlings went to work for the Chieftain and his grandfather. Hoag Sr., who had been publisher since 1905, told his managers not to cut the boy any slack. According to Rawlings, the managers interpreted this to mean, "Kick his butt!" Rawlings' apprenticeship lasted for a full 15 years, until Hoag Sr. died in 1962 after 55 years as publisher. Frank Hoag Jr. became publisher and named his nephew general manager.
Eighteen years later, following his uncle's death, Rawlings became editor and publisher, positions he holds to this day.
Now, the newspaper appears to be a well-run, profitable, eminently modern enterprise. By some measures, it's one of the best medium-market newspapers in the country.
Consider: Since 1990, the Chieftain has led every newspaper in America in circulation penetration. In a city of 105,000, the Chieftain has a circulation of 65,000. By contrast
in Colorado Springs, a city of nearly 400,000, the Gazette's daily circulation is well below 100,000.
Presumably awash in cash, the Chieftain under Rawlings has one of the most modern printing facilities in the West. (The Chieftain also prints the Independent. ) Its technological edge is evident in any paper-to-paper comparison with the Gazette, whose Orange County, Calif.-based parent company consistently has drained away profits that might have gone toward capital improvements.
Rawlings is close-mouthed about the newspaper's profitability.
"We're fine, but that's not important," says Rawlings, who would clearly prefer to talk about his city and his family. Father of four, grandfather of five, he would seem to have an heir to the Chieftain's throne in his daughter Jane, a slender, poised woman who has worked with him for the past nine years.
Jane Rawlings now holds the title of assistant to the publisher. After 30 years living elsewhere, she returned to Pueblo and went to work for her father, originally to create a Web presence for the Chieftain. A Colorado College graduate, she is, like her father, a powerful community presence: president of her Rotary Club, a trustee of the El Pomar Foundation.
"He leads by example," she says of her dad. "He's a very hard worker, very passionate about his work and very compassionate."
By his daughter's account, Rawlings also is a fine father. "He worked all the time, Sundays, holidays, but we always had dinner together," she says. "Dinner table conversations were intellectual and vibrant -- and fun."
Asked whether she'll succeed her father as publisher, Jane Rawlings pauses.
"No," she says. "There's just no way that he can pass on the paper to me, or to any of his heirs. We couldn't afford the taxes, and we'd have to sell the paper to pay them. That's why, years ago, my father transferred ownership of the paper to the family trust. When he's gone, the trust will have to sell the paper anyway -- nonprofits can't own profit-making businesses."
The family, she confirms, has been approached many times by national chains that would love to add the Chieftain to their holdings.
'The people of this city deserve this'
At lunch, Rawlings talks about his beloved city. We're seated at his favorite table in the Rio Bistro, a trendy, relatively new restaurant in the heart of Pueblo's historic downtown. Pueblo, first settled by Europeans in 1842, predates Colorado Springs by 30 years, and, until 1960, was larger than its northern neighbor. But as the Springs grew, Pueblo stagnated. Its steel mills, which once anchored the economy, declined. To this day, it's perceived as a fading backwater, smoky and polluted -- the Pittsburgh of the Rockies.
Happily, the last 15 years have seen dramatic changes in this city -- a renovated downtown, a convention center, a riverwalk along the Arkansas and a new library. Newly gentrified, but still reliably Democratic at the polls, Pueblo is reviving.
"It's a wonderful place in which to rear a family and to live -- mostly we have people who are just wonderful people," Rawlings says. Just a few blocks away is Pueblo's new library, a soaring contemporary structure designed by world-renowned architect Antoine Predock.
And the Robert Hoag-Rawlings Public Library never would have been built had it not been for Rawlings and the Chieftain.
As he describes it: "Well, they passed a bond issue, which we supported once they had a good plan in place. But when the bids came in, there wasn't enough money [to build it]. The architect said, 'Well, you can just take off the top floor, or take away some other space,' but I thought, 'No, the people in this city deserve this,' and so we agreed to make up the difference."
And how much was that? Rawlings hems and haws; he's a little uncomfortable about revealing the number, or pretends to be.
"About $5 million altogether," he says. "I wanted it to be magnificent. The people of Pueblo were deserving. Also, we think that learning to read, loving to read, is good for our newspaper."
It's easy to find Puebloans who will go on the record to praise Bob Rawlings, but not so easy to find detractors -- at least anyone willing to speak candidly and for print. Off the record, some will grumble about his pigheadedness, his mulish conservatism, his coldly vindictive way of dealing with opponents.
But Pueblo's still a small town in many ways, and as one Democratic activist noted, "They say never get in a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel -- but Rawlings, he owns the goddamn ink factory!"
And one thing is certain about Rawlings, many agree: He loves a fight. Maybe that's why he decided to take on Colorado Springs.
Taking 'em on
In 1987, Colorado Springs and Aurora were enabled by a court decision to buy water rights in the lower Arkansas Valley, enabling the cities to pump water hundreds of miles upstream to the point of use.
At first it seemed innocuous enough. Why shouldn't farmers be able to sell their water rights to the highest bidder? But according to Rawlings, the decision led to the loss of tens of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland in the valley, as well as the worsening of water quality in Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River. A few farmers were enriched, but only by throwing away the valley's future. No water = no agriculture = no economy.
Worse still, the water being removed from the valley was only there thanks to the Frying Pan-Arkansas water project, designed to move 75,000 acre-feet of water annually from Colorado's Western Slope to the Arkansas Valley. The Fry-Ark, approved by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, was an ambitious and costly undertaking intended to prevent another Dust Bowl and to preserve agriculture in the lower valley by keeping the Arkansas running in times of drought.
But somehow, Colorado Springs had gotten control of the Fry-Ark by manipulating the entity that, by federal law, oversees the project: the grandly named Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (SECWCD). Rawlings was furious. The Fry-Ark, in his view, was for the benefit of the Arkansas Valley and Pueblo, not Colorado Springs.
Rawlings decided to take on both Aurora and Colorado Springs to keep the water in the lower valley. First, he began using the Chieftain to engage in noisy public battles, filling its pages with stories and editorials about the greed and perfidy of the Front Range water buffaloes. His audience was Pueblo voters and elected officials who, Rawlings believed, had been flimflammed by their counterparts in the Springs and Aurora.
It was a difficult fight. The two cities were, and are, implacable and determined opponents.
"It's difficult to fight [Colorado Springs] because of their wealth, their power and their arrogance," he says. But the public fight was a diversionary tactic, designed to conceal what Rawlings really was up to.
The Pueblo Reservoir, from which the Springs hopes to draw water for its planned Southern Delivery System, is part of the Fry-Ark project. So the SECWCD controls the reservoir -- and may well control the future of the SDS. Its board is appointed by a Pueblo district judge, and by law, 11 of its 16 board members must come from Pueblo and the Arkansas Valley, compared to only five from El Paso County.
Over the past couple of years, Rawlings has moved quietly, encouraging new applicants for board vacancies and talking to existing board members. He has written the judges who make appointments to the board, urging them to shake it up.
Shifts in composition and philosophy became most apparent several months ago, when Pueblo resident and Democratic lobbyist Wally Stealey stunned Colorado Springs politicos by beating out longtime board member and former Colorado Springs Utilities water boss Ed Bailey for the board presidency.
The SECWCD, which Rawlings describes as having been a "tame little pussycat sitting in [Phil] Tollefson's lap," had turned into a tiger. Control apparently has passed to people who are, at the very least, more sympathetic to Rawlings' views than were their predecessors. If the board opposes the pipeline, it could stall the project for years, if not kill it completely.
Asked whether he orchestrated the shakeup, Rawlings chooses his words carefully, a slight smile playing over his face. "We certainly supported the efforts to restore some control to the valley," he says. "It was never the intent of the Fry-Ark project to become a tool of Colorado Springs Utilities."
Dropping the bomb
So what does Rawlings want? What's his price?
He begins by talking in general terms. He'd like to see the Springs address problems with stormwater runoff, with seasonal flows into the Arkansas, and he'd like our city to be a little more rational in its approach to growth.
"I still have problems realizing why you want to make it the size of Detroit, for heaven's sake!" he says.
And then he drops the bomb.
"Colorado Springs needs to use its transmountain diversions to extinction -- not just send that water down the Arkansas [River] to us as sewer water and exchange it for more upstream water."
In other words, if Colorado Springs makes a bigger effort to conserve and recycle the wastewater the city currently dumps into Fountain Creek, Rawlings very well might support the Southern Delivery System.
So Colorado Springs Utilities' new motto could be "Down the toilet this morning -- out of your faucet this afternoon?" Rawlings is asked.
"But isn't that what you're saying to Rocky Ford and Manzanola and La Junta and all those towns -- that they're going to be drinking Colorado Springs sewer water?" he shoots back, his face darkening with anger.
"And your water grabs -- it's almost criminal to destroy the livelihood of thousands of residents of the lower valley [by buying up downstream water rights], as well as the impact on the environment, on waterfowl habitat ..."
Colorado Springs Utilities doesn't agree. In an April 4 press release, Rawlings was assailed for his "campaign of misinformation and bullying tactics against CSU and the Southern Delivery System." The release went on to state, "On at least two occasions we've had to buy costly paid advertising in the Chieftain because of the paper's over-editing or total omission of our letters."
As for water recycling, the press release claimed it's too expensive -- "$370 million more than SDS."
Tom McAvoy, the Chieftain's research director and Metro columnist, who has been with the paper 30 years, was perplexed by the tone of the press release.
"I find it unfortunate that CSU chooses to personalize these issues," says McAvoy. "Our criticisms [of SDS] are on a professional level. We don't attack people ... I just find it totally unprofessional."
McAvoy recently returned to Pueblo after spending 21 years covering the legislature in Denver. His affection for the Chieftain, and for his boss, is obvious.
"This paper is a dying breed in the United States. We're very different from the chains," he says.
Historically conservative and inclined to support Republican candidates, the paper changed direction last fall.
"We backed Bush, and both Salazars, and a bunch of other Democrats," McAvoy says. Water, it seems, trumps party politics.
McAvoy thinks Rawlings is having some success. A couple weeks ago, he watched a broadcast discussion between some of the Pueblo and Colorado Springs council members over recent spills into Fountain Creek that sent sewage downstream to Pueblo. "Your council members have suddenly gotten a lot less arrogant," he notes.
Square in the eye
Emboldened by success, Rawlings now is pushing a compromise plan for SDS. Instead of piping water directly from the reservoir, he says, the Springs should move the intake to a point below the Fountain/Arkansas confluence.
This week, the Chieftain quoted half a dozen regional officials in support of the plan, among them Pueblo state Representative Dorothy Butcher:
"Let [Colorado Springs] take the water they're sending down the river, clean it up, and send it back ... they've sludged us long enough!"
On a broiling July afternoon, the publisher, unruffled by the glare and heat of the Chieftain's parking lot, responds to a final question.
Despite Pueblo's recent revitalization, isn't much of the lower Arkansas Valley dying -- no matter what happens to the water -- as the old folks pass on and the kids move away? Isn't the depopulation of southeastern Colorado inevitable?
For the first time, Rawlings seems tired and uncertain, an aging titan fighting changes that he cannot control.
"Wally [Stealey] says it's coming back," he says softly. And then he brightens.
He tells me to read a 1992 history of the Chieftain.
"Look at the part about my old basketball coach, Frosty Cox," he says.
On page 77, author Erin Warner tells a story that, whether entirely true or not, defines Bob Rawlings.
Forrest (Frosty) Cox was the coach at C.U. ... As he lined the team up for their first practice, he warned, "You've all heard the old saying, 'It isn't who wins or loses, it's how you play the game.'" Pausing, he looked each of them squarely in the eye. "That's bullshit!" he bellowed.
They won the conference championship. Rawlings was first-team all-conference.