I want to offer what I hope people will perceive to be a constructive alternative to the controversial Animas-La Plata dam project. The solution is simple: Purchase ranches in southwest Colorado and give them to the two Ute tribes and their members (HCN, 11/11/96).
Most ranches come with significant, high-priority water rights. The goal should be to acquire ranches with water rights equal in volume to the rights conferred to the tribes under existing law. Most of the rights would be somewhat junior to the Utes' 1854 rights, but would be senior to almost all other users of the rivers. Legal action could change those rights to 1854.
Because the rights would be purchased in the open market system, the prior appropriation system would remain intact. This could reduce some of the resentment which existing water users feel about federal reserved water rights. Colorado is noted for its relatively free, open market for water rights, and this program would take advantage of that situation.
The current estimated cost of the project is around $800 million. For $100 million-$200 million, a large amount of ranchland could be purchased, and many of these lands would be more green than the deserts now owned by the Ute tribes - lands more like the Ute territory prior to the invasion of white people. This also could put the Utes directly into the agriculture business, which was the original goal of the reservations.
An incidental benefit from this move would be to preserve ranching and open spaces in La Plata and Montezuma counties. Most ranches there are now threatened by the housing subdivision alternative. With a couple hundred million dollars at hand, a lot of debt-free, prosperous ranching could be created that also pays property taxes.
Of course, the Utes themselves might later go into the housing subdivision business. That would be their privilege, just as it is now the ranchers'. Some folks may see a significant drawback to this idea: the prospect of a large amount of land changing from white ownership to Native American. But so what?
Crested Butte, Colorado
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