DURANGO, Colo. - The Animas-La Plata Project in southwest Colorado has inspired decades of bitter debate, pitting environmentalists against Indian tribes and government-spending critics against regional water districts. Now, the West's last large water project is poised to become reality. It appears likely the project will receive at least $16 million from Congress for fiscal year 2002, and initial work is set to begin this fall.
Yet some project foes say the fight isn't over.
The project, nicknamed A-LP, was first authorized by Congress in 1968 as a massive, $710 million undertaking encompassing two rivers, two reservoirs and multiple pumping stations. Environmental concerns and political and legal wrangling quickly put the proposal in limbo.
In 1998, thanks in part to prodding from then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, A-LP was whittled down to a plan involving only one off-stream reservoir and dam, one pumping station and just one river - the Animas. The streamlined version has an estimated price tag of $350 million; it passed the Senate easily last December and slipped through the House as a rider on a spending bill.
In March, President Bush included $12 million for the project in his proposed budget. The funds would pay for start-up work such as road and pipeline relocation, land acquisition, mitigation of damage to wetlands and wildlife and surveys of the numerous ancient cultural sites that the project would disturb. The House and Senate both approved $16 million for A-LP in their energy and water-development appropriations bills. Project proponents will now seek to up the funding to $21.6 million during conference committee deliberations.
Outspent, outlobbied and overwhelmed by larger battles with the Bush administration, environmentalists put up little fight against the 2002 A-LP funding, says longtime critic Michael Black. But he is undaunted. "We've been in worse positions, and somehow it doesn't seem to get built," he says. "It's never been economically feasible. It still isn't."
Wrapped in an Indian blanket
A-LP would deplete 57,100 acre-feet of water annually from the Animas River and pump it to a 120,000-acre-foot reservoir just south of Durango on Ridges Basin. The bulk of the water would be allocated to Colorado's two Ute tribes, with other allotments for the Navajo Nation, New Mexico's San Juan Water Commission, the state of Colorado, and water districts in Colorado and New Mexico. Unlike the original project, the scaled-down version includes no water for non-Indian irrigators.
Opponents like to say A-LP was "wrapped in an Indian blanket" to make it politically acceptable. Though the project satisfies water rights promised to the Utes under 19th century treaties and granted to them in the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act of 1988, it does not include a delivery system on either the Southern or Ute Mountain Ute reservations. The tribes have never specified how they will use the water, but there has been talk of golf courses, housing, a dude ranch, and even a coal-fired power plant.
"There are good people out there who support this project just because they want to do what's right for the Indians," says Sage Remington, a Southern Ute tribal member and spokesman for the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization, which opposes A-LP. Remington believes the tribes will just sell the water, possibly to developers of upscale homes near Ridges Basin.
"If you took this idea out to Wall Street, no one would invest in it," says Black, a member of Taxpayers for the Animas River. "The only one foolish enough to invest is the American taxpayer." He and many opponents say the project will drain the lifeblood from one of the West's last robust, free-flowing rivers. They would rather provide the tribes with money to buy existing water rights from willing sellers.
A-LP's backers say the project is a cost-conscious, ecologically sensitive way to satisfy the tribes' claims, which otherwise could threaten non-Indian water users throughout the area. They say the water is the tribes' by right, no matter what they want to do with it.
"I came to the conclusion that if ever a Western water project was relatively benign to the environment, this was it," says Mike Griswold, president of the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, organized in 1981 to manage the project.
Christine Arbogast, a lobbyist for A-LP, says, "In so many ways, the opponents did win this one. They got rid of the agricultural and irrigation features, and they got it drastically downsized, both in cost and depletion of the river."
Black scoffs at these claims. Even downsized, A-LP is "insane on lots of different levels," he says. "As long as it involves pumping massive amounts of water uphill ... it doesn't make sense."
Substantially more money would have to be appropriated over the next five years to complete the project, he says. "There isn't money in the budget for pork-barrel spending on this scale," he adds. "I don't think it will ever be built. It's too big and too stupid."
Griswold disagrees. Momentum is with the project now, he says, and even last-ditch lawsuits filed by environmental groups shouldn't "do more than create a hiccup in the process."
Gail Binkly writes for the Cortez Journal.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Michael Black, Taxpayers for the Animas River, 970/385-4118;
- Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, 970/247-2659;
- Bureau of Reclamation, Western Colorado Area office, 970/385-6500.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Gail Binkly