Dam's price tag skyrockets

by Gail Binkly

After decades of rancorous debate, construction is under way on the Animas-La Plata dam project in dusty southwestern Colorado (HCN, 8/27/01: A-LP gets federal A-OK). But anyone who thought the controversy would end when the first front-end loader scraped the ground was mistaken. A rising price tag has given its foes fresh ammunition.

"A-LP Ultralight," approved by Congress in 2000, had a price tag of $338 million. But last July, when a new Bureau of Reclamation estimate rose 48 percent to $500 million, even previously staunch supporters such as Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., questioned the soaring figure, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton called for a review.

The resulting report, released in November, blames the change on "omissions and underestimates" by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, one of the project’s beneficiaries. The tribe’s estimate did not include a $2.5 million operations and maintenance building, for example, and underestimated by at least $20 million the cost of a pipeline to carry water from Farmington, N.M., to Shiprock.

A federal law granting Indian tribes first right of refusal for contracts on reservations allowed the Utes’ Weeminuche Construction Authority to win construction contracts without competitive bidding, which adds about $43 million to the price tag. The original cost projection also failed to consider that the pumping-plant site lies on bedrock rather than common soil, which will add another $42.7 million in construction costs.

Phil Doe, a former Bureau official who now heads the watchdog group Citizens’ Progressive Alliance, charges that Bureau officials deliberately low-balled the A-LP figures to get the project passed. "There was tremendous pressure from the Indians, (Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse) Campbell, and McInnis to get this going," he says. "(Officials) knew if they got their shovels in the ground, they’d say, ‘Oops! We made a mistake, but we’ve already started.’ "

Reclamation officials deny that dam proponents misled Congress, but a congressional subcommittee is holding hearings on the cost overruns this spring.

Doe predicts taxpayers will pay $1 billion before the project is finished.

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