One project seems like the same old BuRec

  • Artist's conception of the Ridges Basin Dam, Animas-La Plata Project


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, The fight for Reclamation.

Although the Bureau of Reclamation says it is now a water-conserver, and not a dam-builder, one ghost from the past continues to linger. Southwestern Colorado's Animas-La Plata water diversion project, first approved by Congress in 1968, is still slated for construction next year - despite a mountain of evidence indicating that it is an economic and ecological boondoggle.

The project, a convoluted combination of dams, canals and pipelines, proposes to pump water uphill almost 1,000 feet, then deliver it to dry-land farmers and municipalities.

Last year, a study by the Inspector General of the Department of Interior found that the $688 million project was "economically infeasible" (HCN, 8/8/94). And another study by the Bureau of Reclamation, slated for release sometime this spring, will likely say the same thing. Lori Potter, an attorney with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, has seen a draft of the study and says it predicts a yield of just 37 cents on the dollar.

Nevertheless, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Dan Beard says he is committed to completing the agency's last big dam project to fulfill treaty water obligations to two Ute Indian Tribes. And his agency, which expects to complete a final environmental impact statement on the project later this year, is getting strong support from the Republican-dominated Congress.

In late January, Colorado's two Republican senators, Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Hank Brown, along with Rep. Scott McInnis, R, released a privately contracted study touting the project as an economic winner. That study, financed by the project's three biggest customers, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian tribes and the Southwestern Colorado Conservation District, says Animas-La Plata would return the equivalent of $1.66 for every dollar invested.

The study takes a broad view of both costs and benefits, including the costs of litigation if the tribes fail to receive their water through the project and are forced to go back to court.

"This should lay to rest the question of whether Animas-La Plata is economically feasible," Campbell told The Denver Post.

"Everybody knows that Animas-La Plata is an economic loser," responds Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund attorney Chris Seldin. "It takes factual and methodological distortion to make this project look good, and that's exactly what they did."

Proponents emphasize that building a dam will uphold tribal treaty rights. In 1988, Congress acted to restore senior water rights to the tribe by offering them Animas-LaPlata water instead. If the project is not at least started by the year 2000, the tribes may void the agreement and return to court, requesting the implementation of their 130-year old rights which pre-date anyone else's (HCN, 3/22/93). Most analysts think they could win their claim, and possibly gain control of the region's entire water supply.

If the project gets built, the tribes may still have to pay for the construction of a water delivery system, pegged at $160 million. Critics, including some tribal members, wonder if the tribes will end up with water in a reservoir and no pipes to send it anywhere.

Phil Doe, an environmental compliance officer with the Bureau of Reclamation in Denver, isn't afraid to criticize his own agency. Doe says frankly that tribal demands can be met without building a dam he labels "Jurassic Park."

The simplest solution, he says, is to force the "hobby hay farmers' in the region to use less water and pay more for the privilege. Currently, these ranchette owners don't produce crops, but do use cheap water that ought to belong to the Utes.

"They don't want to sit down and systematically analyze probable costs," says Doe of his agency's top officials. "The Utes should get the water first and foremost, but this (project) is a developer's dream. The Bureau of Reclamation seems to be the handmaiden of development interests."

Others continue to pressure BuRec to look at alternatives as well. William Yellowtail, the regional administrator of the EPA, advised the Bureau in a letter last February that its EIS must be revised to include "a comprehensive and contemporary examination of alternatives' to the proposed dam and pipeline system. Some tribal members, calling themselves the Southern Ute Grassroots Group, have also called for a study of non-structural alternatives to damming the Animas, which has cultural and spiritual value to many tribal members. And the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund has hired water engineers to help the tribes look for alternatives.

But the agency has given no indication that it wants to change course. "We're moving forward as aggressively as we can," says BuRec spokeswoman Shannon Cunniff, who is based in Washington, D.C.

Before the Bureau can release its final EIS late this year, however, it must address a lawsuit brought by the Defense Fund which alleges that endangered fish downstream of the project area will be affected by the lowered water. All parties involved expect future litigation when the EIS is finally released.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration has asked for $5 million from Congress to begin initial construction during the 1996 fiscal year. For more information, contact the Bureau of Reclamation, P.O. Box 11568, Salt Lake City, UT 84147 (801/524-6477).