The terrifying saga of the West’s last big dam

by Joshua Zaffos



The war on terror has a new front in southwestern Colorado. Outside the fast-growing city of Durango, the government has allocated $2 million for terrorism security at the Animas-La Plata Dam construction site. How will that money specifically ward off al-Qaida operatives and increase homeland security?

"If I tell you too much, I’d have to kill you," project manager Patrick Schumacher told The Durango Herald last September, making a point with grim humor. "It’s a direct result of 9-11."

Of course, he was joking — or was he? Dams stand as potential terrorist targets. But the Animas-La Plata Project, better known as A-LP, isn’t even built yet. Still, for many critics, nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of A-LP itself.

Congress originally authorized the Bureau of Reclamation to build the Animas-La Plata dam and pumping project in 1968. The project entailed pumping water from the Animas River 1,000 feet over a divide into the La Plata River, then storing it in a series of reservoirs and sending it to farmers through 48 miles of canals and pipelines for low-value crops like alfalfa. The Rube Goldberg nature of the scheme and the hundreds of millions of dollars it would have cost infuriated river-lovers and fiscal conservatives, who fought A-LP in its various forms for the next three decades.

By 1995, the dam had still not been built, and U.S. News and World Report called the project the "last surviving dinosaur from the age of behemoth water schemes."

The Bureau of Reclamation determined that the project’s costs astronomically outweighed its benefits — A-LP would return only 36 cents for each dollar spent — yet the agency continued to back the plan. In some college courses on resource management, the Animas La Plata Project became a textbook example of bureaucratic survival strategies. The lesson: A government agency, in this case the Bureau of Reclamation, often does anything it can to ensure its survival and continue an outmoded mission — despite high costs to the taxpayer.

Dam proponents unwilling to concede failure scaled back the original plan in the late ‘90s and, as environmental critics put it bluntly, "wrapped the dam in an Indian blanket." The redefinition meant that water from the project would go to two Ute Indian tribes, which had 19th century water rights, but no water.

The tribes will likely use their new water to grow their own low-value crops, or else sell it to coal-fired power plants that pollute the desert skies with sulfur and carbon dioxide. There were other changes in the new operating version of A-LP: It reduced its take of water from the Animas River to limit negative impacts on endangered fish, proposed an off-site reservoir, and cut the La Plata River out of the project.

Water from the dam will still go to non-Indians for irrigation as well as to meet the growth explosion in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, where population is projected to increase as much as 50 percent over the next 25 years.

These changes to the project convinced Congress to finally allocate money for actual construction. The Bureau of Reclamation won approval for a $338 million project budget in 2000, and went to work blasting and digging in 2002. By last July, the agency announced cost projections had raised to project’s cost closer to $500 million, and these overruns could jump higher, since construction is still underway.

Frustrated by 35 years of resistance and scrutiny, and hoping to avoid further embarrassment and holdups, Reclamation Commissioner John Keys told reporters last December, "I just don’t want any more land mines." The remark probably referred to figurative obstacles, but Reclamation still got $2 million for anti-terrorism protection. That expense pales in comparison to the $160 million overrun so far.

The projected total cost of a half-billion dollars for the project — not including four decades of court battles and environmental studies — makes this dam a significant plundering of the public treasury. The project may also be the swan song of a government agency struggling to carve out a new mission for itself, now that Americans have decided that the costs of a modern dam are too great to be borne.

Meanwhile, the critics keep protesting the project, and many are terrified at the way A-LP will accelerate growth in the region. It makes you wonder why a terrorist, who wants to harm America, would try to sabotage A-LP?

Josh Zaffos is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org), where he lives and writes.

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