The water project that wouldn't die


Driving down a highway, somewhere this side of the New Mexico line, I see a house surrounded by rusted out farm implements. I see a field, churned up and parched under another bright blue October sky. I see a dam being built. A dam!? Yes, a dam.

The era of huge Western water projects has long been over. We’re not going to see another Glen Canyon entombed by stagnant water and silt, nor another convoluted plumbing project on the scale of the Aspinall Unit on the upper reaches of the Black Canyon in Colorado. 

But here in southwestern Colorado, the Animas-La Plata project, often called the last big water project in the West, is in its final stage of construction. The dam I am shocked to see is for the Long Hollow Reservoir. It’s small, and not officially part of the A-LP -- it's more of a hangover from the bigger project, really. But seeing it makes me feel a bit like this part of the world is trapped in a sort of water project time warp. 

The Long Hollow Dam is being built in an area known around here as the Dryside, a vast, mildly undulating mesa that stretches from the foothills of the La Plata Mountains in southwestern Colorado down into New Mexico. Fields and pastures reach out to the horizon here, interspersed with juniper and sage and dotted with oil and gas wells. Neither the big subdivisions and sprawl nor the wealth of surrounding areas have made it here; it can feel more like the Northern Plains than the Southwest. Not much water makes it here, either: Once the cruelly short spring runoff is done, the La Plata River, which runs through the Dryside, ebbs to a trickle or even dries up completely. Whatever is left in the stream is mostly or wholly committed to New Mexico by a 1922 compact. That leaves farmers on the Colorado side of the line high, dry and frustrated (often the New Mexicans don’t get much water, either).

Which is why, back in the 1930s, someone dreamed up a scheme to route water from the much more abundant Animas River to the east, over to the La Plata River and the Dryside. In the 1950s and 60s, the Bureau of Reclamation turned the dreams into actual proposals. They were grandiose, Byzantine plans, each of which included several reservoirs, miles and miles of canals, tunnels through mountain ranges and, in at least one case, a coal-fired power plant between Durango and Silverton. Indeed, one alternative would have put the big dam on the Animas River just below Silverton, completely submerging the mining town. The most realistic of the bunch, which would have moved the dam a few miles upstream from Silverton, was nearly realized. But the Vietnam War intervened, money for dams was instead spent on bombs dropped on Southeast Asia, Congressman and water buffalo Wayne Aspinall was voted out of office, and the Animas-La Plata project seemed to stall out completely.

The concept got resuscitated in the late 70s and gained steam in the 1980s, when Indian water rights became a more integral component of the proposal. One can legitimately argue that, under the terms of early treaties that yanked their land out from under them, the Utes of Colorado are entitled to all of the water on the Western Slope of Colorado. So now A-LP wasn’t just about helping farmers, but also about giving Indians the water they deserved. The link between farmers and Indians was Sam Maynes, a Durango attorney of Irish and Italian ancestry who was a bit like a pit bull with a bolo tie. He served as counsel not only for the Southern Ute tribe, but also the local water district. To the greens, Maynes was a villain, a label the attorney wore with glee.

Not far to the west, the Dolores River fell victim to a dam in the early ‘80s. Maynes had been a pusher of that project, too. Environmentalists weren’t about to let another dam go through without a fight; they had seen too many valuable places submerged, and too many wild rivers tamed. It didn't matter that proponents had shifted A-LP to an “off-site” reservoir in Ridges Basin, just south of Durango, so it wouldn’t actually dam a river. For the next two decades, local and national environmentalists, along with the local rafting industry, brawled with project proponents. Whenever the project seemed poised to go forward, the opposition raised another hurdle (the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and Razorback sucker), and brought things to a halt.

The fight saturated the community of Durango. I was in high school in the late 80s, and remember it well. Virtually everyone was either for the dam or against it. No one sat on the sidelines. My parents were in the opposition. My good friend’s dad was Maynes’ law-firm partner, and a strong proponent. People from both sides argued their cases in front of the school’s student body. T-shirts declaring the A-LP the “billion dollar boondoggle” were printed up, and the “Frankly my dear, I don’t want a dam” bumper stickers were ubiquitous (my buddy nearly got in a fight with a former mayor over his). As deep as the conflict went, it was not partisan at all. Maynes, who died in 2003, was a Democrat. So was the lake’s namesake, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, at least until he switched to the GOP. Fiscal conservatives joined the opponents, balking at the absurd cost. And it was the Clinton administration that finally pushed through the project -- vastly scaled down from the original plans.

In 2002 construction began on the $500 million Animas-La Plata project, which includes a plant that draws water out of the Animas River and pumps it through a pipe up a 500-foot vertical climb to Lake Nighthorse (weirdly enough, the dam has no hydropower component, so none of the power used to pump water uphill is being recouped when water is released from the dam). The reservoir reached its 123,000 acre feet capacity last year, though the lake is still deemed a “work zone” and is off-limits to the public. The project may not even be worthy of its name anymore, since it is intended primarily to meet Indian water rights, not to deliver water to the La Plata drainage.

That’s where the Long Hollow Reservoir, now under construction along a tiny tributary of the La Plata River, comes in. When the final version of A-LP was revealed, the Drysiders -- some of whom had been lobbying for the A-LP for half a century -- were devastated to find that they were left out, entirely. They figured if they weren’t going to get what they wanted from the A-LP, they’d build their own damned dam, using $15 million plus interest that the state had originally set aside for the A-LP (but which wasn’t spent because the project ended up being paid for entirely by the feds). When it’s completed in two years, the Long Hollow project, costing $22.5 million, will hold up to 5,400 acre feet of water to be released into the La Plata River when it is too low to meet the New Mexico compact. That, in turn, will allow Dryside irrigators to continue to divert water from the La Plata River for irrigation, even during dry spells.

It’s hard not to feel as if the new dam was built more because of momentum than because of the benefits it brings. The head of the La Plata Water Conservancy district told the Durango Herald that the dam “will give Colorado ranchers seven to 10 more irrigation days and help satisfy our compact with New Mexico.” And reports say that fewer than 100 irrigators will benefit from the reservoir. So a handful of ranchers might get a second or third cutting of hay that they might not have, otherwise. Or maybe not. It hardly seems worth the effort. It’s as though proponents had fought for so long for this that they couldn’t give up now, even though the original logic behind the plan had faded long ago.

The same, I suppose, could be said about many such projects. The Animas-La Plata stores water for tribes, and that water can be released back into the river and sold downstream. But the project included no way to deliver the water directly to the tribes (a pipeline on and near the Navajo Nation is under the auspices of the project, but it doesn’t connect to Lake Nighthorse). Growth has halted in Las Vegas, but the Southern Nevada Water Authority is plowing ahead on plans to suck groundwater from northern, rural parts of that state and send it to Sin City, even though the need for the water is questionable. Ditto down in Utah’s Dixie, where a proposed $1-$2 billion pipeline would ferry water from Lake Powell to St. George, Utah, once an area of rapid growth, now a victim of the housing bust. 

Back down on the Dryside, I take a circuitous route to the new dam site. There are humble farmhouses in the center of dry fields, and then there are the compounds of rural poverty: Homes sinking into the reddish-brown earth, surrounded by decrepit outbuildings, cars without wheels, an odd assortment of things whose purpose has long been forgotten. When I reach the construction site, I see a sign that says if I want a job, I’ll need to go to the office in Towaoc -- the contractor is owned by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which is also helping pay for the dam.

I walk around looking for the best place to shoot photos, while making sure I stay in the highway right-of-way, so as not to trespass. Nevertheless, I’m deemed a threat. After about five minutes, a big white truck pulls up near me, and a big guy with a hardhat gets out. “I gotta call says someone’s up here taking pictures,” he says. “Ummm...” I say, holding up my camera gear, “yeah, that would be me. I just figured I’d come see what a dam looks like when it’s getting built.” He looks me up and down, and I can’t help but wonder what he sees. “Uh huh,” he says. “I take pictures of it every day, too. It’s interesting. But some people don’t like us, and you never know who’s on your side and who’s not.”

Photos, from top to bottom: Long Hollow Dam site; Lake Nighthorse; tanks at gas well on the Dryside. All courtesy of the author.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.

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