For sale: a Colorado water district - maybe

  • The Collbran Project

    Diane Sylvain
  • Wes Hawkins and Larry Clever look out over Vega Reservoir

    Christopher Tomlinson
 

COLLBRAN, Colo. - At first, it seemed simple: The federal government would sell its small irrigation projects to the local water conservancy districts that use them.

The idea sprang from Vice President Al Gore's mandate to reduce federal bureaucracy.

But officials in three Western states are learning that purchases can turn nasty when they go straight to Congress without consulting the public.

"What we've learned ... is that if you don't include everybody who has an interest," said James Hess, the Bureau of Reclamation's transfer coordinator in Washington, D.C., "at the eleventh hour, somebody will jump up and oppose it and it will die."

The hour struck this summer in the town of Collbran, on Colorado's Western Slope. A bill proposing the sale of the federal Collbran Project was yanked from a U.S. Senate hearing by its sponsor, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., following criticism that the public had not been involved. The bill called for the project's two beneficiaries, the Collbran and Ute water conservancy districts, to buy it from the Bureau of Reclamation for $12.9 million.

Environmentalists argue that the sale would exempt the districts from federal environmental laws: It would derail efforts to divert water to the Colorado River to protect habitat for endangered fish like the Colorado squawfish and the razorback sucker.

"They wanted to ram this thing through Congress as fast as they could on their own terms," said Bruce Driver, an attorney for the Grand Valley Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups opposing the purchase.

Some residents of rural Collbran worry the purchase could increase water rates as Ute seeks to enlarge its water pipeline to bring water to growing subdivisions in the Grand Valley, around the city of Grand Junction.

Thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act, sales of BuRec projects are supposed to be open to public scrutiny. But in Collbran, as well as some other projects around the West, purchasers went straight to Congress.

In New Mexico, the sale of the Carlsbad Project on the Pecos River is now stalled over past and future oil and gas royalties from project lands. In Idaho, the sale of a portion of the Snake River's Minidoka Project is stuck on the purchase of a gravel pit and the unpopular diversion of project water to private users.

Where the Collbran water comes from

The Collbran Project is relatively simple, with only two entities buying water under long-term contracts from the federally built and owned operation. The Collbran Conservancy District takes water from the Vega Reservoir, east of Collbran, to irrigate 22,210 acres of pasture. The district also takes project water out of 15 small reservoirs on the 10,000-foot-high Grand Mesa to power a hydroelectric plant.

At that water point, the Ute Water Conservancy District, which serves 60,000 suburban customers with drinking water, taps the clean outflow of the Vega plant - 8,000 acre-feet a year for $1,800, or 22 cents an acre-foot.

At one time, agriculture and sporadic oil shale booms dominated the Grand Valley and the Grand Junction area, along the Colorado River. But now the valley is increasingly suburban, and the Ute district, the rich partner in the purchase plan, is prepared to pay cash for the water.

The purchase is part of a larger plan. If the deal goes through, Ute intends to quadruple its ability to deliver water, allowing it to serve an estimated 50 years of growth in the service area.

That is one issue in the rapidly growing area. At a July 17 meeting organized by the town of Collbran's leaders and attended by 300 people, sentiment split between a majority of ranchers who favored the transfer because it could increase the value of their water rights, and a handful of Grand Valley residents who fear the purchase will fuel more growth.

The other major issue is the Bureau of Reclamation's effort to help endangered fish by diverting Collbran Project water to the Colorado River. It was this plan that prompted Ute to seek a fast-track purchase. Ute officials thought if they owned the project, federal officials would have no claim on the water, a prospect that worries environmentalists even more. The purchase, says Driver, would exempt the project from federal environmental laws protecting endangered fish.

But after much wrangling with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ute agreed to pay $600,000 atop the $12.3 million purchase price into the federal Endangered Fish Recovery Program. In exchange for the money, the Bureau agreed to back off from its claim for water for fish and to tap another federal reservoir instead.

Driver says his constituents still find the deal unacceptable. If the purchase is to take place, environmentalists want Sen. Campbell's bill to guarantee the project will obey federal environmental laws.

Meanwhile, Campbell said he'll try to reschedule a hearing on his bill. For more information, call Sen. Campbell's Denver office at 303/866-1900.

The writer works for the Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel.

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