What $710 million buys

  • Animas-La Plata Project

    Diane Sylvain

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

It's fitting that the story of Reclamation's last big project should also be a story about one of the West's last free-flowing rivers.

From its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains near the Continental Divide, the Animas River descends about 125 miles south through spruce and fir, in old mining districts. It moves past aspen and pine, oak and juniper, depositing material for half a dozen gravel mines.

It meanders through the subdivisions and farms along Highway 550 in the Animas Valley, and shoots through the center of Durango. From Durango, the Animas flows southwest through the checkerboard area of the Southern Ute reservation and on to Farmington, N.M., where it enters the San Juan River. From there, its water joins the Colorado at Glen Canyon.

The full A-LP project would divert, on average, about a fourth of the Animas River at Durango. In the middle of the summer when the Animas is full of rafters and kayakers, A-LP could cut the river's flow in half.

The water, roughly equivalent to 150,000 football fields covered to a depth of one foot, would enter an inlet the size of a small house and travel through a canal into the first massive pumping station. There, 14 electric pumps, housed in a building the size of a football field, would lift a fraction of the water northeast to Durango. Even though Durango's share is just a small portion of the project, it would still be enough water to support three times the town's current population of 14,000.

The $63 million Durango pumping station would push the bulk of its water 500 feet high in the other direction, southwest, to the Ridges Basin reservoir. It will take two dams to contain the water in Ridges Basin, which, at full capacity, would stretch nearly four miles long, and be as deep as a 30-story building.

From Ridges Basin, a second pumping station would lift water another 500 feet high over Red Mesa into the less-well-endowed La Plata River drainage and the 24-mile-long "dry side canal."

The Bureau estimates that power for pumping will account for nearly half of A-LP's operating costs.

The bulk of A-LP water would irrigate about 50,000 acres of alfalfa and grain on what is now uncultivated land, and supplement another 20,000 acres of marginally farmed land.

Steve Harris, president of the Animas La Plata Water Conservancy District, estimates that A-LP-supported agriculture would pour $25 million into the local economy.

Animas-La Plata would also provide water to the small but growing cities in the New Mexico part of the San Juan Basin: Farmington, Bloomfield and Aztec. Regionwide, A-LP opponents such as the Colorado Rivers Alliance worry that the water would spur suburban development in an area that's mostly rural now. There's enough municipal water in the project to support as many as 300,000 additional people, they say.

Currently, the Bureau is only allowed to deplete the river of 57,100 acre-feet, or about a third of the full project. That's because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 1990 that A-LP could harm endangered fish in the San Juan. In 1991, A-LP supporters, U.S. agencies and four Indian tribes entered into an agreement that would allow A-LP to go forward with an initial first phase while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completes a seven-year study. The idea is to determine how little water razorback suckers and Colorado squawfish need, leaving leftover water in the San Juan Basin for divvying up. The agency will complete its study in 1998.

Phase I of A-LP, which is mostly federally funded, would divert and store, but not deliver, long-overdue water for Colorado's two Ute tribes. A-LP Phase II would deliver water to the reservations. But Phase II requires state funding, and Colorado voters would have to approve a bond issue ensuring financing.

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