Rough Waters

The Animas-La Plata project is supposed to fulfill the government's promise to Colorado Utes. But tribal opponents worry it will leave the reservations high and dry.

Most Southern Utes had no idea what the council and chairman Leonard Burch were getting them into when the water-rights agreement was finally reached a decade ago, Eagle says. After generations of forced reliance on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal members had simply transferred that blind faith to the council and were rewarded with a vastly improved standard of living and the trust-fund money. "Sometimes there is such a thing as giving people too much," she says. "They get lazy and spoiled."

Burch, she says, began his political career as a young idealist whose vision of prosperity for his people helped give them everything they could want. But for the water project, he made the mistake of trusting a white man. "Sam Maynes," Eagle says, in a tone usually reserved for epithets.

Eagle began looking into the project when her son, Sage Douglas Remington, who'd started the public radio station on the reservation, began airing critical programs in the early Eighties. "Up until then," she says, "we were kept pretty much in the dark. All we heard was the government was building something to give us more water and everyone would be happy."

Now a member of both the committee of elders and the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization (SUGO), which her son helped found, Eagle says "common sense" tells her that the only people the water project will benefit are white farmers and land developers.

"When we completed the original environmental impact study in 1979, it was an irrigation project for dryside farmers," says Phil Doe, who was then head of the bureau's reclamation law division in Salt Lake City. "But the feeling, at least in Salt Lake, was that it would never be built. Irrigation projects no longer had any swag in Congress.

"The only way to get it done was to, as we say, 'wrap it in an Indian blanket.' Suddenly, it was an 'Indian' project."

Doe is now working with the Colorado Rivers Alliance, which opposes the project. According to his calculations, of the 115,000 acre-feet of water captured by Animas-LaPlata for irrigation, three-fourths would go to non-Indian farmers.

Eagle doesn't believe the dryside farmers want the water for irrigation. "I think they want it to increase the value of their property for land development," she says.

SUGO contends that the tribal council sold out the tribe on the advice of Maynes, who also represents several water districts in the Durango area. But Burch defends his longtime attorney and friend, pointing out that Maynes has stepped aside and doesn't represent the tribe on water issues so as to avoid any conflict of interest. (Critics, noting Maynes's lobbying trip to D.C., say he isn't as removed as he and Burch assert.)

"SUGO pounds their drums and says, 'We need to look at alternatives,'" Burch says angrily. "We looked at alternatives a long time ago, and this is the best way.

"SUGO is in the hip pocket of the Sierra Club; they're the ones being run around by white people. These are a bunch of people who just want to accept 'big wampum'--big money--now for themselves without looking to the future."

Maynes thinks that elders like Eagle were "taken advantage of" by Sage Remington and councilmember Ray Frost, who opposes the project and is expected to run for the chairmanship on that platform. "I'm not angry at the elders," he says. "They're poor people who were fed a lot of baloney by younger members of the tribe. That they would sink to those depths just hurts their credibility. If you talked to the elders who signed that letter, you would find out that they don't have a clue what Animas-La Plata is about."

According to Maynes, there's no chance that the water will be used by white developers rather than farmers. "By law, that water can only be used for irrigation," he says.

And on that, Doe agrees--to a point. "The bureau has been very lax in the past about watching out for that sort of profiteering," he says. "That's 'unjust enrichment.' A change in purpose for the water would mean they would have to pay a different, much more expensive, rate for the water."

Doe quit the bureau after a series of run-ins with his superiors over his outspoken opposition to several projects, including Animas-La Plata. "It's a monument to old nineteenth-century thinking when agriculture and real estate controlled natural resources," he says. "It's the old mindset of get somebody, namely the taxpayers, to bankroll private enterprise. And the bureau wants it because it preserves their infrastructure of a bunch of engineers who build big dams. And I think the Ute Mountain Utes want it because they have a big construction company over there and see a lot of short-term potential."

If past water project overruns are any indication, this one will end up costing taxpayers $2 billion, Doe predicts. And even if it comes in at the bureau estimate, he says, it will still drive the Utes into debt.

Here's why: Once they begin using the water, the Utes must start paying their share of the cost. Using bureau figures, Doe calculates that the two tribes could incur debts of at least $900 million for the municipal water, which must be repaid within fifty years. Because Animas-La Plata water carries such a fierce price tag, Doe says, the Utes won't be able to sell it to help with the debt. The Utes won't be asked to repay any of the costs for providing irrigation water--estimated at about $300 million of the project's overall $710 million price tag. And Maynes and Burch both hurry to point out that the Utes don't have to pay anything unless--and until--they start using the water.

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