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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.

Remington is also active in gay- and minority-rights issues and Democratic Party politics in Denver. In 1995 he was awarded the Cinco de Mayo civil rights award by the Latino community; this year he was given the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award presented by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Denver Mayor's Office.

But the fight that consumes him these days is four hundred miles away, on the land he calls home. It is the fight over the Animas-La Plata project. Remington first began to worry about the water-rights agreement and what it would mean financially to his tribe in the 1980s, when he was still with the radio station. But it wasn't until a year and a half ago, while talking with other concerned tribal members, that he decided something needed to be done on a proactive level, "rather than wait for it to hit us in the face down the road." That's when he and his friends formed the Southern Utes Grassroots Organization.

Burch scoffs at the idea that SUGO represents much of his tribe. "I went to one of the meetings of those opposed to the project," he says. "There was a hundred people there, but I could count the number of tribal members on two hands. These guys are just puppets."

Remington laughs at Maynes's suggestion that he is in the hip pocket of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and other white-run groups that oppose the project. "Anybody who knows me, and Sam Maynes certainly does, knows I'm in no one's hip pocket," he says. "We knew we couldn't stop this big money consortium of land developers, water districts--and I might add water attorneys--and the tribal council by ourselves. But we have our reasons, and the other anti-project opposition has theirs...It just so happens at this point, our objectives mesh."

SUGO and the other opposition groups say they want to put the brakes on the project until other alternatives have been explored. But Burch and Maynes say all those alternatives were studied two decades ago, and dismissed in favor of the current course.

The Animas-La Plata project is a "hell of a good deal" for the Utes, Maynes says. Delays are only driving up the cost, he points out, and could jeopardize more than the budget if the project isn't completed by the year 2000. At that point the Utes could go to court over their water rights, but in doing so they could lose a major portion of the water guaranteed to them by the settlement. The federal and state governments are obligated to meet only agricultural water-rights requirements, not to provide municipal and industrial water as well, he says. With Animas-La Plata, they get all three.

But project opponent Doe says there's plenty of water available for the tribes from projects that have already been built, including dams on the Mancos and Dolores rivers near the Ute Mountain Utes, and at the Navajo Reservoir south of the Southern Utes. Or the government could go with a scaled-down project, dubbed Animas-La Plata Lite, which would build the reservoir on Indian lands and basically serve only the Indians, thus fulfilling government obligations to the tribes. "The problem is that water wouldn't do the land developers around Durango or the dryside farmers any good," Doe says. "So, of course, they start screaming about Indian rights. It's about as two-faced as you can get."

Remington acknowledges that Maynes and his law firm have helped the Southern Utes to develop their natural resources. In fact, the firm recently represented the tribe against oil companies that tried to claim that while the Southern Utes owned the rights to the coal on their land, they did not own the rights to methane gas produced by the coal. The decision on that case is due any day from the Tenth Circuit Court.

But whatever Maynes may have accomplished in the past, Remington says SUGO doesn't trust him now. The debt the tribe would incur as a result of the water project could force them to develop the coal resources on their land in order to meet payments, Remington says. Several years ago the Peabody Coal Company, which Maynes also represents, approached the tribe about developing those coal reserves but was turned down.

"There's no doubt Leonard Burch gave us a good life," Remington says of his uncle. "But there is more to a good life than money...like having a role in your future. The Animas-La Plata will take away that future.

"The bottom line is that for all the rhetoric, not a single drop of water from the Animas-La Plata project will reach Indian country," says Remington. "But we will have this enormous debt to repay, and the taxpayers will be stuck with a bill of at least $710 million. And for what? A few alfalfa farmers and some land developers with dollar signs in their eyes."

SUGO has about 200 active members, Remington says. The total population of the Southern Ute tribe is about 1,500, but he says that if the project were put to a vote, he thinks it would be turned down--although he concedes the vote would be close. SUGO's current strategy is to delay the project at least until this fall's tribal election, when a new, anti-project candidate could be elected.

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