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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.

The tribal council reacted angrily. In a letter responding to the elders' action, the council said the group was advisory only and had no right to act without first consulting the council.

Grove was among the elders who signed the protest to Congress. "This is just the way I feel, but I have to be careful. It is a sore subject around here," she says, nodding toward a short brown man in a white cowboy hat and Western-cut jacket. "My brother is on the other side.

"He's Leonard Burch, the tribal chairman."

By a small monument to Chief Ouray, "who died near this spot," Leonard Burch is locked in conversation with Judy Knight-Frank, the chairwoman of the Ute Mountain Utes. She's angry about continued opposition to the water project coming from such groups as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Colorado Rivers Alliance, anti-development factions in Durango and, even more irritating, the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization.

In its latest incarnation, the Animas-La Plata project is designed to be built in two phases. The first will create a pumping station on the Animas that will take 157,000 acre-feet of water per year out of the river, pump it hundreds of feet uphill and dump it into a yet-to-be-built reservoir called Ridges Basin. An off-stream site for the reservoir, nearly ten miles from the nearest Ute lands, was selected to avoid getting into a debate with environmentalists over plugging one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West.

The Bureau of Reclamation estimates the construction costs of the first phase at $551 million--all federal tax dollars. Opponents of the project, including Phil Doe, a former bureau official hired as a consultant by the Colorado Rivers Alliance, contend it could cost three times that amount, if cost overruns on other Southwestern water projects are any indication.

Although the Animas-La Plata project has been billed by its proponents as the fulfillment of government promises to the Utes concerning water rights, the two camps disagree on exactly what this first phase will accomplish for the Utes. Under the 1988 water-rights agreement, the Southern Utes have been assigned 26,500 acre-feet of water per year for municipal and industrial use, and 12,000 acre-feet for irrigation; the Ute Mountain Utes are assigned 6,000 acre-feet of water for municipal and industrial use, and another 3,000 for irrigation.

Longtime Southern Ute tribal lawyer Sam Maynes Sr. says that when completed, Phase I will deliver all the Southern Ute water--both municipal and industrial, and irrigation. Because the water-rights agreement only guaranteed the Ute Mountain Utes a storage facility, he says, completing Phase I fulfills state and federal obligations.

But Doe contends that not only does Phase I fail to deliver a drop of water to the Ute Mountain Utes, it will provide none of the municipal and industrial water and only some of the irrigation water promised the Southern Utes. Most of the water delivered under Phase I, he says, will go to non-Indian farmers on the western "dryside," where the tiny La Plata River runs, as well as to land development and municipal interests in and around Durango. Even Leonard Burch, Maynes's boss, concedes that Phase I only stores his tribe's water.

Delivery of most of the Indian water--as well as the water promised to municipalities in southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico--would occur under Phase II. But there are no federal funds committed to this second phase...and no obligation to provide them. The bureau's estimated cost of $159 million for Phase II would apparently fall on the shoulders of Colorado taxpayers, who are already obligated by the water-rights settlement to commit $60 million; other potential beneficiaries of the project, including the State of New Mexico, appear to be backing out. And under Amendment I, Colorado taxpayers would have to vote to finance more of Phase II--a far-from-sure bet.

Faced with such economic realities, even the project's proponents concede that Phase II will probably never be built. If the Utes want the water delivered, they may have to pay for it themselves.

But that prospect doesn't daunt Knight-Frank. The Ute Mountain Utes remained isolated from the rest of the world much longer than their cousins to the east; only in the past twenty years have they exchanged their traditional chief system for a tribal council, and they are still playing catch-up when it comes to developing their own natural resources--hindered in part by the lack of water. Until recently, when a pipeline was built from Cortez to Towaoc, the capital of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, water had to be trucked in and stored in cisterns. Even with the pipeline, though, there's not enough water available to settle other parts of the reservation, and most of the population has to remain in Towaoc.

"We want to know the water's there," Knight-Frank says. "Then we will find a way to get it to our land." For starters, she says, the tribe could use some of the money it earns from its casino.

"People opposed to this are very shortsighted," she adds. "It's been very frustrating to have people who don't have to live under the conditions we do tell us they know what's best for us."

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