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.

Before they would support the Animas-La Plata project, however, the lower basin states of New Mexico, Arizona and California forced the Utes to agree not to sell their water to out-of-state, downstream interests. "We had to bite the bullet on that one," Burch says. "But it was worth it." The Utes also agreed not to take their water claims to court--so long as the project is completed by the year 2000.

But getting the agreement past Congress and the lower basin states turned out to be the easy part. Since then the project has faced numerous delays, including environmental challenges and even an audit report from the Interior Department's inspector general that concluded the project was neither financially feasible nor economically justifiable. The final environmental impact statement from the Environmental Protection Agency is due at the end of July; it could either open the door to construction or slam it firmly shut.

And on the Southern Ute reservation itself, the project has had some rough times. Two years ago Burch and the tribal council faced a recall election; opponents of Animas-La Plata claim the vote centered on the water project. Burch and Maynes deny this, saying the recall attempt was inspired by a general dissatisfaction with the tribal leadership. "From people who weren't getting their way," Burch adds. The tribe split down the middle. Burch and the council were retained--after Maynes determined that a vote cast against the council by proxy was not constitutionally acceptable.

Burch and the council still have their staunch supporters. Last November Nighthorse Campbell attacked opponents of the project, calling them liars, cowards and backstabbers. The senator then tried to introduce language to the funding bill that would insulate the project from future environmental challenges. Threatened with a White House veto, though, Congress revised the measure so that it only urged the Interior Department to proceed without delay.

Even if Phase II is never completed, Burch says, Phase I is still a good deal for the Southern Utes. For example, the tribe could sell its share of the stored water within the state, particularly to Durango developers. Durango, one of the fastest-growing cities in the Southwest, has only a ten-day supply of water in its reservoir. It has already signed up for its own water from the Animas-La Plata project, but as realtor signs sprout up in all directions, it's obvious that water, or the lack of it, is the only thing preventing the Durango boom from turning into a developers' bonanza.

Burch is also convinced that "something can be worked out" with the lower basin states to allow the Utes to market their water downstream. And that someday, somehow, the water can be brought to the reservation. "We have young people who want their assignment of land so that they can raise livestock," he says. "But they need water for that, and there's not enough."

This fall the Southern Utes will elect a new chairman. Burch is about to complete his third consecutive term and cannot run again. But he's not particularly looking forward to retirement. "I'll probably do some things around the house my wife has been wanting me to do for the past thirty years," he says. "I sure am going to miss politics."

Burch believes Animas-La Plata will be the major issue in the upcoming election, and he's troubled that he won't be in a position to see the water project through to completion.

"I wake up at night sometimes," he says, "and wonder, 'What's going on here? What's going to happen to the people?'"

High in the sharp gray peaks of the Uncompahgre primitive area in southwest Colorado, snowflakes fall from clouds formed a thousand miles away off the coast of California. Melted by the sun, the snowflakes turn into drops of water that join to form a thin, quick-silver trickle across a face of granite.

The trickle merges with others that run from every ravine and seep between multihued layers of seemingly impenetrable rock walls. By the time it passes the Weminuche Wilderness, the trickle has become a stream that leaps and bucks like a colt new to the saddle. It prances past the old mining town of Silverton, which has found a new life as a tourist destination, and hurries past the long abandoned diggings.

The stream is now identifiable on maps as a tributary of the Animas River. The River of Lost Souls. The lost souls of conquistadors, miners, trappers and the Utes who once called this area home, kan-ne-ga, but were forced to move on, leaving only their names behind. Uncompahgre. Weminuche. Ouray.

Downward the water snorts and plunges to where the valley widens and the hills slump down to the river. Cool mists cling to the upper reaches of the valley, even in late spring. The underbrush is thick, and the silver-trunked, satin-skinned aspen are huge compared with their cousins in other parts of the state. The coniferous forest looks like it belongs in the Pacific Northwest rather than the arid Southwest.

Twenty miles north of Durango along Highway 550, the forest has been carved out to allow for gated mansions and rows of townhomes. Soon golf courses and new housing projects appear; sprinklers spew the Animas into the air. Although a few ranches continue to operate along the river, the land is stabbed repeatedly with For Sale signs.

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