Trickle-Down Economics

A new proposal could leave Animas-La Plata proponents high and dry.

Last October, two women accused former Durango mayor Jeff Morrissey of making lewd comments. His apparent inspiration: bumper stickers on the women's cars opposing the proposed Animas-La Plata water project.

One sticker boasted the acronym A-LP with a red slash
through it. The other read "A-LP sucks." Did that mean the women would give
him blow jobs? asked Morrissey, a member of the pro-project Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy Board.

After the women complained to police, Morrissey was arrested and cited for disorderly conduct. He has denied making off-color remarks; his lawyer, whose firm works for the conservancy district, contends that whatever Morrissey said about "the offensive bumper stickers" was protected by the First Amendment.

Under a plea agreement, in exchange for a six-month deferred prosecution, Morrissey resigned from the board in December and wrote letters of apology to the two women. However, he still denies any guilt. Morrissey quit the board, his attorney says, because he did not want "the personal controversy surrounding his case to detract from the substantive considerations of the Project...as he believes in his heart that the Project is vitally necessary to the welfare of the community."

And the Morrissey incident came after the first meetings sponsored by Governor Roy Romer and chaired by Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler, meetings designed to bring together opponents and proponents of the controversial project for meaningful, well-behaved talk. Under the terms of an agreement worked out by Schoettler, representatives of the various groups were supposed to "recognize that each party deserves, and indeed must, be treated with dignity and respect for fruitful discussions to progress.

"During the course of the...process, each party agrees to refrain from publicly voicing or publishing personal attacks on the characters or motives of the other parties."

Noting that there are few things more personal than a public official asking for fellatio, A-LP opponents gleefully seized on the Morrissey arrest as evidence that the other side was unwilling to negotiate in good faith. But at the same time, project proponents were throwing charges of their own--including the claim that their opponents, in fighting the project, were willing to break a treaty with the Indian tribes in southwestern Colorado.

Funding for the A-LP water project might have dried up entirely by now were it not for the 1988 Indian Water Rights Settlement Act, negotiated by the feds, the states of Colorado and New Mexico, and the Navajo and two Ute tribes on the southwestern border of Colorado.

Only the last-ditch efforts of its proponents--most notably Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Ute tribal councils and the white Durango-area developers, ranchers and farmers who stand to benefit the most from this "Indian project"--have kept the $740 million Animas-La Plata proposal alive.

Meanwhile, the opposition--an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, anti-tax and anti-growth organizations and a grassroots Ute group that opposes the project on cultural and economic grounds--keeps trying to pull the plug.

Through lawsuits and lobbying, they've stalled the bulldozers long enough for public sentiment against government spending to take hold in Congress. During the past two sessions, the annual appropriations request for the A-LP project has been cut by the House--only to be restored in the Senate through Campbell's efforts, along with his reminder that failing to fund the project would "break another treaty with the Indians."

Closer to home, the rhetoric has gotten no more respectful than it was last fall when Morrissey mouthed off. In fact, Schoettler recently called off the A-LP meeting scheduled for this week--at which both sides were to present possible alternatives to the project. Since then, she says, proponents and opponents have each agreed to come up with a proposal.

Sage Remington, who heads SUGO, the Southern Utes Grassroots Organization, thinks his group has devised an ideal compromise. One that would not only satisfy treaty obligations, but would do so for a fraction of the cost of the proposed project, mollifying taxpayer groups. One that would not move a clump of dirt, pleasing environmentalists. And one that would right old wrongs by returning prime land on the Southern Ute reservation to the tribe, keeping a promise made to the Indians a century ago.

In 1879 the approximately 8,000 Utes still remaining in the West were moved off the vast expanses they'd once roamed. The northern bands were assigned a bleak, arid part of Utah. The southern bands were "given" lands along the Colorado-New Mexico border, in the Four Corners area. Sixteen years later the U.S. government decided to keep the nomadic Utes in place by turning them into farmers. The Utes, who then numbered only about 2,000, were offered a new deal: 160 acres for the head of every household.

One of the bands, the Weminuche, refused the offer, deciding that their lands would be held in common. They moved to the southwesternmost corner of Colorado and became the Ute Mountain Utes. With only one river, the Mancos, on the reservation and so little potable water that it had to be brought in, most of the Ute Mountain Utes settled at their capital, Towaoc.

Two of the bands--the Moache and Capota--accepted the government's offer and settled on land near Ignacio, fifteen miles south of Durango. This Southern Ute reservation was blessed with six rivers--the La Plata, the Animas, the Florida, the Pine, the Piedra and the San Juan--that flowed through the land and on into the Colorado River.

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