Liquid Gold

Proponents of the Animas-La Plata Water Project (ALP) in southwestern Colorado have agreed "in concept" to a reduced version of the project that knocks non-Indian water users out of the picture, according to confidential documents obtained by Westword. The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, whose tribal councils have signed on to the new version, would also have to accept a cup that is half empty.

Although supporters of the original $760 million project, such as U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, have hailed it as fulfilling an Indian water-rights treaty, the chief criticism has been that it mostly benefited white land developers and agricultural interests near Durango. The new proposal would at least blunt that charge, if not appease project opponents.

In a May 22 confidential memo from Elizabeth Newlin Taylor, an attorney with the San Juan Water Commission, which has supported the project, to state engineer Tom Turney, the project is renamed "CUSP." The acronym stands for the Colorado Ute Storage Project, and, according to the memo, "is intended to show that the project has been significantly changed, and that the major thrust now is to implement the final part of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Final Settlement Agreement."

However, the memo notes that non-Indian agricultural interests would still benefit, because under the new proposal, they would continue using water from other area rivers at the current level. "Without the settlement," according to the memorandum, "the Ute tribes would probably go back to Colorado water court to take water away from the non-Indians."

ALP was originally authorized by Congress in 1968 as an irrigation project. But it went nowhere until it was amended in 1986 to include Indian water-rights claims. Even so, it has mostly been treading water against a current of opposition from environmentalists and anti-tax and anti-development groups, as well as grassroots opposition from some Utes.

The original project was scheduled to be built in two phases. In the first, water would have been taken from the vigorous Animas River, pumped uphill to a yet-to-be-built reservoir, then piped over to the drier La Plata River for non-Indian agricultural and development uses. Two-thirds of the water would have been claimed by non-Indian interests.

The Indian third--which included some water for agricultural and some for municipal and industrial use--would have been stored in the reservoir until Phase II could be built to deliver it to the reservations. But there was no provision for taxpayer funding of Phase II. Opponents argued that the Indians would have had to pay more to have the water delivered than it was worth.

In October 1996 Governor Roy Romer and Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler initiated a series of meetings between ALP's opponents and proponents to resolve their differences. The meetings proved fractious, with neither side willing to compromise. Exasperated, Schoettler, who chaired the meetings, set a July 31 deadline for the parties to come up with alternatives.

In April the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization (SUGO), which claims to represent a couple hundred households, proposed the Ute Legacy Land and Water Fund. That proposal asks the federal government to give the Southern Utes about $100 million in a trust to buy, on a "willing seller" basis, land and water rights along the half-dozen rivers that cross their reservation.

The Ute Mountain Utes would also get funding for their own projects, which SUGO contended could include delivering water they already own in another water project nearer to their reservation.

SUGO president Sage Remington touted the Ute Legacy as getting the tribes the full amount of water agreed to in the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights settlement, without having to build pumping stations, reservoirs or delivery systems. That proposal cut non-Indian water users out of the picture. However, Remington noted, it also drastically reduced the cost to taxpayers and eliminated the concerns of environmental groups.

SUGO's plan was adopted by other members of the opposition coalition. But it was assailed as a "sellout" by those who wanted a construction project, including the tribal councils.

The new proposal still calls for the construction of a reservoir, but it would cut the amount of water the Indians get pumped into the reservoir by about half. There would still be no funds to deliver it to the reservations.

In exchange for losing some water, the two tribes would be granted the construction contracts. How much money that involves isn't specified in the confidential memo, although it would have to include the bulk of the $540 million it would have taken to build Phase I.

By removing the non-Indians as beneficiaries, proponents of this new compromise have eliminated the most readily identifiable criticism of the project. But the apparent compromise seems not to have appeased some opponents.

Remington now says it is the tribal councils who have sold out by accepting an agreement with half the water and no delivery system.

"How dare they call us sellouts?" he says. "For two years they've been saying 'ALP or nothing at all.'"

If ALP is not built by shortly after the turn of the century, the tribes have a right to go to court to sue for their water rights. They likely would win, albeit securing less water than in the original ALP proposal. But they would take that water from current users--non-Indian farmers, ranchers, home owners and developers.

The state of New Mexico, through the San Juan Water Commission, and the Navajo tribe had given up rights to other waters in exchange for ALP water. According to the memo, under the new agreement they would get their old water rights back and drop claims to ALP.

Those who support the new settlement agreement may have also turned friend into foe. The memo notes that non-Indian farmers and developers represented by the La Plata Conservancy District were not a party to the agreement.

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