Wade in the Water

Colorado's governor and lieutenant governor have waded into the fight over the proposed Animas-La Plata water project in southwestern Colorado. And some of those opposed to the project see the move as a step toward a pared-down version of the oft-delayed government endeavor.

After Governor Roy Romer sat down with the two sides in separate conferences last month, a joint meeting was scheduled for October 9 to begin negotiations between the warring parties. Invitations have been extended to, among others, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a staunch supporter of the plan, and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, whose department oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, which hopes to build the project.

Project opponents on the invitation list include the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization, the Colorado Rivers Alliance and a group called Taxpayers for the Animas River. Invited proponents include the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribal councils, area water-conservancy district representatives, and land developers and farmers who would benefit.

Those in favor of the estimated $710 million project contend that its completion is necessary to fulfill agreements between the state and federal governments with the two Ute tribal councils over their rights to one-third of the water in the Animas and La Plata rivers. Those opposed note that under the only government-funded phase of the plan, the Indians wouldn't get any water delivered to their reservations. They say it is a boondoggle meant to benefit Durango-area land developers and white farmers and ranchers.

As currently proposed, the plan also violates numerous environmental and land-reclamation laws, says Lori Potter, an attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. The Sierra Club has successfully delayed the project since 1990 through a series of lawsuits on a variety of grounds, including violations of the Endangered Species Act, the project's questionable economic benefits and the Bureau of Reclamation's repeated violations of public-comment statutes.

Despite its own reports that the project is economically unfeasible, the bureau continues to push for it, Potter says, "because it's like the million-ton tanker that can't turn around for several lifetimes. They have a lot of people and institutional resources invested in wanting to see this 'last of the big water projects' built."

Potter, who recently joined a private firm but has been retained by the defense fund and the taxpayers' group to represent their interests, says she welcomes the intercession of the governor's office. Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler, who also heads the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, will preside over the October meeting.

Attorney Sam Maynes, who represents a Durango water-conservancy district and who, as the attorney for the Southern Ute tribe, has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the project, didn't return calls from Westword. According to some of those on the invitation list, participants were asked not to talk about the meeting beforehand. However, the meeting will be open to the public.

James Doyle, a spokesman for Senator Campbell, said he isn't sure if the senator, who recently broke his arm in a motorcycle accident, will attend the meeting. "But a representative will be there," Doyle adds. Campbell recently saved a $10 million appropriation to begin preliminary construction of the project after members of the House of Representatives voted to eliminate it.

In its current form, Phase I of the plan would cost about $450 million and would involve the construction of a pumping station on the Animas River--which runs through Durango and then south through the Southern Ute reservation--to pump water hundreds of feet uphill into a reservoir. From there, a series of pipes and canals would deliver water to farmers and developers, but it would not go to the reservations. The tribes would get water only under Phase II, which has no provisions for taxpayer-supported funding.

Potter says opponents of the project will not go into the meeting with a set agenda--except that they don't want the project as currently envisioned. There are other alternatives, she says, including a scaled-down version that addresses only Indian water rights, as well as a plan by which the Indians could be given the right to market water already held in federal reservoirs or to market power generated at other facilities, without a facility being built.

Leonard Burch, chairman of the Southern Ute tribe, says the Southern Utes want to develop their lands and that they need water, not money, to do so. But Potter says it's time for proponents of the project to do a "reality check."

"I don't think Congress is going to support spending that kind of money for a few pinto-bean farmers and land developers who want to build trophy homes," she says.

Schoettler says the two sides are going to have to reach a compromise and that some version of the project is likely to be built.

"If everything goes well, we'll work out an agreement on how to move forward that resolves the Indian water-rights requirements," says Schoettler. But, she concedes, the two sides are far apart, and reaching an agreement will be "difficult."

Schoettler describes her role as "mediator and facilitator." She says she performed a similar function and "kept the parties at the table" to work out agreements on environmental cleanup issues at both the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant.

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