A Water Boondoggle Wrapped in the Cause of Indian Rights

<i> Tom Wolf, who teaches ecology at Colorado College, is the author of "The Ice Crusades: Reflections on Cold War and Cold Sport," to be published this year</i>

Most of what passes for public virtue in water politics is private vice. Nowhere is this more true than in headwaters states like Colorado. The problem with water is not so much scarcity as fraud, subsidy and misallocation. The major contemporary battlefield over such issues is southern Colorado, home of the last of the great pork-barrel boondoggles, the Animas-La Plata Project (ALP).

This is a dam, first proposed in 1904 and authorized (but not fully funded) in 1968. It takes its name from the Animas and La Plata rivers in snowy, mountainous southwestern Colorado. At a cost of $710 million in federal money, it would pump a quarter of the free-flowing Animas River vertically into the Ridges Reservoir. At a cost of $5,000 an acre, that water would irrigate land that produces crops worth $300 an acre.

Then the remaining water would be pumped uphill (again) to irrigate ever more worthless lands growing ever more worthless crops in an area where the federal government is already paying farmers to retire similar lands. A small portion of that water would then flow into the La Plata River, where it might finally trickle onto the lands of the Southern Ute Reservation (population 1,700), assuming the Indians there can come up with an extra $200 million or so to finish their part of the project. Downstream on the Colorado River, ALP would divert 155,000 acre-feet a year.

The buck stops at Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam. If ALP removes its water, it would rob the dam’s power plant of $9.5 million a year in revenues. Furthermore, salinity levels in the Colorado River would rise in ways that would cost downstream users around $10 million annually to clean up.


Is there a method to this madness? You bet. For 75 years, the dam’s proponents played “something for nothing"--high-stakes federal water poker just like everyone else in the West. Water-conservancy districts divided up the Animas River among themselves, then demanded that the public pay for its water development. These districts use their taxing authority to promote their interests. If you own property in one of these districts, you pay their water bills, whether your interests and theirs coincide or not.

In the water districts’ pursuit of ever more federal money, they have recruited the Indians to help them get it. ALP seemed doomed until Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Frank E. “Sam” Maynes, an attorney who represents the reservation and its water district, decided to tack on the Ute Indians’ water claims. The sweet smell of “white guilt” money filled the air. Never mind that ALP is hardly the only way to satisfy water claims that supposedly date to the founding of the reservation in 1868. Campbell and Maynes “wrapped themselves in the Indian blanket,” charges Sage Remington of the dissident Southern Ute Grassroots Organization.

Ray Frost, former Southern Ute tribal councilman, thinks there is a better way than milking the federal government. He contends that “ALP is not in the best interests of the tribe. It will not fulfill the promises of the settlement; the financial obligations it could impose on the tribe outweigh any benefits the tribe would obtain. It is clear the dam and pumping will damage the environment. We can find alternatives that are kinder to our sacred lands and water, yet still give us the required 60,000 acre-feet of water a year. One is earmarking water in existing reservoirs such as Glen Canyon Dam, enabling us to market that water and earn income each year.”

Frost has put his finger on something. The fight over ALP pits proponents of the “old ways” against fiscal conservatives, free-marketeers, environmentalists and the Roman Catholic Church. Led by Father John Kiernan, a retired Catholic priest, and Phil Doe, a retired Bureau of Reclamation employee, ALP opponents have joined with the dissident Indians to propose inexpensive, nonstructural alternatives. One idea would divert ALP construction money into a dedicated fund to buy water rights and lands close to the Ute reservations, as well as water in existing water-conservation projects and delivery systems. Both current tribal councils have rejected these proposals. They want ALP.


The Clinton administration remains ambivalent about the proposed dam. Though the president is said privately to oppose the project, federal money continues to flow ALP’s way. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt supports the kind of interstate water marketing and leasing that ALP opponents propose, since their ideas would give Upper Basin states ways to capture the value of their water without building more dams.

Maynes claims that ALP would satisfy the terms of a Reagan-era settlement whereby the federal government agreed to honor 1868-vintage Indian water claims. If those early rights exist, their priority makes them valuable. But if the Indians’ water rights actually date only from 1938, as some ALP opponents claim, it would appear that both Ute tribes have already done quite well by the federal government. For example, the 1,700 members of the Southern Ute Tribe got $34 million in a 1988 deal, plus another $19.5 million they used to buy oil and gas wells, which today return them $100,000 a day. As for the 2,000 members of the Mountain Ute Tribe, they already benefit from 25,000 acre-feet a year of federally funded water from the $700-million Dolores River Project, one of six federal water projects already in the area.

No one is saying the Indians should get nothing. But if Campbell really does represent the interests of Indians in Congress, it seems fair to ask him why these particular Indians won’t accept money instead of ALP. Campbell’s reply was to introduce legislation, known as “Alp Lite,” that would cut the project’s cost to $257 million and produce less water but also suspend laws like the Endangered Species Act.

When Maj. John Wesley Powell of the U.S. Geological Survey issued his recommendations to Congress a century ago for the development of the Colorado Basin, he said it should occur on a regional watershed basis. That’s basically what ALP’s opponents are proposing. Congress scorned Powell. Instead, we got 100 years of fiscally unsound, environmentally degrading, federally funded water projects. Now, the last of these white elephants is roaring for more money.