Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
June / July 1998



Critical Time for Animas-LaPlata Proposed Water Project
by Jim Decker

Frustrated for years by legal and procedural problems that have kept them from a construction start, promoters of the large federal water project in southwestern Colorado have decided to gamble. In an attempt to convince Congress and the Clinton Administration that they have painfully compromised, they have abandoned the $760 million project that was supposedly critical to the development of the southwest, eliminated all irrigation features and reduced and converted all water supplies to municipal and industrial (M&I) water. The result is a depletion reduced to the quantity specified by the agreement with Fish and Wildlife to save the endangered Squawfish. Promoters have made an attempt to satisfy the criticisms of budget hawks and environmentalists. And what they have created is something that is loaded with legal and procedural problems.

The creation has now come to be known as Animas-LaPlata Lite, despite the fact that it has no longer any physical connection with the LaPlata River drainage. On the one hand these changes are characterized as a significant concession. On the other, lawyers for the proponents want to sell it in Washington as a mere amendment to the 1988 Settlement Act. That Act was to settle all Indian claims by extinguishing rights on rivers that crossed the Ute reservation in favor of storage in Ridges Basin Reservoir, the core feature of the Animas-LaPlata project. These "amendments" were to bypass the 1996 final supplemental environmental statement. In addition, because the project was to be reduced to three facilities, the reservoir, pumping station and connecting conduit, the agreement was to waive all tribal repayment obligations in exchange for a reduction of Indian M&I water supply stored in reservoir.

If these amendments go unchallenged, the promoters get away with a lot. With ALP-Lite, Congress has no project to evaluate. It has inadequate analysis for spending anywhere between $250 million and $1 billion for essentially undefined purposes or needs. The Department of Interior has not completed a plan or economic or environmental documentation; no benefit/cost analysis, no repayment plans, no evaluation of alternatives or the public hearings required by environmental law.

ALP-Lite violates long-standing federal water policies. It greatly reduces nonfederal cost-sharing, creates new classes of subsidies, includes sufficiency language to override federal environmental protections, and does not demonstrate the need for the M&I water.

Environmental law, which proponents agreed to follow, requires needs and purposes of the water be specified. Not every drop, but in order to get this plan past Congress, over half the water is allocated to Indian M&I use, none of which is specified. If this water were for domestic purposes it would supply 165,000 people, far more water than any reasonable population projections in the four corners region would justify! The only need which seems to be consistent with the allocated 33,150 acre feet M&I water is a coal fired electrical generating plant.

The project is not reduced in size. A reservoir of 260,000 acre feet is planned in case there is a future opportunity to include irrigation. Now, the reservoir is only a huge trophy which, after the water is pumped up 500 feet, has little to do for its size but evaporate at rate payers expense. In addition, the Durango pump house is the same size to anticipate irrigation uses.

The promoters of ALP-Lite are bypassing these uncomfortable questions by means of a high risk strategy. By hiring expensive lobbyists and international public relations firms they can line up endorsements to impress Congress and avoid embarrassing factual and legal objections. They can go overcome previous law by using specific amendments that apply only to ALP-Lite. They can go beyond asking for annual appropriations. They can get authority for a construction start.

This spring is a critical time for the project, which has been struggling for construction since its authorization in 1968. Although the dates have not been set at the time of this writing, ALP-Lite is to have public hearings in the Indian Affairs Committee of the Senate, and the Water and Power Subcommittee of the House Resources Committee. Supporters of the project expect a friendly hearing since Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) chairs the Senate committee. The Water and Power Subcommittee is also expected to support this new construction.

In this hostile atmosphere, members of the environmental coalition intend to demonstrate to Congress and the public that there is significant opposition to the amended project. No victories are expected, but if the committee recommendations go to the floor this summer, expect to be contacted by the Sierra Club alert system.

At any time, Peak and Prairie readers can help us with support for our Washington lobbyist with contributions to the environmental coalition fund called the "Animas-LaPlata Opposition Fund," in care of Skip Favreau, Treasurer, 76 Pine Cone Drive, Bayfield, CO, 81301.