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Water Project Supporters Facing June 30 Deadline To Work Out Deal

May 31, 1986

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) _ As the era of federally financed water projects comes to an end, supporters of a controversial project in southwestern Colorado face a June 30 deadline to work out a deal with Washington.

For years, the federal government completely financed large water projects, but Congress has moved to require cost-sharing by states. In last year’s appropriation of start-up funds for the Animas-La Plata project, Congress included a provision that the money not be released unless a reasonable cost- sharing agreement is reached between the states and the secretary of the interior by June 30.

In their efforts to negotiate a cost-sharing agreement, the states of Colorado and New Mexico, two Indian tribes and several water districts have offered to assume $238 million of the project’s estimated $553 million cost.

Two weeks ago, federal officials said $238 million was not enough and Interior Department officials have not scheduled negotiating sessions, saying a uniform administration position has not been reached.

Some supporters are claiming the administration is simply trying to let the project die.

The supporters, who include Democratic Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado and Republican Sens. William Armstrong of Colorado and Pete Domenici of New Mexico, contend the project would assure water for the future in southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico, and provide for the future of agriculture through the next century.

More importantly, they say, the project deserves to be built because of historical obligations to two Ute Indian tribes, and because the federal government has provided for Arizona.

The project’s opponents range from spending-conscious officials of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to no-growth advocates, environmentalists, fiscal conservatives and rafters in southwest Colorado.

They contend the project would ruin the Animas River, create a boom during construction and a bust after, and provide water that would be too expensive for debt-ridden farmers. The Indian water claims could be satisfied by a much cheaper project, they say.

The nub of the issue is the water rights claims of the two Indian tribes, officials say.

Indian water rights, if upheld by state courts, would carry a priority date of 1868, making them by far the most senior water rights in the region and jeopardizing existing rights held by non-Indian ranchers, farmers and towns, says Attorney General Duane Woodard.

Woodard, a Republican and native of Cortez in southwest Colorado, predicted the Indians would win most, if not all, their water rights claims in court.

The project would pump water from the Animas River, which runs through Durango, to a reservoir called Ridges Basin, and thus be available for distribution in the La Plata River drainage.

A second reservoir on the Southern Ute reservation would provide that tribe with industrial and municipal water, while also serving the eastern Ute Mountain reservation of the second Ute tribe.

The western part of the Ute Mountain land eventually would receive water from another water project - the Dolores project - under construction near Cortez.

For decades, the Ute Mountain tribe has been forced to carry in drinking water.

″To be without drinking water in this day and age, well, we’ve suffered more than ths project will cost,″ said Judy Knight, vice chairman of the tribe.

Taxpayers for the Animas-La Plata Referendum, a Durango-based group that opposes the project, contends the entire Ute Mountain tribe could be served by the Dolores project.

Knight said that project will only provide for the northern portion of the reservation.

The taxpayers group believes a gravity-fed reservoir built on the Southern Ute reservation would satisfy that tribe.

But project supporters, and the Southern Ute tribe, say that an Indians- only project would not fly politically, nor should it because non-Indians would be left out in the future.

Finally, the taxpayers group believes the legal questions surrounding the Indian water rights should be decided in court before any project is built. After that, a smaller project could be designed to fit quantified rights, the opponents say.

Woodard, the state’s two senators and its six representatives, however, want to avoid a court fight.

Woodard estimates litigation could cost the state $10 million, and said it would take years to decide the case.

Even then, the Indians still wouldn’t have any water, just the paper rights, Woodard said.

″The Indians have been extremely patient, at least 40 years patient, and it’s time we upheld our obligations,″ said Armstrong.

Meanwhile, the administration has signed a cost-sharing agreement for the final phase of the Central Arizona Project, under which Arizona will pay 10 percent of that project’s estimated $3.6 billion cost. That project is nearly complete.

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