A-LP opposition enjoys a victory
Isgar implicated in effort to revive project's former stature

Driftwood lies over exposed rocks in the dry river bed of the La Plata River, below Hesperus, earlier this week./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

As earth movers and explosives open a large hole just south of downtown Durango, opposition to the Animas La-Plata project is celebrating a recent “major victory.” The effort to defeat the controversial project is continuing, and the Citizens’ Progressive Alliance, a watchdog group opposing A-LP on many fronts, received word this week that an application proposing to expand the water project had been withdrawn.

A-LP dates back to 1868 when an agreement was struck to compensate Indian tribes with water rights, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. In 1968, A-LP was first authorized for construction by the U.S. Congress as a way of fulfilling that century-old agreement to the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain tribes. At that time, the A-LP project was proposed as a diversion of water from the Animas and La Plata rivers to a series of reservoirs in order to serve the tribes’ irrigation needs. However, courtesy of the Vietnam War, that project was never built.

Since that time, the project has seen numerous challenges and revisions. In 2000, a scaled down version, coined “A-LP Lite,” was authorized by Congress. The changed project included a 120,000-acre-foot (more than 39-billion-gallon) reservoir 2.5 miles southwest of downtown Durango in Ridges Basin. A pumping plant located near Smelter Rapid and Santa Rita Park would siphon up to 280 cubic feet per second from the Animas River and pump it uphill to feed the reservoir. Water stored in the reservoir would no longer be used for agriculture but would serve yet-to-be-determined municipal and industrial needs in New Mexico and Colorado.

Construction on this project got under way early last summer in Ridges Basin, and the reality of A-LP came to downtown Durango early this summer with work on the pumping plant across the river from Santa Rita Park.

“A-LP Lite” tries to gain weight

However, the Citizens’ Progressive Alliance has argued that efforts have been under way to put the pounds back on “A-LP Lite.” In fact, for the last two years CPA has fought an application that is a “quiet revival of all the features of the original A-LP,” according to the group’s attorney Sunny Maynard.

In the year 2000, a group called the La Plata Water Conservancy District (LPWCD) developed a Water Management and Conservation Plan for western La Plata County, otherwise known as the Dry Side. An application was filed in water court calling for the construction of a reservoir in Long Hollow and diversion of up to 600 cubic feet per second of Animas River water via Ridges Basin Reservoir to feed Long Hollow Reservoir. The district claimed the project was necessary because of increasing difficulty meeting the needs of existing agriculture, growing residential development and the demands of New Mexico under the La Plata River Compact. At the time of application, current State Sen. Jim Isgar was the president of the LPWCD.

Maynard said that this application had Bureau of Reclamation involvement and was little more than an attempt to restore A-LP to its original form. “They lied to the public,” she said. “The public thought A-LP was being downsized, but this component of the project has remained under a different name.”

Whose pocketbook is this?

Maynard added that to make matters worse, the LPWCD’s application has been financed by illicit funds. She noted that in 1986, the State of Colorado set aside $30 million to cover its share of A-LP. However, in 1999, an initiative spearheaded by Sen. Ben Campbell, R-Colo., transferred all the costs of A-LP to federal taxpayers. The $30 million (currently $42+ million with accrued interest) in now excess funding was never repaid to Colorado, according to Maynard, and $15 million of that sum was awarded outright to the LPWCD for the Long Hollow project.

“This money was earmarked for A-LP,” she said. “Then when legislation was passed in 1999, saying that the taxpayers should carry the bill, that money was never given back.”

This week, Maynard received word that the LPWCD had decided to withdraw the application for the reservoir and the 600 cfs diversion. However, she said that the group has not yet agreed to cover CPA’s attorneys’ fees.

“It looks like we’ve definitely got a victory,” Maynard said. “What’s at issue now is whether we’ll get our attorneys’ fees paid.”

Phil Doe, of the CPA, commented, “I think it’s a major victory for the river. The only reason they withdrew is we were going to depose Jim Isgar.”

A serious typo

Jim Isgar said that he stepped down from the presidency of the LPWCD at least a year ago and prior to his election as state senator. He currently serves as the district’s vice-president. As for the reason that the application was withdrawn, Isgar cited the growing expense of fighting CPA in court.

“We haven’t really found any fatal flaws, and we would have kept the application except for the objection and the expense,” Isgar said.

Isgar maintained that the plan was only a back-up for augmenting water in the La Plata Basin, and that the request to take 600 cfs out of the Animas River, pipe it through the A-LP project and into a new Long Hollow reservoir was a typo.

“It makes no sense to anybody,” he said. “We never intended to take that much water out of the Animas. We couldn’t do that.”

However, Isgar did state that in his mind, “A-LP Lite” squeezed the La Plata Basin and agriculture out of the project. “After A-LP Lite, we started looking at what we could do for ourselves and to better meet the compact with New Mexico,” he said.

As for the opposition to A-LP, Isgar commented, “It’s funny that some of the environmental groups are opposed to our improving the situation on the La Plata River. Now we have a project that’s entirely domestic water, and we’ve got farmers that are having to sell out.”

Maynard and Doe have a different view of the situation. In particular, they dispute Isgar’s claim that the 600 cfs diversion from the Animas was a typo.

“Right after the application was filed, Jim Isgar claimed that it was a misprint,” Maynard said. “But, they’ve never changed it, and it has sat in front of the water court for the last two years.”

Back to the big fight

With the application withdrawn, the CPA has switched its focus back to six other lawsuits it has against the Department of Interior and the Animas-La Plata project. The most significant of the alliance’s legal actions alleges that the Bureau of Reclamation has failed to do necessary upkeep on the A-LP water rights, also known as diligence, and as a consequence has lost them.

“We’re challenging the water rights,” Doe said. “They’ve been derelict in defending this water right application, and they’ve got a huge mess on their hands.”

Doe added that overall A-LP is a crooked project and as a result, the CPA will continue to fight it. “I know the people in Durango have given up, but they shouldn’t,” he said. “Everywhere you look in this project, something is a little askew.”

Meanwhile, an apparently unconcerned Pat Schumacher, projects manager for A-LP, noted that construction is proceeding ahead of schedule. “The majority of work this summer has been on the pumping plant,” he said. “Crews have also been working on relocating the oil and gas pipeline around Ridges Basin. They’re forecasted to be done in early August, which is well ahead of schedule.”

As for the charge that A-LP has failed to do upkeep on its water rights, Schumacher has commented, “It’s really up to the water court to decide. But I don’t have any fears about a lack of water rights, particularly because of the track record. The state has always been supportive of this project.”

The Citizen’s Progressive Alliance challenge that water rights no longer exist for A-LP will have its next day before District Judge Gregory Lyman on Aug. 20.





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