|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application proposing to expand the water project had been withdrawn.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
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
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,”
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
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
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.