Public blasts Animas-La Plata project
Open door hearing becomes opportunity to air grievances with agency

Construction equipment sits idle at the future site of the Animas-La Plata project pumping plant last weekend. At a public meeting Friday, project officials accounted for cost overruns, citing errors in the original cost estimate, such as a failure to account for a fault line under the pumping plant, which led to a realignment of the structure./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

What was intended as an open house on Animas-La Plata project cost overruns became an opportunity for opponents to air grievances last Friday. Critics of the project expressed concerns that recent overruns are only the tip of the iceberg for the beleaguered water project, and that despite appearances, the overseeing federal agency has no intentions of operating above board.

According to Phil Doe, president of the Citizen’s Progressive Alliance, an A-LP watchdog group, cost overruns, now pegged at $162 million, could total in the billions over the life of the project.

“When you say $500 million, you are so far off it’s unbelievable,” Doe told a panel of Bureau of Reclamation officials Friday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. “The true costs are already in the billions.”

Doe was among about 70 people who turned out for what is to be the first of a series of informational hearings held by the Bureau to keep the public in the loop on the project.

And while officials admitted to numerous errors in estimating the project’s original price tag of $338 million, they stood by the latest estimate.

“We’re confident we can build this for $500 million,” said Rick Ehat, the newly appointed A-LP project construction manager. In his new position, Ehat will head the A-LP Construction Office, created to oversee the project locally, and report directly to Bureau of Reclamation Regional Manager Rick Gold. Prior to this, leadership came from the area office in Denver.

Creation of Ehat’s position, as well as that of the local construction office, is an effort to create greater accountability and safeguard against future problems, said Bill Rinne, deputy to the Washington Bureau Chief John Keys.

“We are fully committed to the project, fully committed to working with the sponsors and fully committed to working with the public,” Rinne said.

Referring to a report filed late last month, Rinne said cost overruns could be attributed to four main factors: basing original 1999 cost estimates on appraisal levels; failure to conduct a rigorous review of the numbers; failure to account for unforeseen circumstances, such as the relocation of County Road 211 and a gas pipeline; and failure to account for costs associated with the Native American Self Determination and Education Act, commonly known as the 638 process. He also cited a breakdown in communication between his agency and the project sponsors – the Southern Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the three regional water districts that would be served by the project.

Despite the Bureau’s oversights, Rinne urged opponents and proponents alike to move on. “We feel badly about it, but it’s one of those things that you try to project on in the future,” he said.

Nevertheless, some audience members took issue, arguing there are still many unknowns associated with the project’s costs. Chief among those is the routing of the Navajo pipeline, which will deliver water to the Navajo nation.

“There are neighborhoods in Farmington that will be turned up to make way for this pipeline,” said John Zwierzycki, president of the Weminuche Chapter of the Sierra Club. “They don’t even know what route it’s going to take, how can they know the costs? Yet, they say it’s part of the cost estimate.”

According to the Citizen’s Progressive Alliance, another potential cost not included in the recent estimate is that of bringing power to the project site, estimated at about $13 million.

Gold said this cost was originally supposed to be picked up by the Western Area Power Administration. However, the group has yet to include the cost in its budget, something he admits could lead to problems.

“If that doesn’t happen, then we have an issue on our hands,” he said.

However, when asked again pointblank by an audience member if there would be any more cost increases aside from inflation, Gold’s answer was a confident no.

“When you see that number in 2006 or 2007, (inflation) will be the only increase you’ll see,” he said.

Aside from concerns over cost, meeting participants also expressed frustration over the Bureau’s inaccessibility.

“I have called and sent e-mails and never get the courtesy of a return call,” said Dave Wagner, a local contractor.

However, according to Bureau spokesman Barry Wirth, the agency is trying to rectify that situation with the meetings, as well as a new local public outreach program.

“We’re trying to be as transparent as we can,” said Wirth, who offered up his e-mail and phone number. “This is the first of a future series of efforts to communicate.”

Nevertheless, when pressed to give specifics on who was responsible for the mistakes or signing off on the first cost estimate, the Bureau retreated.

“Do you want names?” Ehat asked at one point, responding to an audience member’s question. “I don’t have them.”

For some audience members, this proved too much.

“I’m tired of sitting here and listening to you guys being contrite, because you’re going to get your asses covered,” said Sage Remington, a Southern Ute Tribal member and outspoken project opponent, prior to walking out amid applause.

However, other audience members held out hope for getting answers through a congressional investigation.

“McInnis indicated there may be some criminal activity,” said the Sierra Club’s Zwierzycki. “Now, it’s up to Congress to do something. It will be unfortunate if they stand by and let this project slide into hell.”

Although a formal date has not been set, the Bureau of Reclamation plans to have similar meetings in the future and maintain an open door policy with the public.






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