|A CENTURY OLD WATER FIGHT|
March 9, 1997
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Still to come on the NewsHour a western water project fight; Shields & Gigot; and modern mothers. The water project is in Western Colorado. Tom Bearden has that story.
TOM BEARDEN: Mark Twain put it best: "In the West whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting." This particular fight is over the water in two rivers: the Animus and the La Plata, a fight nearly a century old. The rivers flow through mountains, farms, and two Indian reservations. The moisture they deliver makes it possible to grow forage, raise cattle, and live in the towns along their banks. The problem is that the low-flowing Le Plata is anything but reliable. Sometimes it practically dries up. Bob Taylor is a farmer who lives near Red Mesa, Colorado.
BOB TAYLOR, Farmer: This Le Plata River is a very irregular river. Like last year, it ran very little water at all, and then there are years when the snow pack will fill it up, and weíll get a lot of water. And--but you canít base an agricultural economy on that type of irregularity.
TOM BEARDEN: So the farmers turned to Washington for help and began trying to negotiate an obstacle course. The journey has lasted 40 years and is likely to last for years yet to come. They persuaded Congress to authorize a feasibility study for a massive water storage project that would make the Le Plata reliable. It came to be called the Animus Le Plata Project because it would transfer water from the larger Animus to the Le Plata. The idea is to construct a pumping station along the banks of the Animus near the town of Durango. It would pump water over a ridge and fill a valley on the back side. Eventually, the water would be transferred to the Le Plata and then to the farmers and to the Indian reservation. It came from the same mold as the other big western water projects built by the Bureau of Reclamation during the Great Depression. The massive dams and giant reservoirs were considered public works projects in the best interest of the entire country because they made it possible to settle the Columbia River Basin and the desert Southwest. But every time the project seemed about to start construction there would be a new hurdle to jump. The first barrier arose when political support for water projects began to dry up in Washington. In the 1960's people began to question whether the needs of western farmers and cities justified the enormous cost to all American taxpayers. But then in 1976, two Indian tribes, whose reservations the rivers flowed through, made a claim that shed a whole new light on the need for a water project. They said the treaties gave them the rights to all the water in both rivers. That meant no water for anyone else. Supporters of Animus Le Plata have pointed out the only way to satisfy the Indians and other users was to increase the water supply; that is, build the water project. The Indians liked the idea and over the next 10 years a compromise among water users was hammered out. The Indians gave up their claims in return for a promise of water from the project. Clement Frost is the chairman of the Southern Ute tribe. He says the original agreement was a model of how to balance competing claims.
CLEMENT FROST, Southern Ute Tribal Chairman: We sat down with all entities, farmers, cities, both New Mexico Water Conservancy Districts, from both Colorado and New Mexico. We sat down. We said, this is how much I want, this is how much I want; youíll get this; youíll get that; you canít have that; you canít have this. I mean, we all talked about it. We shared the vision of how to utilize this water.
TOM BEARDEN: The settlement was signed by the U.S. Government, and after disposing of a few environmental objections, the Bureau of Reclamations staged a groundbreaking ceremony in 1991.
SEN. BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL, (R) Colorado: Certainly this is an historic event, and perhaps the last of the great federally-funded water projects, and it has been a long time in coming.
TOM BEARDEN: But there would be new hurdles to overcome because the environmentalists jeering then Congressman--now Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell were about to gain the upper hand. They took the project to federal court, claiming it violated environmental laws, and won several decisions that stopped construction. Maggie Fox is the water specialist for the Sierra Club.
MAGGIE FOX, The Sierra Club: Weíre talking about endangered fish species problems. Weíre talking about the loss of elk habitat. Weíre talking about recreational opportunities in terms of river rafting, fishing, all sorts of different uses of the river are all lost if this project were built.
TOM BEARDEN: And then a new and even more massive roadblock appeared--concern over the federal budget deficit. Republican Congressman John Kasich decided just as Congress had gotten rid of welfare as an entitlement for the poor, it needed to rid the budget of what he called "corporate welfare." Animus Le Plata was at the top of his hit list. Surrounding him were representatives of groups that had often opposed Republican policies, the environmentalists.
REP. JOHN KASICH, (R) Ohio: What we have been able to do is to bring together organizations on Capitol Hill that, frankly, have never really been brought together before who have sat down and interests of serving their country have put together a list of items that represent significant changes in corporate welfare in another step to end welfare as we know it.
TOM BEARDEN: The anti-Animus barrage was joined by Oregon Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio. He plans to reintroduce legislation that passed the House last year deauthorizing Animus Le Plata.
REP. PETER DeFAZIO, (D) Oregon: The project thatís currently proposed is just an outrage. Itís a boondoggle. If this project is going to go forward, we have to waive all environmental laws. And I donít think that this administration or this Congress is about to do that. So what weíre doing is just wasting money year after year on a project that isnít going to go forward, hoping that Ronald Reagan and James Watt will come back and waive all the environmental laws, and they can build a giant 1950's water project that doesnít make sense.
TOM BEARDEN: But supporters of the project say Kasich and his allies are wrong. Bob Taylor scoffs at the idea that the project will benefit big corporations.
BOB TAYLOR: Weíre a--weíre a family partnership, farm partnership. Weíre not a corporation.
TOM BEARDEN: He says there are no corporate farms anywhere in the area, only small family operations, and Pat Schumacher, who runs the Bureau of Reclamation Office in Durango, insists the project will only cost 1/3 of what the opponents are claiming and will actually return money to the Treasury. Far from being a boondoggle, he thinks Animus Le Plata guarantees the economic future of the entire region.
PAT SCHUMACHER, Bureau of Reclamation: Thereís a dire need both for irrigation water and municipal industrial water in this area. The cities and the areas around the cities, the Durango, Farmington, Aztec, are all experiencing pretty rapid growth.
TOM BEARDEN: But Maggie Fox says itís only the Indian issues that are keeping Animus Le Plata alive.
MAGGIE FOX: If this were a regular water project, it would be dead. It would be past dead. It would be buried. It would have died a number of years ago, at least a decade ago, and we would not even be at this table. I mean, the environmental groups, these taxpayer groups, the citizen groups that are here are here for one reason, and that is because we believe these tribes have valid water rights and that for whatever reasons, they have put all of their hope and trust into this project.
TOM BEARDEN: Environmentalists think they can defeat the project if they can prove that the Indian tribes wonít really benefit from Animus Le Plata, removing what they believe is the last barrier to killing the project entirely. They stress that tribes wonít get their water until Phase two, which will have to be funded by state or private moneys that may never actually become available. Most Indian leaders are willing to trust they will get the water someday, but some, like Chairman Clement Frostís brother, Ray, are not.
RAY FROST, Southern Ute: It is not an Indian water project. How itís going to benefit us at this point in time is not really--is nonexistent, in other words.
TOM BEARDEN: Ray Frost thinks the Indians should forget Animus Le Plata and press their original claim in court: all the water in both rivers. Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a native American, warns that such a lawsuit could be more costly than the water project, itself, and that if the Indians win their case, the backlash could be enormous.
SEN. BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: Itís estimated that over 1/4 of non-Indian farmland will have to come out of production to satisfy the Indian claims. If you think thatís not going to create a white backlash, youíre sadly mistaken. Who do you think all those white ranchers that are going to lose their water rights--who do you think theyíre going to sue? Theyíre all going to sue the federal government for taking away their water.
TOM BEARDEN: The state is trying to broker a compromise among the Indians, environmentalists, and farmers.
SPOKESPERSON: But I can say one thing. I will continue to fight for the rights of my people.
TOM BEARDEN: And Sen. Campbell is still pushing hard in Congress.
SEN. BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: If these current so-called consensus negotiations end in an impasse, which I think theyíre going to do, will the administration and you continue to support that project as itís currently configured, which was the agreement of 1988?
BRUCE BABBITT, Secretary of the Interior: Senator, if and when that happens, I will undoubtedly be back to discuss this more. I am not going to opine about a contingency on behalf of an administration of which I am one piece only.
TOM BEARDEN: In the end, what happens to Animus Le Plata may have a lot more to do with the fight in Washington over balancing the federal budget than with the rights of Indians and the needs of farmers in Colorado.