SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Editors note: This is part two of a four-part series about the state of the Animas River today.
By Dale Rodebaugh
Herald Staff Writer
For Native Americans who inhabited this area in prehistoric times, the Animas River held little appeal.
Fish were not a part of their diet, and they shared with other Western tribes a belief in “water babies,” evil spirits that pulled children into the lake to drown them, said Andrew Gulliford, a professor of history at Fort Lewis College.
”They would ride their horses across the river, but they didn’t enter the water,” Gulliford said.
It wasn’t until the arrival of settlers – miners, ranchers and the townspeople who provided support services and supplies – that serious exploitation of the river began.
Across Colorado, it soon became apparent that order was needed to quell squabbles among interests competing for water, and the state’s first laws governing water use were created in 1868.
The state’s entire body of water law is based on the deceptively simple premise of “first in time, first in line.” This means users are entitled to water based on when the court recognized their right, with senior rights receiving priority. To get a court-decreed right, users must put the water to beneficial use. Similarly, water rights can’t be hoarded for an unspecified future use.
From the seemingly straight-forward assertion of first-come, first-served, a structure of laws has emerged so Byzantine that legions of high-paid lawyers depend on it for their livelihood.
The reason the battles are so pitched is that Colorado has limited water. Most of it is spoken for, if not overallocated, and, at the same time, people continue to flow into the state at a high rate. Census numbers place Colorado among the top 10 fastest growing states in the country.
To fully grasp how contentious and convoluted battles over water can become, but also how they can be resolved, one need look at the Animas-La Plata Project, which takes more water from the Animas than any other interest.
River gives rise to lake
The Animas- La Plata Project’s originsgo back to the 1930s, when engineers proposed transferring water from the Animas, through reservoirs, canals and tunnels to the La Plata River basin, which has an unreliable flow.
The La Plata rises in the mountains west of Durango and flows southward to join the San Juan River near Farmington.
But 40 years later, the plan was dropped as environmentally unsound and too costly.
In 1979, the Bureau of Reclamation unveiled a less ambitious plan to provide water for irrigation in the La Plata drainage, and drinking water for communities in Colorado and New Mexico. That plan included the Ridges Basin Reservoir that so recently became reality.
The Ute tribes became part of the project in 1986 through a settlement of historical water-right claims. The Utes own 40 percent of the water.
Politics and protests, money woes and miscalculations dogged the project almost from the start.
In 1991, a Fish and Wildlife Service ruling limited the amount of water that could be used to 57,100 acre-feet a year. As a result, water for irrigation was eliminated, and the project became known as A-LP Lite.
The next year, environmental groups sued to stop construction. The issue wasn’t settled for almost five years.Groundbreaking on the dam occurred in 2002.
The project, which ballooned from $238 million to $500 million, won’t be entirely done until a pipeline from Farmington to Shiprock is carrying water, but the filling of Lake Nighthorse, officially complete on June 29 this year, was a landmark moment.
Seven partners own water in Lake Nighthorse, which holds 123,541 acre-feet of water and was named after its benefactor in Congress, former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
Partners include the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the state of Colorado and several water agencies.
The Animas River supplies Lake Nighthorse via a pumping station in Durango. Colorado partners will draw water directly from the lake, while New Mexico users will take water released from the lake into the Animas.
Many recreational interests want to use the lake, which is off-limits to the public until a recreation plan, now in the approval process, is finished.
More to give?
Durango’s early exploitation of the Animas was as a conduit to get logs to sawmills, where they were turned into lumber and railroad ties.
Today, most of the water pulledfrom the river is for irrigation and consumption, but the city of Durango in 2007 obtained a decree that guarantees a certain amount of flow for a whitewater park at Smelter Rapid. Several entities have won such rights for recreation since legislation establishing recreation rights was enacted in2001.
Also, a certain amount of water is reserved to protect two fish species in the San Juan River – the Colorado pikeminnow and humped-back chub,which are federally listed as endangered.
Even agencies that usually are allies in matters of environmental protection make sure their special interests are protected.
A U.S. Forest Service plan to hang a “wild and scenic” designation on certain stretches of the river caught the attention of water agencies that want to ensure that water availability for their customers isn’t curtailed.
A wild and scenic designation requires that rivers with outstanding scenic, recreational, geologic, piscatorial, historic and cultural qualities remain free-flowing.As a result, the River Protection Work Group has formed to study ways to make sure that all these characteristics are preserved. The group has studied the Animas, San Juan, Pine and Piedra rivers, as well as Hermosa Creek.
Despite the long list of users who have lined up for Animas water since the state began taking numbers, water officials hope it will continue to have more to give.
“I don’t see a lot of change in growth or irrigation,” said Rege Leach, Colorado Division of Water Resources chief in Durango. “So the flow should continue to be adequate.”
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald