DENVER - The federal government is willing to sell water in the Animas-La Plata Project to the state for $35
Or it will give the water to Colorado Indian tribes for free.
Sen. Bruce Whitehead, D-Hesperus, wants the state to make the purchase. His plan is up for a vote at a Senate panel
The proposed sale - financed by state natural-gas and oil tax money - raises the question of why the state should buy
the same water that the tribes can get for free.
I might have the same question," said Scott McElroy, an attorney for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
The answer lies in control of the water.
It comes down to whether you would rather own the water or do long-term leases," Whitehead said.
Whitehead was the executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District until last year, when he filled a
vacancy in the state Senate. The district has pushed the state for years to buy rights in the Animas-La Plata
The Southern Ute tribe also welcomes state participation, McElroy said. But if the state doesn't buy in, the tribe is
willing to talk with local water districts about supplying water, McElroy said at a Colorado Water Conservation Board
meeting on March 29.
At the same meeting, the board voted to ask the Legislature's permission to buy the water.
The new La Plata Archuleta Water District wants to buy up to 1,400 acre-feet from the state. The La Plata West Water
Authority also has told the state water board it is interested in buying water out of the state's future share.
The La Plata Archuleta district has not talked to either Ute tribe about leasing water, said Steve Harris, the
district's consulting engineer. The district would need the lease to be permanent, Harris said.
But if they were reasonable terms, of course, we'd be willing to talk," Harris said.
The peculiar price of the water - free for the tribes, $35 million for the state - traces back to the origins of the
dam just west of Durango's Bodo Industrial Park.
The federal government built the reservoir primarily to settle American Indian water rights claims. Both the Southern
Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes get 33,050 acre-feet, enough to turn the tribes into two of the biggest water owners in
the Four Corners. Smaller amounts go to the Navajo Nation and water districts in Colorado and New Mexico.
The state of Colorado has an option to buy 10,460 acre-feet, half of which could be consumed in any year. It's roughly
enough water for a city the size of Durango.
If Colorado does not buy the water, it would go to each Ute tribe in equal parts.
On Thursday, the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee will consider an amendment to House Bill 1250 to
spend $36 million over three years to buy the water from the federal government.
Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said she understands the advantages of owning the water rather than leasing it from the
tribes. But she is dismayed that the state waited so long to buy because the water costs more now than it would have
two or three years ago. A 2009 memo from the Colorado Water Conservation Board put the cost at $27.6 million.
That was kind of a bitter pill to swallow to have to spend so much on interest," said Roberts, whose district includes
The last two years, the Legislature has raided most of Colorado's water funds in order to balance the budget. An
improved forecast for gas and oil tax money has given state officials the confidence that they will have enough money
to complete the Animas-La Plata deal.