In 1968, Fred Kroeger was a spry 50-year-old helping hold down the family hardware store in Durango. The Animas-La Plata Project, in just its second decade on the drawing board, was passed by Congress after tense negotiations between ranchers and environmentalists finally yielded a method to meet future water needs in the rapidly expanding Animas River Valley.How times do not change.
At 91 and 41 respectively, Kroeger and the A-LP both have held up against the grinding pulse of environmental politics in the West. He still has strong feelings for the project he helped cultivate but said he's ready to let others take the lead - after all, he'll see his life's work culminate when water begins building against the Ridges Basin Dam this spring.
Kroeger, a third-generation Durangoan, is preparing to step down from the board of the Southwestern Water Conservation District after 55 years, 33 of which he served as board president. Friends and colleagues described a man driven to protect agricultural interests in the area and oblivious to party identifications.
Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, got his start in business as a child with a little help from Kroeger. Kroeger put up the loan on a 10-acre barley field Isgar had gotten permission from his father, Art, to cultivate. Isgar still has a seed tag from that first sale he made to Kroeger.
Years later, Kroeger helped Isgar make his way into politics as an early supporter. With overriding common interests, Isgar said partisan politics never mattered much to the Republican Kroeger.
"If you were an advocate for agriculture or water, Fred would support you regardless of your party," he said.
For years, Kroeger and Sam Maynes, counsel for the Southern Ute Indian tribe, traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for A-LP's passage. Maynes died in 2004. His son, Sam W. Maynes, is a Durango attorney.
"Fred's contributed more to the community than anyone else I know," Maynes said. "He's a selfless person who's given of himself for many years."
As an attorney in the Colorado Office of the Attorney General in the 1970s, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs remembers Kroeger regularly traveling to Denver for short meetings. Later, as counsel for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Hobbs said he was inspired by the efforts of his southern Colorado counterparts.
"What more can I say; he's one of the great figures in Colorado water history," said Hobbs.
Asked if he's spent his whole life in Durango, Kroeger said no, not yet. He plans to continue serving on the Durango Water Advisory Board and attends other water meetings when he can.
He said the extra time has been a blessing.
"I wonder how I ever got any work done before I retired."
The original plan for the Animas-La Plata Project involved drawing water from the Animas at seven stations and pumping it 1,000 vertical feet to feed two reservoirs through 240 miles of pipeline. The plan would have irrigated more than 80,000 acres of farmland and provided drinking water to Durango and the Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute and Navajo Indian tribes.
Political disputes led to revisions, and acres and gallons were trimmed away as the cost for A-LP's supporters continued to climb. So far, the project has cost $570 million and expenditures have reached $393 million, though project coordinator Rick Ehat stresses he's running about $10 million under budget.
A groundbreaking was held in 1992 at the dam site in Ridges Basin, "and we thought we were on our way," Kroeger said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said the Colorado portion of the project is 97 percent completed, with work remaining on the Navajo Nation pipeline and other New Mexico project components.
Doug Hendrix of the Bureau of Reclamation's Upper Colorado office said crews in the lakebed are working to construct a boat ramp and perimeter fences, clear brush and relocate access roads.
Though the project lost the irrigation that Kroeger wanted badly to provide residents of La Plata County's Dryside, he's proud of A-LP's legacy of honoring neglected treaties between tribes and the federal government.
"It was assumed at the time that all the water they needed was for their hogans - but they could do anything they wanted with their water," he said.