A collective sigh of relief was let out in 6th Judicial District Court on Monday after a settlement was reached by several local agencies with a stake in the water rights of the Animas-La Plata Project stored in Lake Nighthorse.
Chief District Judge Gregory Lyman will review the details of the settlement in the coming weeks, and the court will reconvene 1:30 p.m. Dec. 10 to hear his ruling.
The case stems from a decades-long debate over water rights to the Animas River. In June 2011, Lake Nighthorse was filled with 1,500 surface acres by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide water for Native American tribes, cities and water districts in Colorado and New Mexico.
However, the Southwestern Water Conservation District has used the water for irrigation, through a temporary permit. Recently, the water district applied to continue its conditional water rights, but it was met with a flurry of opposition from various agencies, including the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Animas Conservancy District, San Juan Water Commission, among others.
“It is an extremely complicated case, with complex claims and complex objections,” Lyman told The Durango Herald after the hearing.
Lyman praised the various stakeholders for coming to an agreement among themselves, rather than taking the case through a lengthy, heated trial.
“This should have been a three-week trial,” Lyman said. “They all worked hard. Like I told them, ‘I’m sure they addressed their issues better than I could of.’”
Bruce Whitehead, executive director for SWCD, emphasized those complexities.
“There were lots of parts in play,” Whitehead said. “There was a difference of opinion on how much water was needed for the (A-LP). The incentive for us (to settle) was to get some closure on the A-LP project itself.”
Bob Wolff, secretary treasurer for SWCD, reiterated a similar statement.
“Basically what this settlement does is split those rights up for the project and for citizens of La Plata County,” Wolff said.
Scott McElroy, an attorney for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, said the Tribal Council passed a resolution Monday approving the settlement.
“Sometimes the A-LP engenders strong feelings,” he said, provoking some light laughter in the courtroom. “It was a little bit of a family feud for a while. It’s nice to put everything together and come up with a settlement.”
Whitehead said despite the settlement, Lake Nighthorse will not be open to recreational use. That is a whole other matter, involving different entities, he said.