Most of the storage for the Animas-La Plata Project was built to satisfy Native American water rights claims

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From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

The project reflects a quiet but substantial shift of control over a crucial resource as the federal government tries to turn a new page with tribes. Six recent water settlements have forced the government to commit $2.04 billion for dam, pipeline and reservoir projects — giving sovereign tribes from Montana to New Mexico control over 1.5 million acre-feet of new water each year. Tribes have used lawsuits and hard bargaining to assert water rights. Now, with many Western rivers already over-subscribed, tribes are in a position to play a greater role in development…

Since 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that tribes relocated to reservations in the 19th century are entitled to enough water to live on those lands. Only 29 of the nation’s 565 tribes have had claims settled. Future settlements could exhaust much of the remaining unallocated water. “The reality of water in most rivers in America, including the Colorado and Rio Grande, which are so important to Colorado, is that there’s not enough water to do everything that people want to do. We’re not going to create any more water supply,” said Salazar, a lawyer whose prior work as a U.S. Senator, state attorney general and natural resources director drew him into the issue. “Until (tribal claims for water) get quantified, there’s no certainty” for how much water will be available, Salazar said…

The total population of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes is less than 6,000. They’re now in a position to pursue economic development, including extraction of gas, and sell water to others around Colorado. “Yes, we’re in the driver’s seat,” said Pearl Casias, chairwoman of the Southern Ute Tribe, which has about 1,481 members. There are 4,500 Ute Mountain Utes. Together, the tribes own about 70 percent of the water in Nighthorse reservoir…

Over the past three years, federal negotiating teams led by Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Mike Connor settled six claims. The most recent Aamodt settlement, for about $176 million, involves four pueblos in the Pojoaque River basin of New Mexico — providing about 8,500 acre-feet of water. A separate $88 million settlement with the Taos Pueblo is meant to deliver 2,000 acre-feet a year. Earlier this year, federal negotiators settled for $460 million with the Crow in Montana, a deal obligating the government to supply 500,000 acre-feet of water. A 2009 settlement for $1 billion with the Navajo obligates the government to provide 606,000 acre-feet…

This winter, Colorado officials and residents of Durango are expected to work at lining up shares of the water. The reservoir holds enough to sustain hundreds of thousands of people — far more than the current population of the area, Durango resident and businessman Kent Ford pointed out. “I’m all for the tribes getting their water rights,” Ford said. But building such a big reservoir for the purposes of a legal settlement may not make sense in the long run, he said. Mountain water might better have been left flowing in rivers to ensure healthy riparian ecosystems, he said. “We may come to look at this as another example of our society gone awry.”

More Animas-La Plata Project coverage here and here.

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