Lake Nighthorse: “It’s like a pitcher on a high shelf we can’t reach” — Manuel Heart

Lake Nighthorse September 19, 2016.
Lake Nighthorse September 19, 2016.

Representatives of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe were in Washington D.C. for President Barack Obama’s eighth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, according to this report from Jim Mimiaga writing for The Cortez Journal. President Obama was informed that the Ute Mountain Utes back a Bears Ears National Monument and fulfillment of original intent of the Animas-La Plata Project to build supply infrastructure. Here’s an excerpt:

…councilwoman Regina Whiteskunk…also reminded Obama of the Bears Ears Monument plan, which is supported by a coalition of five tribal leaders in the Southwest.

“I was able to shake President Obama’s hand and said ‘Remember Bears Ears,’ and he responded, ‘There is still work to do’,” Whiteskunk said. “It was not a ‘No,’ so I am pushing forward and maintain the thought that it can still get done.”


Currently, a key issue for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe is delivering water to the reservation from Lake Nighthorse near Durango, [Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart] said. The tribe owns 40 percent of the water in the 120,000-acre-foot reservoir, and a component of the Animas-La Plata Project built to satisfy Ute Mountain, Southern Ute and Navajo water rights. But while much of the lake’s water is owned by the Ute Mountain Utes, it is out of reach for practical uses, Heart said.

“It’s like a pitcher on a high shelf we can’t reach. We need delivery to our land, which was initially promised but was eventually cut out, so we have been fighting to get that back.”

One possibility is to use local rivers to deliver the water to the reservation.

It could be released from the Lake Nighthorse spillway into the Animas River, then flow to the San Juan River, which meets up with the Ute Mountain reservation near the Four Corners Monument.

Heart said that idea is being discussed, but has legal and topographical challenges.

“From the San Juan River, it would require many miles of new pipe and pumping the water uphill before it could arrive at our farms,” he said.

Delivering it to the tribe via pipelines directly from higher Lake Nighthorse is preferred because it would be gravity-fed, he said. Piping it to Jackson Reservoir could allow it to be delivered via the Mancos River to reservation lands.

“Delivering it to our land gives us control of our water to grow our economy, expand our farms or build a new community on the east side,” Heart said.

Federal support is key to getting things done in Indian Country, he said, and Obama’s annual Tribal Nations Conference helps influence federal officials to act and secure funding.

“I have been so privileged to learn from you while visiting more tribal communities than any other President,” Obama said at the conference. “We haven’t solved every issue. We haven’t righted every wrong. But together, we’ve made significant progress in almost every area.”

Under the Obama administration:

  • The White House Council of Native American Affairs was created, a cabinet level office that focuses on Indian Country issues.
  • More than 428,000 acres of tribal homelands were restored back to their original owners, and the Cobell settlement was signed into law that established the $1.9 billion Land Buy Back Program to consolidate individual Indian lands and restore them to tribal trusts.
  • Reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act so that tribes can prosecute those who commit domestic violence against women in Indian Country, whether they’re Native American or not.
  • Provided health care services in Indian Country through the Affordable Care Act, including permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.
  • Whiteskunk praised Obama for “elevating the voice of Native Americans and valuing us” during his administration. In her meetings with federal officials, she pushed for improved consultation with tribes on projects and laws affecting Native American lands.

    “We discussed in great length about how consultation is either weak, vague or not consistently applied,” Whiteskunk said.

    “As president he has reached out to work with Native Tribes,” Heart said. “He is the first president to hold these annual meetings, and the hope is that the next president will continue them, so we have to wait and see.”

    The road to Bears Ears via the Salt Lake Tribune.
    The road to Bears Ears via the Salt Lake Tribune.

    Mancos water district continues reservoir title transfer — The Cortez Journal

    Jackson Gulch Dam photo via USBR
    Jackson Gulch Dam photo via USBR

    From The Cortez Journal (Jacob Klopfenstein):

    This summer, the Mancos Water Conservancy District has continued investigating a possible title transfer for the Jackson Gulch Project, Superintendent Gary Kennedy said Wednesday.

    The district has been pursuing a transfer of ownership from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, so that the district could be the sole owner of the reservoir project. It’s a lengthy process that could take five years or more and requires an act of Congress, Kennedy said.

    One issue with the transfer is what would become of federal lands that have been withdrawn to become part of the project, Kennedy said.

    “Our concern is that if we took the title, that land would stay with the project, instead of going back to the Forest Service,” he said.

    The MWCD board also has had general discussions about other issues regarding the transfer, including liability.

    No funds have been committed to the title transfer, and the process is still in baby steps, Kennedy said. Either party — the Bureau of Reclamation or the MWCD — can withdraw from the process at any time, he said.

    Some funding may come through in the next three to four years for the project rehabilitation effort, Kennedy said. The next item the district is focusing on rehabilitating is the reservoir inlet chute.

    The cost to get those chutes into top shape would be about $1.2 million, which could be funded by both Bureau of Reclamation grants and MWCD funds, Kennedy said. The district has put in a request for funding to the BOR, he said.

    A contractor is on site working on rock mitigation around the project site, especially in West Mancos Canyon, Kennedy said. People are asked not to go in the canyon when there is work taking place there, and signs are posted around the site to make people aware, Kennedy said.

    Mancos Water Conservancy District board meeting recap

    Jackson Gulch Dam photo via USBR
    Jackson Gulch Dam photo via USBR

    From The Cortez Journal (Jacob Klopfenstein):

    The Mancos Water Conservancy District board voted to put up for lease 150 acre-feet of water from the Jackson Gulch project, district Superintendent Gary Kennedy said.

    The board approved the water lease at their meeting June 14. District officials will be going out to see if people need extra water, though they might not need extra because of the wet spring season, Kennedy said.

    The board and the Federal Bureau of Reclamation found agreement on project water rights for Jackson Reservoir, Kennedy said. The rights will be assigned to the water district from the federal government, he said.

    Also at the meeting, the board discussed the title transfer for the project, Kennedy said. The title transfer is an ongoing issue that will take many years to resolve.

    The district had hoped to complete some appraisals of land associated with the project this summer, but that hit a snag, Kennedy said. The cost for the appraisals is almost double what the board anticipated, and another government agency will be involved, he said. Even if the board decides to pay the new price for the appraisals, Kennedy could not say how long that would take.

    The district is planning a party to celebrate 75 years of the water district. The celebration will take place July 16 at noon at Jackson Gulch Reservoir on Road N north of Mancos. There will be a barbecue as well as some educational information on the history of the district. RSVP is requested by emailing Kennedy at or calling 970-533-7325.

    District officials also will be working on clearing the inlet canals to the reservoir this summer, Kennedy said. The reservoir’s two drop chutes also need some work, but that might not take place until 2019, when the district could receive money from the federal government to rehabilitate the chutes, Kennedy said.

    Board member Boe Hawkins was reappointed to a four-year board term at the meeting.

    The reservoir’s jet valve was rebuilt over the winter, and some safety issues came up with the valve, Kennedy said. After investigation, the valve was operating normally and there were no major problems, he said.

    The hydro lease of the power permit for the project is still moving forward and the board is still working on it, Kennedy said. At next month’s board meeting July 12, board members will elect officers.

    Report: How Young Farmers and ranchers are essential to tackling Water scarcity in the arid West

    NYFC15_water-report_Feb3_low cover

    Here’s the executive summary.

    The western United states is in the midst of a growing water crisis. extended drought, climate change, and a booming population are increasing demand for food and fresh water. in the U.s. colorado river Basin, a seven state region that produces around 85% of U.s. winter produce, demand for water is expected to significantly outpace supply by 2060. as more entities vie for this increasingly tenuous resource, agriculture is looked to as the primary sector to reduce the gap in water supply and demand.

    Yet another supply-demand gap looms that is equally urgent: the shrinking number of family farmers. currently, farmers over 65 outnumber those under 35 by a ratio of six to one. nationwide, over 573 million acres of farmland are expected to change management in the next 20 years. if we fail to recruit enough new farmers, we risk furthering the consolidation of our food system, increasing permanent losses of agricultural lands, and losing a generation of water stewards.

    Young farmers are critical to addressing both our dwindling water resources and producer populations. in 2015, the national Young Farmers coalition surveyed young farmers and ranchers across the arid West. Most of these farmers are young enough to have never farmed outside of drought: over 15 years ago, when the current drought began, most had yet to begin a career in agriculture. and while western farmers have always wrestled with aridity, millennial farmers can expect the entirety of their careers to be influenced by the effects of a changing climate, forcing them to develop innovative solutions for hotter, drier times.

    Following the charge of many farmers before them, more young farmers are managing their operations holistically, integrating economic, ecological, and social health into a working whole. conservation is embedded in the very way they do business. the problem is our policies, programs, and funding priorities lag behind these evolving values and practices.

    Over the decades, massive water projects have been developed to bring water to population centers. these continue to be proposed today: take the recent $9 billion proposal to pipe water from Wyoming’s Flaming gorge reservoir to colorado’s Front range. But too often these projects come at the expense of working lands and the communities that connect them. imagine, instead, if we invested some of those dollars in conservation instead of concrete? can we tackle our water challenges with creativity while simultaneously upholding viable and resilient agriculture?

    As a region and a nation we have a choice: to continue the status quo and risk losing the land, water, and knowledge with which a new generation of producers will grow food and conserve our shared water resources; or invest in the next generation of farmers as allies in finding solutions to water scarcity. this report illustrates the urgent need—and great opportunity—to pursue the latter.

    From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

    The survey, conducted by Fort Lewis College professors, polled 379 young farmers and ranchers in the arid West and held eight focus groups in four Colorado River Basin states. Most respondents, whose average age is 36, are in Colorado and California, are in their first 10 years of farming and did not grow up on ranches or farms.

    According to the report, 82 percent of survey respondents cited water access as the top concern. Access to affordable, irrigated farmland came in fourth, at 53 percent, after drought and climate change.

    Census data shows the average age of the U.S. farmer is rising, and La Plata County presents a two-fold predicament: land prices are steep, and land is dry if you can get it. The two factor heavily into the county’s dwindling agriculturists.

    “For most farmers, if they’re ready to buy land, they leave La Plata County. They go to Montezuma County or get out of farming,” said Kate Greenberg, Western water program director for Young Farmers.

    As a 20-something farmer, James Plate of Fields to Plate Farm can’t afford land in La Plata County. Instead, he’s taking advantage of the Old Fort Market Garden Incubator program, which allows farmers to temporarily lease land – with water rights – on the Old Fort campus in Hesperus.

    “I was born and raised in Colorado and want to supply my state with local vegetables, but we are finding it difficult to get access to the proper acreage of land with water to supplement that space,” Plate said.

    He and business partner Max Fields have looked at properties that range from $1.5 million to $100,000 with seasonal water rights. Cheaper land is often on the “dry side” of the county, which means farmers are confined to growing dry native crops such as corn and pinto beans.

    “You can’t afford land with water,” said Tyler Hoyt, who owns a 72-acre farm in Montezuma County. “There’s plenty you can afford without.”

    Hoyt, who participated in the coalition survey, purchased the farm for $330,000 11 years ago, citing the lack of affordable land in La Plata County as a reason for purchasing land in Montezuma.

    “Water is definitely a premium in the West,” said The Wells Group real estate broker Thad Trujillo, who recently sold a 40-acre farm with water rights from March through July for $220,000.

    Trujillo said while tracts in the southwestern part of the county may sell for under $150,000, prime parcels in North Animas Valley can go for $10,000 an acre at minimum. Apart from the valley, the most expensive (read: wet) farmland is along the river corridor and the “triangle” where the county’s three municipalities converge.

    Forty-year-old Gabe French, on his third career, was fortunate to buy his Bayfield farm on County Road 509 three years ago. He grows vegetables and hay with May to October water rights from Pine River and Vallecito.

    As much as 80 percent of water used by humans in the Colorado River Basin is devoted to agriculture, and much of the region’s water comes from reservoirs and is supplemented by snow-melt runoff. It’s not that the county is devoid of water – the Animas is one of the most under-appropriated rivers in the state – but getting and saving it is a different, costly story.

    The analysis shows 94 percent of young farmers in the arid West practice water conservation in some capacity, but for many farmers, methods are either unknown or inaccessible. Of the 94 percent who said they conserve, just 20 percent received Natural Resources Conservation Services funding, a federal cost-share program to improve efficiency.

    “It’s hard to invest money into efficient irrigation for hay,” French said.

    But local farmers appear to be trying to work around their barricades with methods such as crop rotation, cover-cropping, rotational grazing and mulching to preserve the soil; drip and flood irrigation to water crops; and getting innovative in scouting usable land – like leasing property at second homes that would otherwise go unused.

    Greenberg said failing to invest in the next generation of farmers will lead to land lost to fallowing, development and consolidation, which jeopardizes both water supply and food security. But until something shifts, the issues may continue to deter potential agriculturists in La Plata County.

    “The water is there. The land is there,” Hoyt said. “The change has to be monetary.”

    Mancos working to upgrade water system for $530,600 — The Cortez Journal

    Mancos and the Mesa Verde area
    Mancos and the Mesa Verde area

    From the Cortez Journal (Mary Shinn):

    The aging Mancos water system is getting a financial boost from regional agencies, and it may receive more money from the state.

    The town is looking to improve its raw water system, replace a major valve that reduces pressure, and install new water-distribution lines on the south side of town.

    The entire project is estimated to be about $530,600, said Town Clerk and Treasurer Heather Alvarez.

    So far, the Southwest Water Conservation District has granted the project $75,000, and the Southwest Basin Roundtable has agreed to pitch about $81,800. The town currently has an application pending with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs for about $265,000.

    If the town receives the state grant, it have to cover about $108,324 of the project.

    The town would like to finish design work for the project this year and be ready to start construction in 2017, said Town Administrator Andrea Phillips

    The lines the town is looking to replace are at the end of their useful life, and replacing them should help cut down on the need for repairs…

    Improving the raw water system should also help stop the spills at the raw water inlet, she said.

    In addition, the valve responsible for taking water pressure down from 120 pounds per square inch to 55 pounds per square inch will be replaced with three valves to create greater redundancy in the system, said Public Works Director Robin Schmittel.

    The town completed two major water infrastructure projects last year. It installed a new $1.1 water storage tank, replaced all the town’s water meters and rebuilt 100 water meter pits. The pits are plastic cylinders that protect the water meters in the ground.

    In 2014, the town adopted a four-year plan to increase water rates in order to pay for water infrastructure improvements. The February bill from the town of Mancos will reflect a $2.50 increase.

    “We’re in a new territory for everyone where the BLM and public are gong to mix in [on oil and gas exploration]” — Nada Culver

    Montezuma Valley
    Montezuma Valley

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    A Master Leasing Plan doesn’t sound provocative, but bitter lines have been drawn as a result of the Bureau of Land Management planning the future use of its federal land in Southwest Colorado, 92 percent of which is open to gas and oil development.

    Debate now lingers over whether the BLM should engage in such a plan to further analyze when and where new wells should be drilled.

    Conservationists and recreationists in support of a master plan say the study will give natural resources and recreational uses the same level of priority as gas and oil development, which the BLM has historically favored.

    Energy companies and those dependent on the industry argue the BLM already has protections in place, and the call for additional review is a cheap attempt by those who wish to see fuels remain in the ground.

    The BLM falls somewhere vaguely in between.

    Leveling the playing field

    Around 2010, the Tres Rios BLM office estimated up to 3,000 new wells would be drilled over the next 20 years for federally controlled minerals in western La Plata County and eastern Montezuma County.

    And within the 820,000-acre area of minerals, only 62,000 acres would be closed to drilling.

    The plan caught the ire of some community members who felt the boundaries come too close and adversely impact naturally valued lands, including the corridors into Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, around the mountain biking destination Phil’s World and on the edge of two wilderness study areas.

    In February 2015, the BLM released an updated Resource Management Plan, outlining guidelines for land use, including future exploration and development of new well pads in the region.

    But environmentalists say the resource plan fell short of keeping oil and gas in check, leaving too many areas of discretion and loopholes for over-development.

    Concerned with effects on wildlife migration, cultural resources, water quality and air quality, the groups pressured the BLM to consider a master plan, which could tighten restrictions in the two-county area.

    “We’re not going to make the entire area on the map a park,” said Nada Culver, director and senior counsel for the Wilderness Society. “The idea is to get more balanced with oil and gas. (A master leasing plan) takes resources like wildlife, recreation, agriculture – and evens the playing field.”

    Bringing together interests from across the board, the BLM set up and assigned an advisory committee to draft a recommendation on whether a master leasing plan is warranted. A sub-group of that committee is holding public hearings in Durango and Mancos on Thursday.

    Delay tactics?

    But not all are in favor of a second look at resources and interests on BLM lands.

    “This is being done for political reasons,” said Eric Sanford, operations and land manager for SG Interests, which is representing the energy industry on the sub-committee…

    BLM has final say

    BLM officials pointed to the $247 million the state of Colorado received in 2015 from royalties for all federal minerals, including oil and gas, as well as the more than 22,900 jobs tied to the industry’s operations on public land.

    The BLM Tres Rios Field Office will receive the advisory committee’s recommendation in August, but ultimately, the federal agency has the final say whether it will undertake a master leasing plan project.

    “We haven’t taken a stance one way or the other,” said Justin Abernathy, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Tres Rios office. “We’re a multiple-use agency, and in my experience with BLM – the people, the employees really try to balance their approach on how we manage public lands we’re responsible for.”

    The BLM ceased all gas and oil leasing on the area in question until the matter of a master leasing plan is resolved. Still, the federal agency has 35 previously authorized leases covering about 13,500 acres within the master plan’s boundaries.

    Between the 3,740-square-mile area that covers La Plata and Montezuma counties, the most recent data show nearly 6,000 gas wells dot the countryside.

    Throughout the mineral-rich San Juan Basin, the total number of drilling operations are hard to pin down, yet some reports reach into the tens of thousands.

    And numbers like those make the battle for the landscape of the West worth fighting for, the Wilderness Society’s Nada said.

    “This is a new culture,” Nada said. “The BLM has historically left it up to the oil and gas industry to decide when and where they drill.

    “We’re in a new territory for everyone where the BLM and public are gong to mix in.”

    R.I.P Fred Kroeger

    Fred Kroeger via the Southwestern Colorado Water Conservation District
    Fred Kroeger via the Southwestern Colorado Water Conservation District

    From The Durango Herald (Ann Butler):

    Whether you call him the epitome of the Greatest Generation or the man who would not give up, former Durango Mayor Frederick V. Kroeger, who died Saturday at 97, left a legacy for generations of Southwest Coloradans to come.

    The most visible parts of that legacy? Lake Nighthorse, Kroeger Hall and the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College and the business he founded in 1967, Kroegers Ace Hardware, an expansion of his family’s Farmers Supply that dates back to 1921…

    “He had a huge talent for leadership and was always positive and forward-looking,” Short said, “He never gave up. When I think about all the support, rallying and lobbying he did for the (Animas-La Plata Project) … he wasn’t going to stop until he saw it through.”

    Water conservation and storage were key issues for Kroeger most of his life, in part because of his family’s connection to the agricultural sector through Farmers Supply and in part because extended family members lived in southwest La Plata County, where water is scarce. Kroeger made countless trips to Washington, D.C., and Denver to lobby federal and state agencies on behalf of Southwest Colorado.

    “What more can I say? He’s one of the great figures in Colorado water history,” said former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, who told the Herald in 2009 he’d been inspired by his Southern Colorado counterparts while serving as the counsel for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District…

    “He was from that Greatest Generation, and he did everything with the highest integrity and ethics,” [Sheri Rochford Figgs] said. “I admired all of them so much – Fred Kroeger, Robert Beers, Morley (Ballantine) – because if they said they were going to do something, they did it, and they did it with gusto and enthusiasm.”