Water rights stakeholders able to reach settlement in Animas-La Plata Project — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

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.”[…]

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.”

US Senators Bennet and Gardner, along with US Representative Tipton pen letter requesting the opening of Lake Nighthorse

Lake Nighthorse via The Durango Herald
Lake Nighthorse via The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Michael Cipriano):

U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, penned a letter to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López requesting open access to the Lake Nighthorse Reservoir at the earliest possible date.

The La Plata County reservoir was completed in 2011, but a recreation plan has not yet been agreed on, and the area has remained closed to the public.

Lake Nighthorse is currently being managed by a coalition of partners that helped build the original reservoir.

The Animas La Plata Water Conservancy District commissioned a report that found recreation at Lake Nighthorse could stimulate upwards of $12 million in annual economic benefits for La Plata County.

“Given this momentum, we encourage the Bureau to expedite and prioritize its environmental analysis of the proposal, which would clear the way to open the lake to public access,” the letter reads.”

The letter also says that as of March 6, all members and partners of the Animas-La Plata Project’s Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Association have endorsed the assessment of a draft recreational plan for the lake.

Several other entities have also expressed support for recreation at the reservoir, including the Southern Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, and the city of Durango.

“Given this impressive show of support throughout the region, we urge the Bureau to redouble their efforts to analyze and adopt an agreeable plan that will open Lake Nighthorse to recreational access as soon as possible,” the letter reads. “We look forward to your response including a timeline for next steps and to the resolution of this issue.”

Durango Mayor Sweetie Marbury said she is looking forward to the city’s residents being able to enjoy the area for swimming, fishing boating and other recreational uses.

“I am pleased to see that all the partners are now on board to initiate a process that we hope will open Lake Nighthorse as soon as possible,” Marbury said. “I appreciate our congressional delegation showing leadership on behalf of Southwest Colorado to support our efforts to open Lake Nighthorse to the public.”

More Animas-La Plata project coverage here and here.

Long Hollow reservoir filling — The Durango Herald

Long Hollow location map via The Durango Herald
Long Hollow location map via The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

Rain and snowmelt have provided the first water for a reservoir on Long Hollow Creek near Redmesa, a long-planned storage unit that will help Colorado meet its contractual water obligation to New Mexico and indirectly provide water for irrigators in southwest La Plata County.

Construction was completed in June 2014 on the Bobby K. Taylor Reservoir, named for the late rancher whose land is now disappearing under the advancing water. When full, the reservoir will be a lake one-mile long.

Flow from Long Hollow Creek and Government Draw fills the reservoir, which has a capacity of 5,300 acre-feet.

“We had 385 acre-feet this morning,” Brice Lee, chairman of the La Plata Water Conservancy District, said Tuesday. “It’s not as much as we’d like, but we’ll take it.”

Colorado shares La Plata River water 50-50 with New Mexico, but the erratic flow makes fulfilling the obligation problematical. Now, Taylor Reservoir water can be released to the La Plata River a mile away for New Mexico consumption, and this will allow Colorado irrigators to take water from the La Plata River.

Construction of the reservoir was on a tight budget. When the Animas-La Plata Project, the last major water work in the West, was downsized in the 1990s, water for irrigation was eliminated.

Long Hollow project advocates patched together a financing plan. They acquired $15 million the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority had set aside for projects in the area, got $3 million from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and, finally, $1.6 million from the state Legislature last year.

More La Plata River watershed coverage here.

Lake Nighthorse: “This water would really help our future” — Manuel Heart

Lake Nighthorse via the USBR
Lake Nighthorse via the USBR

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

The Durango City Council signed a resolution Tuesday supporting the delivery of water from Lake Nighthorse to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

“This water would really help our future,” Chairman Manuel Heart said.

The resolution stemmed from a series of recent meetings between city officials and the tribe about the potential recreational use of Lake Nighthorse, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said.

The city likely will send the resolution to Colorado’s U.S. senators and House members to help support the tribe as it seeks funding for infrastructure to deliver water.

Lake Nighthorse was built to provide Native American tribes, including the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, with water they are entitled to receive, said Justyn Hoch, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has water rights to about 31 percent of the water stored in the lake, but Congress has not funded infrastructure to bring it to the reservation, she said.

Congress has funded a pipeline to the Navajo Nation, which is nearing completion. It will deliver water to the Shiprock area. In addition, the Southern Utes could access water from Lake Nighthorse by releasing it back into the Animas and taking it out of a river diversion, she said.

However, the infrastructure for the Ute Mountain Utes was dropped from federal legislation in 2000, Heart said.

The tribal leadership already has met with U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R.-Cortez, and has plans to meet with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R.-Colorado, this year to talk about the need to fund a delivery system.

The additional water would allow for greater economic development on the reservation, Heart said. The reservation covers about 600,000 acres southwest of Cortez and has one of the largest farms in Montezuma County.

Ute Mountain Ute Councilor Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk also voiced her appreciation of the resolution because the reservation currently has limited water resources. While securing water delivery is a priority for the tribe, she expects it to be years before the tribe receives an appropriation.

More Animas-La Plata Project coverage here.

The Southern Ute Tribe and Reclamation start negotiations for Animas-La Plata water

Lake Nighthorse via the USBR
Lake Nighthorse via the USBR

Here’s the release from Reclamation (Ryan Christianson):

Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office announced today that it will initiate negotiations with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe on a proposed contract for the Tribe’s statutory water allocation of the Animas-La Plata Project. The first negotiation meeting is scheduled for Monday, December 8, 2014, at 1:30 p.m. at the Durango Community Recreation Center, 2700 Main Avenue, Durango, Colorado.

The contract to be negotiated will provide for storage and delivery of project water, and outline the terms and conditions of operation and maintenance payments for the project.

All negotiations are open to the public as observers, and the public will have the opportunity to ask questions and offer comments pertaining to the contract during a thirty minute comment period following the negotiation session. The proposed contract and other pertinent documents will be available at the negotiation meeting, or can be obtained on our website under Current Focus or by contacting Ryan Christianson of the Bureau of Reclamation, 445 West Gunnison Ave, Suite 221, Grand Junction, Colorado, 81501, telephone (970) 248-0652.

From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

Negotiators from the Southern Ute Native American Tribe and the Western Colorado area office of the Bureau of Reclamation opened negotiations Monday on the tribe’s use of water from Lake Nighthorse.

The lake is a reservoir created two miles southwest of Durango as a settlement of Native American water-right claims. The reservoir holds 123,000 acre-feet of water for the Southern Utes, the Ute Mountain Utes, the Navajo Nation and nontribal entities, including the city of Durango.

The tribes paid nothing to build the $500 million reservoir, but they will pay operation and maintenance costs once they start to use the water.

The terms of storing and delivering water and the terms and conditions of operation and maintenance payments are being negotiated.

Ryan Christianson from the Bureau of Reclamation said the session Monday is likely the first of many. The pace of talks and attention to detail Monday seem to bear him out.

All negotiating sessions are open to the public and include 30 minutes for public comment at the end of each session.

More Animas-La Plata Project coverage here and here.

Long Hollow Dam dedicated, brings hope of a more reliable supply to La Plata River irrigators

Long Hollow Reservoir location map via The Durango Herald
Long Hollow Reservoir location map via The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

The traditional ribbon cutting Thursday officially brought on line the Long Hollow Reservoir, raising the hopes of irrigators for a more consistent supply of water.

Already the reservoir, capacity 5,300 acre-feet, has seen a little accumulation of water from recent heavy rain funneled into it via Long Hollow Creek and Government Draw.

“We released that water,” said Brice Lee, president of the La Plata Water Conservancy District, sponsors of the project. “But today we start storing.”

The main purpose of the reservoir, named for the late landowner Bobby K. Taylor, whose ranch house sat scant yards from the toe of the dam, is the storage of water to meet contractual obligations with New Mexico.

Colorado must share La Plata River water fifty-fifty with New Mexico. But the fickle nature of the river makes living up to requirements difficult. Now reservoir water can satisfy New Mexico demands, allowing Colorado irrigators more use of the La Plata River.

“The real beneficiaries are our irrigators,” Lee said. “We hope we can develop sustainable agriculture on Fort Lewis Mesa.”[…]

Seemingly, anyone connected to the project – from early visionaries to construction workers who labored during the two years it took to build the dam – attended.

Representatives from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which contributed $3 million to the cost of construction, were on hand. Priscilla Rentz, a member of the Ute Tribal Council, gave invocation.

Three current legislators were in the audience – state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango; state Rep. Michael McLachlan, D-Durango; and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.

Judging from the names announced, the entire board of the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority accompanied agency director Mike Brod,

At least a half-dozen members of the extended Taylor family stood to acknowledge applause…

Water is gold here, given the inconsistent nature of the La Plata River and the requirement that what flow there is must be shared fifty-fifty with New Mexico.

Irrigators saw hopes shrivel when the Animas-La Plata Project, or A-LP, the last big water undertaking in the West, was downsized in the late 1990s, eliminating water for agriculture.

In spite of the disappointment, project advocates found three sources to keep the project alive – $15 million from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, $3 million from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and $1.575 million from the state Legislature this year.

Groundbreaking took place in summer 2010. The labor force of the Weeminuche Construction Authority, which built the dam, was 71 percent Ute Mountain Ute.

The Long Hollow Reservoir will serve as a water bank, to be drawn on by New Mexico. The reserve allows Colorado irrigators to use La Plata River water that otherwise would go south.

More La Plata River coverage here.

Long Hollow Dam construction complete

Long Hollow Reservoir location map via The Durango Herald
Long Hollow Reservoir location map via The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

A ceremonial load of dirt was dumped Thursday to mark the end of construction of the Long Hollow Dam.

The brief topping-out observation was attended by members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which helped fund construction, and Brice Lee from La Plata Water Conservancy District, which sponsored the project.

The reservoir behind the dam will store 5,300 acre-feet of water from Long Hollow Creek and Government Draw to support area irrigators and help Colorado meet its obligation to share La Plata River water with New Mexico…

The dam is 151 feet high with a span of 800 feet. A central clay core is supported upstream and downstream by tons of sand, rocks and dirt.

Aaron Chubbuck, Weeminuche project manager, said the dump trucks used during construction covered the equivalent of 10 trips around the world at the equator (about 250,000 miles).

Finishing touches remain. Sensors will be placed on the face of the dam to record possible movement or leakage, and electrical and hydraulic lines will be installed to operate the intake gate and valves on the downstream side.

The “borrow areas” from where construction materials were taken will have to be revegetated.

More La Plata River watershed coverage here.