Last of the western water projects “violates federal law”

A pressure group has told senators that a $300 million dam building and water diversion plan ostensibly drawn up to settle American Indian water claims violates federal law.

The group, Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that the proposed Animas-La Plata (ALP) water project in Colorado is in violation of federal reclamation law because it had not taken into account project cost overruns and had not identified the cost local sponsors should repay for the project.

If plans put forward by the US Bureau of Reclamation are approved, water from the Animas River in Southwest Colorado will be pumped 500 feet (152m) uphill to a reservoir formed by the damming of Ridges Basin, currently a State Wildlife Area and Elk Refuge. The purpose of the project is ostensibly to provide water to American Indians.

Campaigners have accused the project of proposing illegal out-of-state water sales and of breaking local agreements by speculating on water uses. It is also claimed that two thirds of the water in the reservoir will go to non-Indian use, much of it to supply a coal-fired power station, a coal strip mine and a number of golf courses and casinos.

Environmentalists are also alarmed by the fact that the Senate version of the Bill which will authorise ALP, the Colorado Ute Settlements Act Amendments of 2000 (S.2508), contains ‘sufficiency language’ which will prevent opponents from challenging the environmental compliance of the project.

At a hearing on the Bill, Jill Lancelot, legislative director of Taxpayers for Common Sense, criticised the bill as “signing a blank check” for a wasteful water ‘boondogle’ that will harm the US taxpayer and the environment.

“The Bill would leave federal taxpayers vulnerable for inflation and inevitable cost overruns for the project. The country is littered with water projects that have far surpassed original cost estimates,” continued Lancelot. “Animas-La Plata is one of the last relics from the age of water behemoths. It costs too much and does too little.”

First authorised by Congress in 1968, ALP became a vehicle to settle the Southern and Ute Mountain Ute tribes’ water rights in the mid 1980s. “Although the current version is touted as an Indian-only project, a significant portion of the project’s benefits would go to non-Indian interests,” continued Lancelot. “The reason why ALP is being built is to prevent non-Indian interests from having their water rights potentially disrupted.”

Lancelot also claimed that the ALP project is a bad investment for taxpayers. A recent analysis by an independent economist showed that the return to taxpayers could be as little as 22 cents per dollar. “The project’s limited benefits come at a heavy cost to federal taxpayers. ALP’s current price tag is at least $300 million, but benefits would amount to as little as $85 million,” continued Lancelot.

Federal taxpayers will pay millions annually for O&M costs for ALP until the Tribes put all of their water to use – even though much of the water will not be used for 30-100 years, TCS claim.
Lancelot also pointed out that the basic need for the water is extremely questionable, “It is outrageous that federal taxpayers would subsidise golf courses, resort hotels, dude ranches or a coal-fired power plant.”

“TCS recognises the commitment to honouring the water rights of the Ute tribes. We agree that the obligation to the tribes must be met, but, we also believe that there are less costly ways to accomplish that goal,” concluded Lancelot.

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