In August, 1998, the Administration proposed a concept to finalize the 1988 Colorado Ute Water Rights Settlement. The settlement had not been honored due to long-standing environmental concerns associated with the Animas-La Plata Project (ALP). Resolving the matter had become urgent due to a provision in the settlement agreement allowing the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes to reinitiate a water rights lawsuit if water from ALP was not available by January 1, 2000. Resolution was also critical to avoid the settlement from becoming the modern-day equivalent of a broken treaty.
ALP, authorized in 1968 (and still fully authorized), was a massive water development project with the primary purpose of bringing new lands into agricultural production through construction of irrigation facilities. Recognizing that the original project was environmentally unacceptable, the Administration proposed a drastic reduction in the size and scope of ALP, focusing instead on developing a smaller amount of water primarily for the satisfaction of the Colorado Ute Tribes' water rights as quantified in the 1988 Settlement. The irrigation component of the project was proposed for elimination. In total, the smaller project would reduce the cost of ALP by almost two-thirds ($274 M v. $700 M in new costs).
The Administration proposal also set forth the following key requirements:
- Compliance with all environmental laws in evaluating and constructing the project
- Full repayment by the non-Indian participants for their one-third share of project water
- Deauthorization of ALP project facilities not included in the settlement
The Department of the Interior immediately initiated an environmental analysis of the Administration proposal and selected a refined version of the proposal as its preferred alternative. A non-structural alternative suggested by opponents of ALP was also analyzed but not selected due to concerns about environmental impacts (wetlands) and its ability to ensure the Tribes received sufficient "wet water."
Key elements of the recommended alternative include:
- A down-sized off-stream reservoir (approx. 120,000 acre-feet (af) versus the original size of 270,000 af), which due to endangered species concerns, is limited to supplying only 57,100 af per year of depletion from the Animas River (versus the original design of 190,000 af per year of depletion)
- A water acquisition trust fund to allow the Tribes to acquire approximately 13,000 af per year of water since the smaller reservoir does not provide the entire quantity of water rights recognized in the1988 Settlement
- A municipal pipeline to deliver the Navajo Nation's share of project water to the water-short community of Shiprock, New Mexico
On October 25, 2000, after hearings in both the House and Senate and with support of the Administration, the Senate passed the Colorado Ute Settlement Act Amendments of 2000 by a vote of 85-5. The final version of the legislation mirrored the Administration proposal by providing for satisfaction of the Tribes' water rights claims while also ensuring full compliance with environmental laws, eliminating subsidies to the non-Indian project participants, and rescinding authorization for additional ALP facilities.