- Permanent Link:
- Allocating scarcity water in the desert viewed by Spanish padres and the Animas-La Plata Project
- Allen, Scott Stetson
- Place of Publication:
- Denver, Colo.
- University of Colorado Denver
- Publication Date:
- Physical Description:
- 131 leaves : ; 28 cm
- Master's ( Master of Arts)
- Degree Grantor:
- University of Colorado Denver
- Degree Divisions:
- Department of History, CU Denver
- Degree Disciplines:
- Subjects / Keywords:
- Water diversion -- Animas River Watershed (Colo. and N.M.) ( lcsh )
Water -- History -- Southwest, New ( lcsh )
Nature -- Effect of human beings on -- Southwest, New ( lcsh )
Nature -- Effect of human beings on ( fast )
Water ( fast )
Water diversion ( fast )
Southwest, New ( fast )
United States -- Animas River Watershed ( fast )
- History. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
History ( fast )
- Includes bibliographical references (leaves 120-131).
- General Note:
- Department of History
- Statement of Responsibility:
- by Scott Stetson Allen.
- Source Institution:
- |University of Colorado Denver
- Holding Location:
- Auraria Library
- Rights Management:
- All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
- Resource Identifier:
- 40512536 ( OCLC )
- LD1190.L57 1998m A55 ( lcc )
areas.90 New economic ventures such as mining also strained water resources.
Even a medium sized Spanish mining operation used more water than a half a
dozen towns or missions.91 Additionally, new technologies brought by the
Spanish such as gristmills were powered by water and placed new demands on
water reserves as they increased in popularity throughout New Spain in the 18th
Early European contact with the Utes occurred during Spanish expeditions.
Dominguez and Escalante like so many other Spaniards in the New World left
behind diaries from which we may glimpse at their relationships to the natural
world. The padres clearly viewed nature in utilitarian terms, eyeing the land for
ways to employ irrigation, establish permanent settlements, and manage natural
resources to benefit the growth of a Christian civilization.
Inheriting intellectual beliefs from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and
spiritual beliefs from the Christian church and its Jewish origins, the Spanish
believed they had been put in a position of dominance over a submissive natural
world.92 From this stance the natural world was predestined for human
consumption. The momentum of a J udeo-Christian belief in a subordinated natural
world was infused with an insatiable desire for material accumulation and, finally,
was carried out by a European fascination with mechanical technology preaching
The Southern Ute Indians had considerable contact with the Spanish.
Frequent trade at Taos and Abiqui allowed for a typically friendly alliance between
the two. Spanish influence on Ute irrigation is evident once Utes were confined to
the reservation at Ignacio in 1877. In feet, the Ute reservation attracted hispanos
to the area offering new employment opportunities.93 A harmonious relationship
between Spanish and Utes is further evidenced a decade earlier by a government
program in 1886 where Hispanic farmers and laborers where hired to clear lands,
dig irrigation ditches and grow crops for the Utes.94 Nomadic by tradition, the Utes
were helped by Hispanics in the San Juan Basin of Northern New Mexico and
Southwestern Colorado to make the difficult transition to a settled way of life.
Working as herder, farmers, and laborers, Hispanics were a vital link between the
Utes and the Anglo-American program that was quickly spreading throughout the
region. Spanish views of nature, and irrigation techniques enabled the Utes to
slowly prepare for the Anglo-American domination of water resources in the Four
Comers region. Ute-Spanish contact between 1877-1926 is best described as a
loose symbiosis, without domination of one over the other.9S Unlike the Spanish
program of converting Indians into the Christian community, the Anglo-American
program operated on relocation and isolation theories when dealing with Native
Americans. The reservation system was an attempt to remove Indians from
prosperous lands and relocated them to remote regions, far from American
As some of the final representatives of the waning Spanish Empire, the
Franciscans provide a historical model which informs modem discussions of water
development The Franciscan model serves to remind us that earlier Europeans
than the Anglo-Americans were involved in replumbing the natural water basins of
the Southwest Even two hundred and twenty years ago water disputes resulting
from competing human values were commonplace. Spanish legal doctrines
weighed more than just prior-use in determining the full extent of water rights.
Finally, the Spanish were wise to the political effects of controlling water
resources as a form of power over one's neighbor.
Modem day Utes have an important role to play in the resolution of the
Animas-La Plata dispute. Inheriting elements of the Hispanic tradition of water
use in the Southwest, the Utes stand in a unique position to play the high
powered game of water politics with the Bureau of Reclamation and against the
Environmental Protection Agency and the Siena Club.
1 Delaney and Jefferson, 2.
-See Stephen Greenblalts Marvelous Possessions, for more on Spanish renaming as
possession of the marvelous. According to Greenblatt, the Spanish attitude in the New
World was a modem stance of material possession compared to a medieval stance of spiritual
observation. The act of renaming is an act of possessing, an inability to leave the world in a
mode of circulation.
3 Columbus's original journal has never been found. Bartolome De Las Casas has an
acceptable version. In The Voyage of Christopher Columbus. (Saint Martin's Press, 1992)
John Cummins has a new version which was created from other sources including
Columbus's son Fernando's biography of his hither, Columbus's own library and other legal
records. (Cummins: 1992, 103)
4 PedroCasteneda, The Journey of Coronado .(Ann Arbor University Microfilms, Inc.,
5Kirkpatric Sale, The Conquest of Paradise .(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990), 84.
7Grundy, Gareth. The Dammed Axis. Arena, published in London. (September, 1996).
8nviH r. Wehr The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University
9 Sale, 86.
10Fray Alonso deBenavides, Benavides Memorial of 1630 (Washington D.C.: Academy of
American Franciscan History, 1954), 40.
11 Benavides, 39.
13 Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism .(Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1986),
*9Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Baca, The JoumevofCabeza de Vaca .(New York: A.S. Bames &
Company, 1905), 81.
21 Ram on A. Guitierez, When Jesus Cam< the Commothers Went Away (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1991), 298.
^see Carolyn Merhcant's essay on Ecological Revolutions* for a deeper explication of
visual consciousness of Indians and Europeans in Major Problems in Environmental History.
(Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1993)
24Ted Warner, "The Significance of the Dominguez-'Velez de Escalante Expedition, in
Charles Redd Monographs in Western History Essays on the American West 1973-1974.
(Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1974) ,66.
-6Delaney and Jefferson, 4.
-^Delaney and Jefferson, S.
31 Delaney and Jefferson, 6.
32Delaney and Jefferson, 7.
33Juan Maria Antonio deRivera, Diaries of 1765.. (Translated by Austin Nelson Leiby,
Ph.D. Dissertation, 1983, Western Archives, Denver Public Library), 97.
34Rivera Diary. 107.
3^Dominyuez and Rc^alant Innmal (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1976), 10.
36Dominguez and Escalante, 6
38Dominguez and Escalante, 7.
39 Another meaning of Animas is spirit or souL Some texts have referred to the Animas
Riveras Las Animas de los Perdidos," The River of Lost Souls.
40Dommguez and Escalante, 113.
41 Dominguez and Escalante, 11.
60David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University
61 Weber, 106.
65 Moorish influence on Spanish irrigation.
The significance of Moorish influence on Spanish irrigation is hotly debated by
historians. Regardless of the degree, it is beyond argument that Spain learned much about
water as a means of wielding power in its reconquest of Iberia from the Moors. Clearly the
Spanish language holds remnants of Arabic influence in regards to irrigation terminology.
The Spanish word for reservoir, alijibe is derived from the Arabic al-yubb; acequia (irrigation
ditch, from the Arabic as-saquiya) and al&rda (irrigation tax from the Arabic al-ferda) .65
Of course, extensive irrigation existed in southern Spain prior to the invasion by the Moors
in the eighth century. Nevertheless, good ideas from living in the desert are worth holding
onto, and evidence of Moorish influence on Spanish irrigation is abundant In his prolific
work. Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia. Thomas Glick, traces the irrigation
practices and water administration policies of southern Spain to the Muslims in the early
Middle Ages. Furthermore, Glick illustrates in his short work. The Old World Background
of the Irrigation System of San Antonio. Texas, that prior to using Islam-derived hydraulic
systems in the New World, Spain experimented with dry land irrigation practice and policy
in the Canary Islands.^ It was here in the Canaries, and later in the West Indies and the
New World, where Spain spread its late medieval doctrines of water use which promoted the
notion of public use as an ideal, but in reality iavored granting water rights from the royal
domain to individuals thus privatizing water sources.
^MarcSimmons, 'Spanish Irrigation Practices in New Mexico.* New Mexico Historical
Review. April 1972, 142.
71 Simmons, 144_
73The term mayordoma was first officially used August 30, 1806 in the Decree of Lieutenant
Juan Antonio Barela, Santa Rosa de Abiquiu. Meyer, 64.
8 ^Dominguez, 197.
84 Dominguez, 40.
88Dominguez reporting on the Villa of Alburquerque, 151.
92CIive P on ting, A Green History of the World (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 142.
93Francess Swadesh, The Southern Utes and Their Neighbors 1877-1926.. MA Thesis.
University of Colorado, Boulder, 1962, 114.
94Francess Swadesh, Los Primeros Pobladores. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame
Press, 1974), 113.
9^Swadesh, MA Thesis, 119.
CONCLUSION: THIRSTY DOGS FIGHTING OVER A DAMP SPONGE
Water in the desert is as hot a commodity today as it was over two
hundred years ago. Diverse perspectives about how water is preserved and used
reflects a wide range of values toward the natural world. As discussed, when the
Spanish padres Dominguez and Escalante traveled through the Animas and La
Plata River basins, their European heritage sought different relationships to the
land compared to the Utes and other native tribes. Our modem knot of competing
values toward water contain numerous strands reflecting Native American,
Hispanic, Anglo-American, and environmental values. All the players in the
Animas-La Plata project align themselves, to a greater or lesser extent with these
four values: Wilderness Preservation, Wise-Use Conservation, Pro-Development,
and Eco-Business. Spanish and Native American values often were the historical
antecedents to these modem attitudes toward the land.
The Wilderness Preservation Value
The Anglo-American idea of preserving wilderness for its own sake and not
for the intent of development is found in the early 1900's with the American
conservation movement As a splinter group from the "wise use" ideal of
Theodore Roosevelt's conservation movement the wilderness preservationists
were mostly educated urban dwellers on the East or West coast not frontier
settlers, miners, loggers, or farmers. Men like George Catlin, Henry David
Throeau, John Muir, Enos Mills, Frederick Law Olmstead and later, Aldo Leopold,
popularized the idea of saving wild lands as a means of preserving not only fragile
ecosystems from development but also as a means of creating sanctuaries for the
spirit and soul of humanity. Prominent American women also played a major role
in the preservation movement Women such as Florence Merriam Bailey, Mary
Austin and Mabel Osgood Wright, brought national attention to the efforts of
saving birds from the hating industry, promoting national parks and opposing dam
building in such places as Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite. The preservation movement
was a reaction against the rapid industrialization and accelerated use of natural
resources that were disappearing just as fast under the management of "wise use"
federal agencies as they were beneath the profit margins of laissez fkire
Modem attitudes toward the land that are linked to the preservation
movement obviously include John Muir's Sierra Club. Other environmental groups
also draw strength from the value of preserving wild spaces for their own sake.
Ancient Forest Rescue, the American Whitewater Association, Animas River
Guides and the Colorado Environmental Coalition all have ideological roots in the
preservation movement as they stand united against A-LP. Many individual
citizens in the Four Comers region adopt preservation values as well in their
opposition to dam building and construction of large-scale irrigation projects like A-
For Native Americans the idea of wilderness is a European invention.
Nature was not wild and savage needing to be tamed, but rather was viewed by
Indians as bountiful, to be revered as the source of the "Great Mysteries." Most
importantly, nature was not a wild and untrammeled place for the Indians: it was
home. The natural world was one of balance and delicate relationships,
sustainable if humans were respectful of the natural cycles. Describing this
relationship, Jemez Pueblo educator Joe San do remarked: "They came face to face
with nature, but did not exploit her. They became a part of the ecological balance
instead of abusing and finally destroying it."1 For virtually all North American
tribes, nature was sacred and a place of worship, just as a church was for the
Modem Indian values toward the land still highlight nature as a place of
spiritual and even ancestral culture. Adaptation is more important than
domination, and most Indian religions traditionally supported this value by placing
strict codes limiting wildlife killing to what was needed to sustain tribal life. 2 But
times are changing and the Ute Indians in particular are finding themselves able to
build economic power by developing natural resources such as coal and gas which
underlie their reservation lands. In many ways the Utes are adopting a value of
"Wise Use" much like the conservation movement of Teddy Roosevelt. Although
the Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes have a common cultural heritage, as
discussed, their economic development in the twentieth century has been quite
separate. The Ute Mountain Utes were more isolated from main-stream American
culture and were slower in adapting traditional life to modem times. Nevertheless,
the two Ute tribes are united in their support of A-LP. Both tribes are set on using
water from A-LP to boost municipal and industrial growth for a healthy economic
Turning back to the 18th century and the Spanish frontier, there is no trace
of preservation values by the missionaries. Their goal was conversion of a native
population to a core orthodox Christian belief and the transformation of a
wilderness into a civilization in the likeness of Europe. The notion of saving wild
places would have been perverse. The Franciscan world view saw the American
Southwest as dry, wild, and barren land made civilized by church teachings and
Wise Use-Conservation Value
Coming out of the late 19th century in reaction to the rapid extraction of
natural resources fueling industrial growth, the conservation movement was the
trademark of the Roosevelt Administration. Together with Forest Secretary
Clifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt made famous the "wise use" slogan to curb
unbridled big business with federal management of the nation's natural wealth to
insure, "The greatest good, for the greatest numbers, for the longest time. Teddy
Roosevelt's brand of conservation employed scientific techniques to accurately and
efficiently extract wealth -but also to replenish reserves when possible. Technical
experts took control of managing timber, water and agricultural lands to insure
scientific efficiency of use. The Bureau of Reclamation was bom under this
progressive idea of "wise use," in 1902.
In the 1990's, the Department of the Interior and its agencies promote what
is essentially the philosophy of the early conservation movement The Bureau of
Reclamation's mission statement for the 1990's proves this point and covers itself
for fiscal responsibility and green politics. "To manage, develop, and protect water
and related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the
interest of the American public."3
This value of wise use conservation is shared by most federal agencies
involved with A-LP. With the exception of the EPA, most federal and state
agencies, and local county commissioners align themselves, at least publicly, with
this value. It appears evident that the Ute Tribes also have adopted this value as
a way to satisfy their outstanding water rights with federally funded projects and
put them in a position to utilize coal and gas reserves for municipal and industrial
The 18th century Spanish view of nature contains some values of the wise-
use conservation movement. The Spanish were interested in making the most of
their meager water sources in the Southwest, often times reusing water from the
acequia for domestic use first before giving it over to the fields. Primarily the
historical antecedent for "wise use" comes from Spanish efficiency in water
management Preceding the scientific approach to resource management in the
conservation era, Spanish officials and missionaries on the northern frontier, being
men of the Enlightenment, were well prepared to employ strategic water control
methods. Coupled with a legal system that was developed to protect the
community's interests, Spanish irrigation practices were fair and efficient systems
of water distribution that also delivered political clout.
Compared to modem, federal water projects that dislocate the power of
autonomy away from the individuals who use the water, the Spanish acequia
system was a remarkable institution of local democracy administered under a
monarchy. The mayordomo was a locally elected member of the acequia
community, held accountable for his duties by other members of the irrigation
community. By putting local people in leadership positions, Spanish water control
not only empowered the irrigators who were ruled, but also insured water equity
and optimum efficiency. Spanish water law balanced individual values with
community values. Local water judges adjudicated water disputes in a timely
fashion, allowing irrigators to get back to tending their fields. This is the lasting
legacy of the Spanish in the American Southwest "Spanish colonial water law,
from which much of our present western water law is derived, went to great
lengths to protect the public interest and place it above parties seeking particular
water rights.4 As Mexico continued a policy of equitable distribution, like Spain,
its judicial system placed the rights of the corporate community higher than those
of the individual5 Pre-dating Roosevelt's wise-use slogan is the 1720 Sante Fe
guideline, "Divide the waters always verifying the greatest needs...and giving to
each one that which he needs."6
In the spirit of American laissez faire capitalism, the Pro-Development
value is derived from people who make a living from the maximum use of the land
and what it has to ofier business. Business owners involved in real estate
development, mining and extractive industries all value making the most use of the
land to increase profits and keep pace with financial markets world wide.
Environmental concerns are negligible unless they impede growth. Modem land
speculators, builders, contractors and realtors all share this value to a greater or
The pro-development value leads back directly to the motivations and
intentions of the Spanish on their North American frontier. Whether it was
soldiers building forts to defend the Crown's empire, missionaries building
acequias and churches, or settlers homesteading, the Spanish clearly embraced a
pro-development attitude with little concern for environmental affects. Although
its was bard-won, carving a niche in the desert was a Spanish attribute. Arriving
from an overcrowded Europe, the Spanish were in awe of the wide open spaces
and quickly set to work exploring, mining, evangelizing and civilizing this Mew
World. Explorers from Coronado, to Rivera and the Fathers Dominguez and
Escalante all make clear reference in their expedition journals to the possibility of
land development, water sources and quantities, amounts of timber, pasturage as
well as native flora and fauna.
The Spanish valued settlement in permanent towns and villas with tightly
knit communities -not like the isolated family forms of the Anglo-American
tradition. The Spanish program believed it was creating a civilization where
previously none had existed. Through conversion, Indians were brought into a
potentially self-sustaining Christian community where private property was valued
but not at the expense of the good of the village. In contrast, the Anglo-American
program wanted to isolate and remove Indians out of the way of frontier
settlements and mining claims.7 Private property was valued above all others.
Communities developed in an ad hoc fashion around the development patterns of
laissez faire capitalist ventures and federal land grants.
The Spanish early on met with the Pueblo Indians along the Rio Grande
who were sedentary and employed extensive irrigation techniques that the
Spanish kept in place and expanded upon with their own technologies. But the
nomadic tribes like the Utes were considered "gente barbara," barbarous people.
Private property -virtually unknown to Native tribes-and permanently settled
communities were the hallmarks of what Europeans considered civilization. The
Utes who came to the pueblos of Taos and Sante Fe to trade with the Spanish
throughout the 18th century, certainly observed the benefits of security that
irrigated agriculture provided in terms of crop surplus. But the Utes and other
northern nomadic tribes were not willing to give up the freedom of movement and
the security which migrating to the uninhabited mountain ranges of the Rockies
Moving from one hunting ground to the next, roaming with the seasons to
different elevations developed a rhythm with and respect for the earth that is
starkly different from a private property owner who fences and defends his plot
against raiders, but also becomes a part of a market community where ownership
entitles one to certain privilege over others.
The Spanish pro-development value and private property laws, were a
companion with the power-over-th y-neighbor value. The Spanish had learned more
than irrigation techniques from the Moors during their reconquest of Iberia. Grants
of land and water were used to entice settlements in frontier areas that had been
recaptured. Water in Spain became a tool for power and a weapon used against
enemies. The Spanish clearly knew how to utilize water as a source of power.8
Private property as granted by the Crown allowed land and water to
become commodities to be bought, sold and traded. The natural world in the 16th
century was now tangled in the political affairs of two different races, European
and Native American. Capturing water supply could be used to squeeze enemies
off of land as a military tactic. Water laws were instated primarily to promote a
sharing Christian community, but also were manipulated to pry water rights and
property titles from those who either didn't read or know the law. Sight was the
dominant sense in a world where the literate were the powerful. It was a power
struggle between Spaniard and Indian over irrigation lands, but also a struggle of
Spaniard against Spaniard as presidios argued with missions over acequia access,
and, to a lesser extent, a struggle of Indian with fellow Indian. Tribal boundaries
and traditional hunting grounds, water holes and fishing sites along rivers were
hotly defended in the desert. When water is scarce, it seems water fights cross all
boundaries of ethnicity. Water supply is fundamental to human existence, it is just
that everyone has a different idea about how best to distribute this precisous
A comfortable generalization: Indians always lived within the balance of
nature, something their European counterparts never learned. Before proceeding
too far down that comfortable line of reasoning let's recall the Hohokam
civilization. Thriving in Arizona near the confluence of the Gila, Verde and Salt
rivers, the Hohokam culture flourished for a minimum of a thousand years before
suddenly and mysteriously disappearing in 1400. The Hohokam, which in Pima
language means "those who have gone," were a highly organized civilization who
built four story pueblos and expertly engineered irrigation canals which allowed
them to cultivate thousands of acres of desert landscape. Some think the
Hohokam disappeared because they fell out of balance with a sustainable human-
nature relationship. Perhaps salt build-up due to extensive irrigation was their
This is not the only example of Indian misuse of natural resources. Spanish
borderlands historian John Keller thinks environmentalists may have overstated
the impact of the Spaniards on the environment and the legacy of domination
carried forward by the modem "Pepsi Generation. Keller reminds our generation
that the pueblo builders of Chaco Canyon cut down somewhere between 75,000
and 100,000 young trees in an area of minimal growth.9 Keller warns us of the
Aldous Huxley phrase "retrospective utopism." What about the Christian
tradition of stewardship, and the doctrine of the blessed earth: "hope remains
loyal to this earth?" Have modem Eco-historians gone too far in blaming European
views of nature for our current environmental blight?
Ancient Indian irrigation and life styles did impact the North American
environment, but moderately. However, there is no denying that an ecological
chain reaction was set in place by even the first indigenous people in America.
Plants were introduced into new habitats where they could not have lived
otherwise. Natural stream flows were changed by terracing, natural vegetation
was modified by man-made water diversions, organic matter in the soils was
altered as were the migratory patterns of birds and animals.10
In the end, European values and technology prevailed in the Southwest
Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps not. What if the utopian visions for an organic,
communal society, dreamed of by Tommaso Campanella or Valentin Andrea, had
taken root and flourished in earth 17th century Europe. In 1599 Campanella led a
revolt by artisans and the poor to overthrow Spanish rule in Naples and the
province of Calabria, Italy. Exalting nature as a "divine artisan," Campanella
envisioned a society harmonious with the natural world, a more egalitarian
distribution of wealth and a new God "immanent in Nature." Unfortunately
Spanish troops threw him in jail for 27 years where he wrote City of the Sun
(1602).! 1 Similarly, the Lutheran pastor Johann Valentin Andrea wrote
Christianopotis (1619) as a utopian vision with an organic philosophy that placed
people within rather than above nature.12
Campanella and Andrea serve to remind us that European and Native
American views of nature could have been compatible. But their utopian vision
was too little too late. For nothing could stop the blind ambition and sheer
restlessness of men like Columbus, Cortez and Coronado. The cultural baggage
these men carried across the Atlantic explains why they arrived in America seeing
nature from the outside, looking in.
A modem blend of values includes the recent boom of Eco-tourism which
relies on a healthy scenic landscape to attract large hordes of tourists. This
business value also wants to see profits maintained and increased but relies upon
preserved wilderness to attract its clientele. White water railing outfits as well as
campgrounds, and hotels and restaurants all rely on healthy scenery to fuel their
businesses. Although these groups want steady growth, they differ from the pro-
development group in that they need an untouched, beautiful environment as their
raw material to extract tourist and recreationist dollars.
The Sierra Club, Colorado Outward Bound, and various recreational
businesses desire growth that is conditional: it must not negatively impact the
aesthetic quality of the natural backdrop. Tourism is a multi-million dollar industry
in Colorado which relies to a large extent on the many scenic and natural wonders
the state offers. Eco-businesses are aware of the delicate ratio between profit and
degradation of scenery.
Which value will win over in the settlement of A-LP? Similar to the water
disputes between lower and upper basin states along the Colorado River, the
players in A-LP are a kin to thirsty dogs fighting over a damp sponge. The Utes
and the Bureau of Reclamation would like to shake hands and settle this deaL But
a new third party in the agreement has arrived which wasn't present during
Spanish era water projects and wasn't present even thirty years ago. The legal
voice of the environment, the desert land itself, as protected by the EPA and
backed by numerous groups like the Siena Club, is now a strong third party in the
deal to transport water. If the Utes have their way and the Bureau of Reclamation
goes ahead, then perhaps the Utes can demonstrate a way to develop municipal
and industrial water without losing sight of their traditional preservation attitudes.
If the Sierra Club and the environmental coalition wins, then a new era of
conservation and alternative ways to provide water to the Utes will be ushered
into the Animas River Valley in the twenty-first century.
Water Rights. Water Fights:
The Future of A-LP
Underlying the competing value strands is a power struggle between all
groups trying to advance their interests. Just as in 18th century frontier New
Spain, a deep seated power struggle over water use exists in modem times as
exemplified by the current, and highly controversial Animas-La Plata River project.
But the modem water scene appears much more complicated, the knot is tighter
and appears impossible to untie. The knot includes Indians and non-Indians,
citizens against growth, business for urban growth and earth friendly growth. The
knot includes federal and state agencies and politicians wanting to keep funding
Unlike the days when the Spanish Crown could dispense the power to local
officials to begin dam construction, modem water projects must pass over
numerous hurdles before construction begins. Modem environmental protection
laws illustrate American values toward how the land and its resources are to best
be used. Springing from the founding of the federal Environmental Protection
Agency in 1970, is a myriad of environmental legislation aimed at protecting
human-nature relationships. The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act,
the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wilderness Act all exemplify a modem
attitude recognizing that the natural world needs protection from the ambitions of
society. Right now environmentalists are striving to list the Animas River as a
candidate for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. This particular legislation selects
rivers for protection if they, "possess outstandingly remarkable scenic,
recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values."13
The huge tentacles of federal bureaucracy are eating each other. The EPA
grabs the Bureau of Reclamation as it struggles to complete its mission to replumb
one of the last rivers of the Colorado River Storage Act. The winners in this
bureaucratic wrestling match are the opponents of A-LP. Meanwhile the Utes get
closer and closer to law suits as a the year 2000 deadline nears. White guilt
toward Indians seems to be dwindling. The Ute Indians in particular have been the
beneficiaries of several federal water projects in the area already. The Dolores,
and Pine River Projects both pump water onto Ute lands. A-LP is not about
irrigating low value crops for the Utes, it's about providing water for municipal and
industrial growth, in small part for Indian^ in large part for non-Indians.
As the public becomes more informed about the limitations of large-scale
irrigation projects, it will realize there are very few sites in the West today which
have the right combination of cheap water, favorable soil, climate and accessible
markets to make new irrigation projects like A-LP profitable and self-sustaining.14
Specialty crops such as perishable fruits and vegetables, which fetch a higher
market price, have limited potential in the Four Comer's climate compared to the
predominately low value crops like alfalfa and hay which are presently grown on
Ute and non-Indian lands for cattle and horse feed.
In the 1980s the people of Denver had tough water choices to make. Two
Forks Dam proposal was shot down largely from environmental concerns and
outdoor enthusiasts lobbying for alternatives to Denvers increasing water
demands. Without a new dam project, Denverites had to increase conservation
and find inventive ways to save water. As result, a remarkable resurgence of
native plants for homes and public gardens came into vogue. Bom in Denver,
"Xeriscape" ushered in a new era of promoting drought tolerant plants, most of
which are native species to the region. With the rise of such gardening techniques
as Xeriscape, the public's eye was opened to the new possibilities that life without
dams can provide.
Despite bipartisan attempts to kill the Animas-La Plata project in
Congress during the Summer of 1997, A-LP received a $6 million budget for 1998,
down from $10 million in 1997. As of July, 1997, a scaled down version of A-LP
may well settle the controversies. Known as "A-LP Lite," the alternative would
cut the cost of the project from $750 million down to $250 -$300 million.15 The
proposal serves all the interests of the initial parties including Indian tribes,
fanners, and municipalities in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. A-LP
Lite has been approved by members of the San Juan Water Commission in
Farmington, New Mexico. Director of the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy
District in Durango also .agreed to a A-LP Lite.16 But the Ute Indians have yet to
voice their opinion and it is likely to take some time before all parties take a stance
and a final agreement is reached. Opposition will likely come from the usually
players such as the Sierra Club. Lori Potter former attorney for Sierra Club's Legal
Defense Fund commented, "proposing an "A-LP-Iite" is like rearranging the deck
chairs on the Titanic."17
As of November, 1997, Colorado State Governor Roy Romer stated that no
final agreement resulted from his Romer-Schoetler Process, but nevertheless told
Congress of his approval of "A-LP Lite." According to Steve Smith, Senior
Congressional Assistant for David Skaggs, a decision on the fete of A-LP is
expected before the end of fiscal year 1998, in September of 1998.
The public may soon acknowledge its history and come to understand that
water, unlike most public resources, such as timber, coal, gas, oil, and open range
is essentially handed out for free.18 Historically, the benefactors of federal water
projects, land developers, industrialists, commercial farmers, have not had to pay a
cent for dam constructing and paid below market prices for using public water
delivered in federal pipes.19 The American public is beginning to wake up to the
history of real estate developers who used city, state and federal funds to build
new water projects fueling land development Publicly subsidized projects have
historically benefited private enterprise.20
When Indian reserved water rights come into play, the public has more to
consider. If A-LP is a federal subsidy for Indian water works, then the public must
decide how to value that subsidy. The Ute Indians have excellent advisors in law,
economics, hydrology and engineering. They bring a high level of expertise to the
bargaining table. Perhaps A-LP is not about irrigating high desert Indian land, but
rather building community within the Ute tribes. Secure water resources keep
communities healthy, allowing a viable future with real economic power. Perhaps
the cultivation of human community and the honoring of reservation treaties is
valued enough to warrant a federal subsidy. It remains clear that water projects
create very diverse communities. The citizens of Durango have a water
relationship with the Ute Indians. They now share, as do all the residents of the
Four Comer's region, a common need for equitable water distribution.
The Frog Doesn't Drink Up the Pond it Lives In:
Modem environmental historians, water attorneys, ecology minded action
groups and educators are gathering momentum to raise public awareness about
large-scale irrigation projects. Springing from Marc Reisner's landmark book,
Cadillac Desert, a Public Broadcast series by the same name reached into millions
of American homes in J uly, 1997. Its mission was clear, to declare the end of the
dam building era in the American west and announce a new era of intense
conservation to meet the public's increasing water needs. Modem educators are
also in a position to use the Colorado River as a world model of a river over-
dammed and over-allocated. The new challenge for educators is to inform irrigation
communities around the world about the environmental impacts and social
problems of dam and reservoir systems. At the same time historians, ecologists,
and educators can point in new directions for water use informed by past mistakes
and future technologies boosting hyper-conservation.
The developing world looks to America as an example of how to build huge
diversion projects and store water for a variety of uses. It seems the world is still
hell-bent on dam building. Underway at the time of this writing is the colossal
Three Gorges Dam in China. Over one million people will be displaced once the
400 mile long reservoir is filled.21 In protest, the World Bank has withdrawn
financing and top American hydrologist no longer consult for what will be the
world's largest dam project.22
In Mexico City where 20 million people now live, folly one third of water
channeled for municipal and industrial use is lost in leaks to an antiquated water
system.23 In some parts of Mexico, water for domestic use is expensive. An
impoverished person in Mexico can pay up to one fourth of their daily earnings just
to purchase fresh water that is trucked into the villages.
In the Middle East, the Israelis have been front runners in dry land forming,
using extensively drip irrigation and moisture systems, saving them a third of the
water used in traditional spray and sprinkler systems employed throughout the
American Southwest24 In addition, Israel recycles two thirds of its water by
reclaiming "gray," waste water and treating it for cropland irrigation.25
The world can learn from America the down-side of over-plumbing the
Colorado River: environmental degradation to fish, aquatic wildlife, riparian
ecosystems and phenomenal evaporation rates from desert reservoirs. As well,
Americans can learn from more arid climates than our own the lessons of extreme
conservation. The average American family of four uses in excess of 300 gallons a
day. In the light of fiscal responsibility, conservation is more dollar efficient than
building new dams.26 The modem voice of the environment is a strong social and
legal factor in determining the success and failure of water projects. Keeping
waterfowl and riparian ecosystems healthy has increasing support from more than
just Earth First! radicals. Westerners are concerned about the quality of their
environment. A New York Times and CBS poll in 1990 found 71 percent of
Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes to clean up the environment and S6
percent fevered protecting the environment even at the cost of lost jobs in their
As the tangled knot of competing water interests tightens, some practical
outcome of the Animas-La Plata Project will arrive before the year 2000, possibly
as early as the summer of 1998. Regardless of the final fete of the Animas River,
this point remains clear in the West today: the liquid ribbons of life will always be
a grave matter of allocating scarcity to the millions who now call this red desert
1 Meyer, 19.
2 Meyer, 19.
2 Brochure of the Bureau of Reclamation's Mission statement
4Brown and Ingram, 33.
5 Brown and Ingram, 35.
6Brown and Ingram, 35.
9John Keller, "Spaniards, Environment and the Pepsi Generation," in David Webers Essays
on Spam's Far Northern Frontier. (Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979),
11 Merchant 1980:82.
14 Robert A. Young and Roger Man, "Cheap Water in Indian Country," in Thomas R.
McGuire's Indian Water in West. (Tuscson: University of Arizona Press, 1993), 181
15The Denver Post: July 5, 1997.
16The Denver Post: July 5.1997.
-Ipublic Broadcast Service special entitled .Cadillac Desert,* 1997.
Voices of the West
Here is a small collection of voices that speak to the issues of land and
water use in the Southwest from a variety of perspectives: Historical, Legal
Scholars, Indian Views of A-LP, Citizens Against A-LP, Environmental Counter
Point, and a Sexist Viewpoint Finally, the non-structural alternatives to A-LP are
Michael C. Meyer, Latin American Historian:
"Adaptation was valued more than domination- most Indian religions supported
this value by sanctioning a code that allowed only necessary killing of wildlife that
was need to sustain tribal life."1
"Irrigation requires a sedentary existence and more stringent social controls in
order to have the security of raising crops. Some northern tribes chose not to
loose freedoms by being settled and were willing to forego the added security that
irrigated agriculture can provide.2
"Observing the Indian reverence for nature, a few Spaniards became
environmentalists by contagion, but most remained slaves of their Iberian cultural
"...control of the water supply by Spaniards, whether rural or urban, whether
religious or secular, whether civilian or military, was an effective means of
preventing the social pyramid from eroding at its base. It helped assure those in
power of continued dominance over the Indian population."4
Sarah F. Bates, David H. Getches, Lawrence J. MacDonnel and Charles F.
Wilkinson, authors of Searching Out the Headwaters: Change and Rediscovery in
Western Water Policy:
"There is a paradox in the way the regions communities relate to water, although it
ties them together in the most fundamental way, disputes over water have
distanced them from one another in bitter, divisive battles "5
"The prior appropriation doctrine, with its almost exclusive emphasis on private
rights, simply does not acknowledge or protect many valuable public water uses,
such as recreation and fisheries."6
"Other water uses, power companies, cattle ranchers, sewage disposal and
treatment have representatives to speak for them, water rights to support them.
Public interest in water is widely valued but a diffuse constituency that is poorly
represented with unquantifiable economic terms."7
F. Lee Brown and Helen M. Ingram, authors of Water and Poverty in the
"Solid evidence suggests that the water development strategy most acceptable to
rural communities involves irrigated agriculture ...strategies that ignore these
values are doomed."8
"Although newcomers and urban dwellers may assume a water affluence based
upon superficialities such as spouting fountains in residential developments and
artificial oceans waves in recreational entertainment, natives and rural residents
know that an extended drought may be as close as next spring, and even in years
of good spring runoff, the summer and fell may be harsh.9
Indian Views of A-LP
Earnest House, former Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman, and member of the
Dolores Water Conservancy District:
"Water is the lifeblood of the West, for Indians and non-Indians. We both need
water if our people are to own land, attain higher education and better jobs, as well
as enhance communities and maintain strong family households with solid
economic basis. The success of the completed Dolores Project is proof of this
strong economy called Water. For instances, in the current drought cycle the crop
yield in the Montezuma valley has been high and profitable for non-Indians and
"...the same old argument put forth by the Sierra Club for many years that 'let's buy
off the Indians and give them money instead of wet water.' Both the Southern Ute
and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribal Councils have correctly over the years
recognized the real value of wet water, rather than money. This 1850's mentality
of buying off the Indian bribes with money will not work as we approach the 21st
Southern Ute Tribal Council:
"The Tribe has plenty of water on the Pine, Piedra, and Florida Rivers, but the
tribe does not have water for municipal and industrial purposes to develop in the
future the Tribe's valuable coal resources on the La Plata River drainage. None of
SUGO's alternatives provide for any municipal and industrial water for either Tribe
and municipal and industrial water is the most valuable water for the Indian tribes
in the Animas-La Plata Project"11
Red Ute, Eddie Box Sr, commenting on the annual migration of Ute people prior to
reservation life when offerings were given to bless water sources:
"The reason for offering that blessing was to make sure that we will never be
without water. We are aware whenever we are traveling that when we look upon
these things like the mountain stream that we as people can make disappear, if we
have no regard for the growth on our land and the resources we have." 12
Citizens Against A-LP
J unior Hollen, farmer in Durango area:
"I don't think its a good idea, fact I know it's not a good idea as far as I'm
concerned....Along with the extra expense, and the obnoxious weeds the water
brings into the country, Im not for it at alL"13
Tom Petigo, farmer in the Dolores Project area:
"It costs so much more to irrigate, with added machinery, the added
fertilizer, the added many things they've got to buy that there's no comparison of
cost per acre for farming...If you are running $250 an acre expenses in irrigation,
and froze out in the fall, and you're running $50 an acre dry land, you can see it
doesn't take many acres to add up."14
Paul Jackson, Durango citizen:
Anyone will agree that this natural river (Animas) contributes largely to
the mystique of our town. This mystique and overwhelming natural beauty of the
area are the foundations of our tourist industry. And the tourist industry is in fact
the largest contributor to our economic base. Now one can easily deduce that
altering the aesthetic value of Durango by compromising the river would be a
Susan J. Jacobson:
"As a registered Republican, I blame projects such as this for the defeat of Bush
and others in the recent election. We should be spending our money wisely rather
than on foolish projects such as this. This project should be eliminated"16
Dan Johnson, Durango resident, and Colorado Division of Wildlife technician:
There are limits to growth and we must begin to determine them. I do not
live in La Plata County to make money, but because I LOVE the natural
Ron Margolis, Durango resident:
I write on behalf of my creator and supporter, the Earth. It is fine just the
way it has evolved, thank you. It needs no strangle hold on its hie blood. It is
perfect in its natural state. When men stop trying to conquer her, they will have
realized the Earth is our greatest friend."18
Wright G. McEwen, resident of Aztec, New Mexico:
My property has been in my family since 1902 and I wish to leave it to my
descendants. This is one of the few unspoiled river valleys left There is
employment for our present population. Why bring more people here? With the
influx of more people there will be an increase in crime, traffic, and smog. If we
desire that type of life we can move to the city."19
James and Ariel Lashley of Ignacio, Colorado, headquarters of the Southern Ute
Indian Tribe, hold a much different perspective than the Ute Indians:
"My husband and I are long term residents of La Plata County and we are against
the Animas La Plata Project -too much money and there must be a better way."20
Louise Liston, Garfield County Commissioner in Utah:
"I love the land, and it's different from an environmentalist's love.
We have a deep, abiding love; they have a weekend love affair. Their love
is intense and passionate, but it's not abiding love. That kind of love comes
from making a living off the land. They go back to their cities, while we
continue to eke out an existence."21
"A Westerner's priorities are, in order, (1) water, (2) gold, (3) women. You may
tamper with the latter two but not the first"22
Non-Structural Alternatives to A-LP:
Water Marketing and Water Leasing
Article V of the Settlement Agreement allows the Tribes the right to sell or
lease their water off the reservation to purchasers in downstream states.23
However, the Settlement Agreement (1986) was constrained by the Settlement
Act (1988) by making Tribal marketing subject to state law. Colorado law
presently prohibits the tribes horn such downstream leasing. Along with the
Navajo Nation, both Ute tribes are members of the Ten Colorado River Tribes
Partnership which has been actively pursuing their right to flexibly market their
water. The partnership claims that interstate water marketing of Tribal water is a
right not subject to state law. The Ten Tribes could accomplish water marketing
by using existing Bureau of Reclamation facilities to store their water in exchange
for water in the Animas River. For example, by using the existing Navajo
reservoir on the San Juan River, Tribal water rights on the Animas would continue
to flow downstream for existing uses. In exchange, water otherwise released from
Navajo reservoir would remained stored. This water could then be released in
accordance with a normal demand curve to purchasers and lessees of Ute Tribal
water to states downstream. A similar scenario could occur for delivery of Tribal
water to purchasers in the Lower Colorado River Basin by utilizing Glenn Canyon
Dam to release water and thereby generate revenue for the Tribes in lieu of costly
repayment of A-LP facilities to store and deliver Tribal water.24
Another non-structural alliterative involves the establishment of Tribal
Power Marketing. This alternative suggests eliminating some or all of the
pumping stations that a full scale A-LP would require. This would free up a large
amount of electrical power currently reserved for A-LP by the US. Department of
Energys Western Area Power Administration. (WAPA). The U.S. could make
this power available to the Tribes at free or reduced rates, consistent with is trust
responsibility to the Tribes. The Tribes could then market that electricity and
generate revenue for economic development25
I Meyer, 19
5 Sarah Â£ Bates, David H. G etches, Lawrence J. Mac Donnell, and Charles Wilkinson,
Searching Oat the Headwaters. ('Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1993), 48.
6 Bates, 155.
8 Brown, 2.
9 Brown, 29.
10Letter from Ernest House to legal counsel Eric Stein, April 24, 1997.
II Letter to Eric Stein.
l2Jan Petit. Utes: The Mountain PpnpW /RnnlrW- Johnson Books, 1990), introduction.
13Animas La Plata Home Page, cm the World Wide Web,posted by the Sterra Club. See
14A-LP Home Page.
21High Country News. April 14, 1997, 9.
^High Country News. April 14, 1997, 9.
2<*High Country News. April 14, 1997,9.
^High Country News. April 14, 1997,9.
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Project and the Colorado Utes." Journal of the Western Slope. Summer 1994,
Volume 9, #3.
Kenworthy, Tom. "Water Water Everywhere, and Rivers of Red Ink."
Washington Post National Weekly Edition- January 10-16,1994, p. 3.
Kirkpatick, J. R. The Incredible Journey of Father Escalante." The Denver Post
"Empire Magazine," November 19, 1972.
Knude, Karen. "Irrigation District Considers Water Coop to expand Service."
Durango Herald. February22, 1996, p. 1.
Knudson, Thomas. "Colorado Farmers threaten to sue U.S. to stop water
delivery," New York Times Nation News. June 20, 1987, p. 5.
Marsten, Ed," Cease-fire callend on the Animas-La Plata front." High Country
News. November 11,1996.
Miniclier, Kit. "Mr. Water. Sam Maynes" The Denver Post. April 27, 1997.
Obmascik, Mark. "Dam option offered," The Denver Post. October 12, 1995.
Ojala, Dave. "City's share of A-LP costs skyrocketing," Durango Herald. August
Pike, Donald G. "Reconoitering the Barrier Early Spanish and American
Exploration in the Rockies." American West. September 1972.
Ressler, John Q. "Indian and Spanish Water-Control of New Spain's Northwest
Frontier." Journal of the West Vol. 7, 1968, p. 10-16.
Rumsey, Becky. "What $710 Million Buys." High Country News. November 11,
Satchell, Micheal. The last water fight," U.S. News and World Report. October
23, 1995, p. 50.
Simmons, Marc. "Spanish Irrigation Practices in New Mexico." New Mexico
Historical Review. April 1972, 135-150.
Thompson, Brent "Both Sides Make Case Over Water Project" The Denver
Post. March 4, 1996.
Wright, Ken. "Animas-La Plata: A historical primer on the project," Durango
Herald. August 4, 1995.
Theses and Dissertations:
GAMBLE, Judith Louise. "New Mexico, Its People and Its Water. Anglo-
Americans Encounter an Indian and Spanish Water Ethic. M.A. Thesis,
University of Colorado, Boulder, 1973.
SWADESH, Frances L. "The Southern Utes and Their Neighbors 1877-1926: An
Ethnohistorical Study of Multiple Interaction in Contact-Induced Culture Change."
M.A. thesis, University of Colorado, Boulder, 1962.
TYZZER, Robert Neal, HI. "An Investigation of the Demographic and Genetic
Structure of a Southwesten American Indian Population: The Southern Ute Tribe
of Colorado." Ph.D. thesis, University of Colorado, Boulder, 1974.
REED, Alan D. The Dominguez Ruin: A Me Elmo Phase Pueblo -Southwestern
Colorado. Masters Thesis, University of Colorado, Boulder, 1978.
YOUNG, Richard Keith. The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Tribes in the 20tk
Century. Master's Thesis, University of Colorado, Denver, 1993.
Internet -World Wide Web Sites:
U. S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR AND BUREAU OF RECLAMATION
Dolores Project, McPhee Reservoir, Montezuma and Dolores Counties, Colorado.
Area Reservoir statistics:
h ttp^web.fron tier.net/SCAN/wip/stats.html
STATE OF COLORADO, AGRICULTURAL STATISTICS: From Governor's
SOUTHWESTERN COLORADO, AGRICULTURAL STATISTICS:
ANIMAS-LA PLATA HOME PAGE, care of Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund:
SOUTHERN UTE INDIAN TRIBE: A brief history
SOUTHERN UTE TRIBAL MEMBERS: Homepage of Eddie and Betty Box Jr.
UTE INDIAN TRIBE: The nomadic tribe.
SOUTHERN UTE TRIBE; MAIN PAGE: Southern Ute culture and history.
CHRONOLOGY OF UTE HISTORY: SOUTHERN UTE TRIBE:
WATER INFORMATION PROGRAM: Sponsored by the Southwestern Water
WATER IN THE DESERT VIEWED BY SPANISH PADRES AND
ANIMAS LA PLATA PROJECT
Scott Stetson Allen
B.A. Colorado College, 1987
Colorado Educators License, Regis University, 1990
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
1997 by Scott Stetson Allen
All rights reserved.
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Scott S. Allen
has been approved
Allen, Scott Stetson (M.A. History)
Allocating Scarcity: Water in the Desert Viewed by Spanish Padres and the
Animas La Plata Project
Thesis directed by Professor Thomas J. Noel
This thesis will illuminate patterns of modern attitudes toward nature that
originate two hundred years in the past. It compares and contrasts 18th century
Spanish views of nature in the Four Comers region of the southwestern United
States with modem environmental values as exemplified by the proposed and
controversial Animas-La Plata river diversion project near Durango, Colorado.
This thesis tries to unravel the current knot of competing values toward
the environment, and water in particular, to see the individual strands held by
ranchers, municipalities, and the Ute Indians of southern Colorado. These strands
of competing values toward the natural world lead back at least two hundred years
to the Spanish missions of New Mexico and their water practices in the late 18th
When viewed as a template, the 1776 expedition of Fray Atanasio
Dominguez and Fray Silvestre de Escalante crisscrossed a startling number of
modem water storage projects, the most notable being Glen Canyon Dam, the
most controversial being the proposed Animas-La Plata. The Franciscan's trek
surveyed the West's driest lands which in less than two hundred years would
become the scene for some of the worlds largest dam and reservoir projects.
This current study draws from a wide base of primary documents from a
variety of sources including: letters from Indian tribes, government agencies and
citizens as compiled in the Final Supplement to the Final Environmental Impact
Statement for the Animas -La Plata Project (1996); journals, reports and letters
from 18th century Spanish missionaries; the Tri-Ethnic Project Files of the Omer
C. Stewart Collection, government documents, newspaper accounts, lectures by
Ute Indians, interviews with water attorneys and Indian scholars as well as
officials with the Bureau of Reclamation. Historical information, reservoir and
agricultural statistics were also compiled from the vast resources of the World
Wide Web, a part of the Internet In addition to library and computer research, I
have conducted fresh air observations in the field of the Animas-La Plata Project
area, including the headwaters of the Animas River, Ridges Basin, Ignacio, and
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's thesis. I
recommend its publication.
To all my relations: in the past, presently, and yet to be.
"Water relationships would be simple and linear were they not complicated by all
those other ways that humans are connected with and divided from each other:
blood, race, religion, education, politics, money."
Stanley Crawford, Mayordomo. 1988
A Grand Scale.....................................4
Water Relationships: Historical Uses.............7
Water as Sustenance.........................8
Water as Spiritual and Community Identity..10
Water as an Instrument for Large Scale Irrigation
Water as a Machine for Industry.............13
Water as Fuel for Urban Development.........14
The New Wests Demographics.......................16
Overview of Land and Water Use in Southwestern
2. ANIMAS LA PLATA: A CASE STUDY......................27
1968: The Crux Year.........................31
Phase I, Stage A...........................35
Phase I, Stage B...........................36
Specific Environmental Impacts of A-LP............37
Utes and Other Indians......................42
Southern Ute Views..................45
Ute Mountain Ute Perspective........46
Indian Spiritual and Cultural Values.......46
Summary of Indian Views.....................48
Local, State and Federal Agencies...........49
Durango Citizens and Southwest Residents...53
Utes Opposing A-LP..........................53
Summary of Modem Land and Water Values............58
3. THE FRANCISCAN WORLD VIEW: TRACING
EUROPEAN ATTITUDES TOWARD NATURE
Spanish in the New World.........................64
Spanish Views of Nature..........................65
Hunting and Farming Practices....................66
Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776...........73
Spanish Water Law................................78
Missions: Agriculture and Irrigation Systems.....82
4. CONCLUSION: THIRSTY DOGS FIGHTING OVER
A DAMP SPONGE....................................96
The Wilderness Preservation Value................96
Wise-Use Conservation Value......................98
Water Rights, Water Fights: The Future of A-LP..105
The Frog Doesn't Drink Up the Pond It Lives In:
APPENDIX: Voices of the West
Indian Views of A-LP...................................114
Citizens Opposed to A-LP...............................115
Environmental Counter Point............................116
Non-Structural Alternatives to A-LP....................117
1 Animas-La Plata Project Area..................34
2 Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776.........75
A long row of mountains rises from the surrounding flat, dry expanse of the
Four Comers region in the American West. This mountain range dominates the
desert landscape, visible from 100 miles away in any direction. It is here,
southwest of Cortez, Colorado where the Sleeping Ute Mountain lies, creating a
silhouette of a sleeping Indian chief. His headdress flows north. The highest point
is his arms folded across his chest, cresting over 9,000 feet. His long legs and
knees extend to the south ending with his toes as rock spires. Situated at the foot
of this wind swept range is the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation and the tribal
town of Towaoc. The present-day Ute Indians relate this story about the
Legend says that the Sleeping Ute was a Great Warrior God who helped
fight against 'evil ones.' There was a fierce battle -and he braced himself to
fight -his feet pushed the lands into the mountains and valleys. The Great
Warrior God was hurt and lay down to rest, falling into a deep sleep. The
blood from his wound turned into living water for all the creatures to drink.
Now, when fog or clouds settle over the Sleeping Ute, it is a sign that he is
changing his blankets -dark green for summer, yellow and red for autumn,
and white for winter. When the clouds gather on the highest peak, the Utes
believe the Warrior God is pleased with his people and is letting rain
clouds slip from his pockets.1
Water is valued by all who inhabit a dry climate, and it is easy to
understand how it is the life-blood of many western communities. The desert
environment of the Four Comers hosts a lasting legacy of human relationships to
water. Imagine a frontier baptism in the 1700's in Spain's New Mexico. Holy
water is first blessed by a priest. Using a baptismal shell the priest cleanses the
baby of original sin by bathing its forehead with holy water, welcoming the child
into the Catholic community as it is spiritually reborn. When converting native
Indians, the Spanish also baptized them with new Christian names.2 Water for the
Spanish was a symbol of rebirth, a cleansing of sin and preparation for a clean,
productive Christian life. The natural world for the Spaniard yielded to Christian
intentions, making civilization possible in the extreme arid climate of the American
Southwest Imagine this passage being read from the Old Testament in the 18th
century somewhere in an adobe chapel in the Four Comers region:
Behold, I will do a new thing: now it shall spring forth; shall ye
know it? I wiU even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert
The beasts of the field shall honor me, the dragons and the owls: because I
give waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my
people, my chosen. -Isaiah, 43:19-20
The American West is a harsh arid climate where people have eked out an
existence for miUennium by revering and carefully managing water. Water has
played a central role in many culture's spiritual beliefs Both the Spanish and
Native tribes valued water not only for its mythic and ritual elements but also for
survival and the cultivation of crops. When the Spanish arrived in the New World
they carried with them a unique view of nature and natural resources. Their
Christian faith strengthened their righteous convictions in a natural world: "I give
waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people, my
chosen." Native tribes held a strikingly different world view where nature was
revered as the creator itself. The Sleeping Ute Mountain holds the spirit of the
Great Warrior God and lets "rain clouds slip from his pockets," when he is
pleased with his people.
As Spaniards and Native Americans increased contact they influenced
each other. The environment of the New World was transformed as Old World
flora, fauna, and biota exchanged with native species. 3 As a result, an
environmental legacy of accelerated change to North American ecosystems is a
modem reality. Modem environmental dilemmas over water usage and population
growth typify a struggle for balance that has existed for hundreds of years.
Current environmental concerns about large scale irrigation projects have historical
antecedents that radiate into the past when Spanish and Native Americans
exchanged technology but misunderstood each other's religion and relationships to
This thesis will illuminate patterns of modem attitudes toward land and
water use that originate at least two hundred ago. I will compare and contrast
18th century Spanish values toward nature in the Four Comers region with
modem land use as exemplified by the controversial, proposed, Animas-La Plata
river diversion project near Durango, Colorado, Starting with contemporary times
I will unravel the current knot of competing water values and practices of ranchers,
municipalities, and the Ute Indians of Southern Colorado to see the individual
strands which lead back at least two hundred years to the Spanish missions of
New Mexico and their water practices in the late 18th century.
By examining relationships to the environment, human values come to the
surface. The difference between Spanish and Indian human-nature relationships on
a spiritual level is already evident from the opening passage. However, more
subtleties exist and even some surprising changes in modem Indian values will
become evident during an analysis of the Animas-La Plata project. A short
historical survey of relationships to water in Chapter I will place this study into
perspective. In Chapter II, the Animas-La Plata Project will serve as a unique
case study to identify individual strands that comprise our modem knot of values
toward water and land. In Chapter HI, the Franciscan world view is presented as
a historical model, displaying European attitudes toward the natural world.
Spanish water law and mission irrigation systems are highlighted as exemplifying
European values. The Spanish padres Fray Atanasio Dominguez and Fray
Silvestre de Escalante made a remarkable journey throughout the heart of the
American desert in 1776. Their historic route creates a template for the sites of
modem irrigation's largest and most ambitious projects. Dominguez and
Escalante crossed directly through the Animas and La Plata River basins,
providing astute, first hand visions of water control as recorded in their expedition
joumaL Finally, in the concluding Chapter IV, the specific modem values will be
compared to the historic values of the Spanish to reveal many similarities and
peculiar twists and changes. As well, I will look to the future of the Animas-La
Plata Project and its implications for water relations in the Four Comers region
A Grand Scale
The people who comprise the various water districts in the Four Comers all
have a common challenge: to make judicial and efficient use of the desert's most
precious fluid. Cooperation is key. Yet divisive battles are inevitable due to the
delicate balance of moisture and aridity in the American west.
To have a grasp of the environmental setting is essential to understanding
the West's water battles. It is not enough to merely state that it is dry. Many
writers -one of the foremost being Wallace Stegner -have been captivated by the
mystery and majesty of the West.
Aridity, more than anything else, gives the western landscape its
character. It is aridity that gives the air its special dry clarity; aridity that
puts brilliance in the light and polishes and enlarges the stars; aridity that
leads the grasses to evolve as bunches rather than turf; aridity that
exposes the pigmentation of the raw earth and limits, almost eliminates,
the color of chlorophyll; aridity that erodes the earth in cliffs and badlands
rather than in softened and vegetated slopes, that has shaped the
characteristically swift and mobile animals of the dry grasslands and the
characteristically nocturnal life of the deserts.4
Environmental historians have also seized on the western landscape as the
majestic stage for an unfolding drama of human dry-throat ambition. In his study of
water and the West, Donald Worster notes, "...the West...that highly irregular
landscape, extraordinarily complex in its land forms though simple in aridity."s
The American Southwest is a vast labyrinth of canyons, high desert
plateaus and robust alpine peaks ranging up to 14,000 feet. Within that region is
the overplayed topographic wonder of the Four Comers where the square, linear
edges of Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico "miraculously" meet at a single
point Beyond the wonders of right angle surveying lies the real magic of the Four
Comers region, two prominent land forms visible from a 100 miles away. The first
is the stately Sleeping Ute Mountain with striking resemblance to a reclining chief,
that rests with authority over the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation. The
second one is just south, over the New Mexico border, rising more than a third of a
mile toward the sky. The Navajo call this feature Tsa- Beh-Tai, the rock with
wings since it resembles a mighty bird with wings folded. Map makers, perhaps
lost at sea, named it Ship Rock. By either name, it is an incredible chunk of
volcanic tuff-breccia, the remains of a 50 million year old volcano that forced its
way up through a couple thousand feet of red sandstone. Early rock climbers
describe its mystery and give a lesson in desert magnitude. "To take a two hour
walk around the base of Ship Rock is to experience more convoluted geology and
more stupendous walls than the mind can fathom. Great fluted grooves rise for
many hundreds of feet without noticeable change; cracks which from a distance
appear to be a few feet wide and thus climbable turn out to be ten-foot wide
slashes. Afternoon lightning reveals buttresses, ramps and towers which were
indiscernible a few hours earlier."6 The Four Comers region is full of such
wonders. Awe and amazement of the natural landscape draw people from around
the globe to this remarkable place.
The nearly 50,000-square-mile landscape of this region is wonderfully
diverse though essentially arid. Infinite stone mazes and candlestick towers
grace the red rock country of Canyon Lands in southeastern Utah. The Abajo, La
Sal and Henry Mountains make volcanic statements above the desert plateau
forming a high rim around the Colorado River. On the northeastern border of the
region rises the spectacular San Juan Mountains, home to Colorado's most rugged
and remote wilderness areas on the western slope of the Continental Divide. To
the south lies the Navajo nation and the Jemez and Nacimiento Mountains.
Extreme elevation changes range from 2,000 feet in the depths of the Grand
Canyon to 14,309 feet at the summit cone of Uncompahgre Peak in the San Juan
The Four Comers Region is also home to the mighty Colorado River which
continues to saw through many miles of sandstone in the Grand Canyon. Major
Rivers of the Four Comers include the Colorado, the Green River which joins the
Colorado in Canyonlands National Park, the San Juan River which drains the
mountains by the same name and joins the Colorado at the infamous Glenn
Home to Native Americans, Anglo-Europeans, Hispanics and Asians and
African Americans, the Four Comers hosts much wildlife as well Fauna of the
area ranges from: mule deer, cotton tails rabbit, chipmunks squirrels, coyote, mice,
badger, porcupine, elk and pronghorn, wolves and bison.7 The plant biology is
equally diverse: Cheat grass, Indian Rice grass, sunflowers, thistle, bindweed,
goosefoot, poison milkweed, salisfy, globeweed, sagebrush, Gambels oak, pihon
and juniper forests, bitterbrush, broad leaf yucca.
The specific quadrant within the Four Comers region where this study
takes place is the southwest comer of Colorado. This quadrant lies in the eastern
part of the Colorado Plateau physiographic province in a transition zone between
the San Juan Mountains to the north and the semiarid lowlands extending south.8
Elevations range from 14,000 feet at the summits of the San Juan's down to 5,900
feel Irrigated agriculture occurs between 6,000 and 7,000 feet. Although the
region receives an average of 321 days of sunshine, exceeding both Miami and San
Diego, the actual growing season is short, averaging about 110 days at Ignacio,
Southern Ute Tribal headquarters.9 The entire region is considered semiarid,
receiving between 12-16 inches of precipitation per year.10 Precipitation increases
as one travels north to higher elevations. Most precipitation falls in August, due
to large thunderstorms and in October from frontal storms. Both 1989 and 1996
were drought years for southwestern Colorado with a very dry spring. At Ignacio
1989, monthly precipitation was down 3 percent in April, down 20 percent in May,
and no precipitation at all in June.11
The American West of the late twentieth century is still a vast region of
canyon, basin and range as it was prior the to the Spanish conquest. The Wests
gigantic features are still prominent landmarks for people traveling from coast to
coast. The Rocky Mountains clearly mark the end of the Great Plains as vividly
today as they did 150 years ago. Human-nature relationships however, have
changed and have altered the North American environment in minor and not so
subtle ways beginning with native people. Early indigenous people are
responsible in some part for the extinction of Megafauna from the Pleistocene era.
Indians had cleared forests, drained swamps, engineered water diversion systems
and constructed roads. Public works projects included enormous earthen mounds
which remained unmatched for two centuries after Europeans began construction
projects in America. Native people burned forests to flush out game, introduced
exotic plants and moved native species to new locations.12 However, Europeans
accelerated the rate of impact on the North American ecosystem. Both Native
Americans and Europeans had relationships to the natural world which negatively
impacted the environment.
Historical Uses of Water
Water management in the west is a tangled knot of interests.13
Unraveling the strands and untying the knot to see individual influences is a
tedious task. As with most knots, it is hard to know where to begin. Water in all
its many forms is of primary interest to humans in the desert as a source of
sustenance. But once that essential need is satisfied, water can be viewed as a
source of spiritual and community identity. In feet, one could successfully argue
that sustenance and spirituality go hand in hand. Water has traditionally been
used as a means of navigation and exploration, to map out national domains. Once
a nation knows its interior boundaries, water is often used as an instrument of
large-scale irrigation. In addition to agricultural uses, water can be used as an
engine for industry. With industry comes growth and water becomes a fuel for
urban development Water has existed in each one of these modalities throughout
history and fluctuates between them depending upon a community's spiritual,
economic and environmental variables.
Water a< Sustenance
North American agriculture emerged in the Southwest between 3500 and
2500 B.C. with the cultivation of maize, a variety of squashes, pumpkins, gourds,
and beans.14 In 1000 B.C. the Indian people whom the Navajo refer to as the
Anasazi were cultivating land for crops in the Four Comers region with a variety of
irrigation technologies: check dams, canals, and headgates.15 At Mesa Verde, on
the north edge of present day Ute reservation lands, the ancient ones built check
dams and an irrigation system which included a four mile long ditch. These
successful irrigation systems allowed the Anasazi to thrive, building complex, tall,
apartment like cliff dwellings where they flourished for over 300 years.16 Chaco
Canyon settlement used these technologies to successfully sustain a population of
about 10,000 people.17 The Pueblo Indians of the Rio Grande Valley built
reservoirs to capture fresh rainwater and engineered irrigation ditches to water
their crops of maize, squash, beans, melons, cotton and chilies.18 But these
examples pale in comparison with the Hohokam tribe.
The Hohokam people of the what is now Arizona's Salt River valley were
fantastic irrigation engineers. Thriving in Arizona near the confluence of the Gila,
Verde and Salt rivers, the Hohokam culture flourished for a minimum of a thousand
years in the huge sun bowl we now call modem Phoenix. Suddenly in 1400 they
disappeared. The Hohokam which in Pima language means "those who have
gone," were a highly organized civilization which rivaled the Aztec, Inca and
Maya.19 The Hohokam were capable of erecting pueblos four stories high and
building enclosed ball courts similar to ones found in Meso-America.20 However,
irrigation was their hallmark. The Hohokam were clearly seasoned desert
engineers, capable of constructing fifteen mile long canals, eleven yards in width
with a "perfectly calibrated drop of 2.5 meters per mile, enough to sustain a flow
rate that would flush out most of the unwanted silt."21 This complex system
allowed the Hohokam people to irrigate many thousands of acres of desert land.
They were more populous and affluent than any culture around. But by 1400 they
disappeared. Like the Anasazi, we can only speculate about their demise. Marc
Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert: The American Desert and Its Disappearing
Water, offers one plausible explanation: they irrigated too much and
waterlogged the land, leading to intractable problems with salt buildup in the soil,
which would have poisoned the crops."22 In any case, "...the mysterious
disappearance of the Hohokam civilization seems linked to water: they either had
too little or used too much."23
The Spanish arrived in the west in the 16th century bringing their own
traditions of irrigation, transporting water from rivers to crops in hand dug ditches
called acequias (ah-see-kwee-ahs). Typically acequias were built by Indian
labor.24 From the time of Juan de Onate's arrival in New Mexico to the acquisition
by the United States, 164 acequias were constructed.25 Spanish settlement
introduced exotic crops heavily dependent on irrigated water wheat, barley, oats,
citrus fruits, apples, apricots, pears, grapes, chickpeas, carrots, radishes and
onions 26 Spaniards introduced strange new ideas of property ownership, social
structure, and values and relationships to nature, not to mention deadly weapons
and the "magic dog" the horse. Spaniards saw man apart from nature, beyond her
systems, meant to dominate and change his environment for linear progress.
"Water was suddenly a source of private wealth, of capital, of rent, of income and
most importantly, of human power over ones fellow man. "27 However, beyond
these apparent differences, the Spanish missionaries also brought a peaceful
sense of community to water organization -strikingly similar to the Paiute, Pueblo
and other Indian cultures.28 The community acequias belonged to all, and all
shared in the seasonal duties of maintaining the ditch. The Spanish system of
water management was essentially local, community based democracy in action.29
With the Spanish influence and acceleration of agricultural uses of water
and the attendant social structures and doctrines used to organize and administer
water use, water became a new sort of tool beyond mere sustenance. Water
became a tool to manage and organize settlements, instigate large-scale farming,
spur industries such as mining, promote navigation and eventually urban
Water as Spiritual and Community Identity
Not only is water vital to sustenance but this precious fluid is a continuing
source of spiritual identity and community bonding, especially in the unforgiving
desert environment Many native people identify with water in creation myths.
The Pueblo Indians of Northern New Mexico trace their origins to water. Their
clan name is the "Deep Water People" who emerged from Dawn Lake as
described by Frank Waters in The Man Who Killed the Deer. Frank Waters
relates the story of a father telling his son the origins of their clan. The father
explains how the clan arose from "the deep turquoise lake of life at the center of
the world," and how this lake symbolically relates to all of Pueblo life, their kivas,
dances and songs.31
Blue Lake rests at 11,000 feet on the side of Wheeler Peak in Northern
New Mexico. Taos Pueblo people make an annual pilgrimage to Blue Lake
walking 40 miles round trip "to immerse themselves in the deepest, most secret
of all their Indian devotions."32 Blue Lake for the Taos Pueblo Indians is a place
of spiritual regeneration and cleansing, tying them back to their believed origins.
Just as for Native people, Hispanics in the Southwest have long recognized
the spiritual and communal value of water. The acequia was not only a technology
of irrigation for agriculture, perhaps more importantly, it was a community ditch
that strengthened one's relations to one's neighbors and village. The acequia
system delivered water to fields at the same time it promoted community values of
fairness, participation, sharing, and local management The mayordomo, ditch
boss, was a publicly elected member of the community who took the responsibility
to enforce equitable use and maintain the ditch until it was time to pass leadership
over to another member. The acequia system was successful and continues to be
today because it fostered local autonomy in management in accordance with local
Water scarcity and brutal swings in weather forced communities to work
together to survive. One former settler summed up New Mexico's climactic
extremes with the phrase, "ocho meses de inviemo y quatro de infiemo (eight
months of winter and four months of hell)."34 The acequia system attempted to
create equality during the four months of hellish summer when water was on
everyones mind. Of course all the best intentions of the acequia association and
the local mayordomo cannot compensate for leaks, damaged ditches, floods, or
neighbors taking advantage of one another. Stanley Crawford wrote the insightful
book, Mayordomo. after spending a year as the ditch boss in rural New Mexico in
the 1980's. Crawford slowly recognized the value and difficulty in managing a
community ditch where location is everything.
"You can argue that the character of a man or woman can be formed by
genetic and cultural material as by the location of their garden or chile patch
along the length of a ditch, toward the beginning where water is plentiful or
at the tail where it will always be fitful and scarce. 'He's that way because
he lives at the bottom of the ditch and never gets any water* is an accepted
explanation for even the most aberrant behavior in this valley."35
Water as an Instrument of Large Scale Irrigation
Water in the West soon became more than merely a source of sustenance:
it was the secret to unlocking the West's natural wealth. After the Spanish
acequia systems, it was the Mormons in sun baked Utah who made water control
the basis for their new society in the desert Mormon irrigation, originally tied to
the strict collective efforts of the Mormon Church, rapidly grew, creating an empire
throughout the Great Basin. In feet, it was Utah who held the title of largest
western irrigator until California surpassed it around the turn of the century.36
Even prior to massive federal aide from the 1902 Reclamation Act, western state
irrigation grew from a total of 3.5 million acres of irrigated lands in 1890 to more
than 7 million acres by 1900.37
Major John Wesley Powell, the one armed Civil War veteran, navigated
the mighty Colorado and reported his findings about the future possibility of
irrigated agriculture in the West in Report on the I-anris of the Arid Region,
published in 1878. It was Major Powell, a field trained geologist, one of the most
respected government scientists of the time who knew the western landscape and
climate was not suited to typical agricultural practices. Powell's views of the arid
West were influenced by visits to Spanish and Pueblo settlements in the
Southwest and by the Mormons who had effectively communalized natural
resources.38 Powell was convinced that the Spanish and Mormon models of
irrigation were proof that local community control over water would do more to
promote stewardship of the earth and be more efficient and economical than private
enterprise or federally operated facilities. Powell recognized straight away the
need for large scale irrigation in the West but his plan for accomplishing it was not
favored by Congress, even after two revisions. Powell wanted new governing
units based on "hydrograhic basins," similar to commonwealths defined by natural
watershed boundaries and not linear state boundaries -a system that had worked
well in Europe for centuries and also on the East Coast of North America.
Powells plan for "hydrograhic basins," a political system of governance to achieve
environmental conservation, democratic decision making, and community stability
would be executed by government scientists who would classify the land in terms
of irrigation, timber and grazing before allowing settlers to stake claims.39 Powell
did not think it wise to cede any part of the public domain to the states and let
them decide -which is what most western senators at the time wanted.40
Powell's plan for environmental commonwealths lost favor with Congress
because he underestimated the strength of the rapidly growing urban and industrial
cities who viewed his plan as essentially favoring the rural agriculturist The
mining industry also concurred, not willing to give up their highly individualistic
freedoms made legal by the Mining Law of 1872, granting them free and open
access to public land. Other powerful lobbies for western development, railroads,
and cattle outfits saw Powell's commonwealth plan as a hindrance to their
As a result, the 1902 Reclamation Act was not a product of Powell's vision,
but rather to ideas made popular with western senators by journalist William
Smythe. Writing in the 1890's, Smythe believed in the "Conquest of Arid America"
the title of one of his publications. Smythe thought the arid West was the site and
cause of the "nation's redemption." Federal reclamation programs, according to
Smythe would redeem America from its dry climate and isolated individualism by
pumping water with national funding.42
By 1900 it was not the geologist Powell, but western senators, politicians
and people like Smythe who won the public's favor. The era of massive federal
support of western development began. As a result, federal agencies such as the
Department of the Interior and the Forest Service began to manage natural
resources, taking them out of the hands of local communities. Within the
Department of the Interior, The Bureau of Reclamation has had a remarkable
success story in terms of large scale water management. To date, the Bureau has
constructed in excess of 600 hundred dams in 17 western states, able to store 134
million acre-feet of water. 15,000 miles of canals, 1,500 miles of pipelines and
37,000 miles of laterals are used to deliver water.43
Water as a Machine for Industry
Water has played a crucial role in the development of industry in the
western states. Beginning with gold mining and continuing today with hydro-
electric power plants, strategic water management has unlocked the regions
natural resources and opened the dry expanses to prosperity. After the California
Gold rush of 1849, Colorado drew thousands of prospectors in 1858. During the
boom years, between 1870 and 1880, Colorado grew by nearly 500 percent.44
Water was critical to both lode and placer mining. Water was in high demand to
operate sluices and supply the mines with water. A dramatic increase in water
use was witnessed by the powerful hoses of the hydraulic mining process, where
whole sides of mountains could be washed away in search of precious gold and
Other industries which helped shape the economic destiny of the West
relied on tight water management to turn a profit The logging industry also relied
on water management to transport raw lumber and hydro-power to run saw mills.
Flumes were constructed to float timbers in shallow troughs to the larger volume
rivers which would cany the logs to the mills. By the turn of the century rivers
were used to generate electricity by means of hydro-electric power plants.
In the twentieth century, the coal industry uses water to transport coal in
suspension using "slurry" pipelines. By harnessing the power of water industrial
growth was made possible. Riding on the heels of industry was a population
boom creating urban an "oasis" in the middle of deserts.
Water as Fuel for Urban Development
If the federal government played the crucial role in the settlement of the
West, then water was the crucial resource to be managed by federal dollars.
Whether for sustenance, spiritual identity, or industrial expansion, water has been
at the center of all people's plans for the future. However, water for human
sustenance is minor in comparison with urban use for toilets, sewer systems and
treatment facilities and urban gardens and landscapes. These needs far exceed
By the 1900s, demand for domestic water supplies for urban growth created
a new force in western water policy: urban use was directed by new values
different from traditional domestic use. Real estate developers and other
businessmen persuaded city counsels to secure major supplies of water to allow
extensive future development.46 Water became an integral part of real estate
speculation and development as never before.47
The rapid influx of settlers, immigrants and a modem shifting population
toward the urban centers of the west placed continued burdens on water supply for
cities. The West today has the fastest rate of urban population growth in the
nation.48 As a result, urban water use is the most rapidly expanding demand for
extracting water from streams and aquifers.
Take Metro Denver as an example. Denver realized by 1913 the need to
obtain water rights on rivers in western Colorado. By 1927 the Moflat Tunnel, in
addition to railroad traffic, was a major aqueduct for water diverted from the Fraser
River, a tributary of the Colorado River. The next big project to keep the Front
Range wet was the Colorado-Big Thompson (1938) which also reverses the
natural flow of river water on the western side of the Continental Divide to the dry
eastern plains. Without making any repayment to the state or federal
government, Denver, a model for other western cities, tunneled under the
continental divide for urban use, channeling water away from rural western slope
communities. Currently Denver imports 56 percent of its water for urban use from
the Colorado River basin.49 Half of all the water in the Denver area -similar to
other western cities- is used for lawn and other exotic landscaping, including many
non-drought tolerant and non-native plant species.50
The focus for this present study, will be on water relationships dealing with
large-scale irrigation, municipal and industrial growth, which all contribute to a
sense of community identity. Our twentieth century relationship to water has
moved beyond its singular use as human sustenance in order to accommodate the
increased demands of modem cities and rural communities alike. Furthermore,
underlying all these relationships to water and the environment in general is a
struggle for political power. Because of the dramatic demographic shift occurring in
the West today, more and more special interest groups are competing to
accomplish their agendas. This will become evident in a very timely case study of
the Animas-La Plata Project, where Indians, the Sierra Club, river rafting
associations, Four Comers County Commissioners, and concerned Durango
citizens all compete to get the upper hand in water use management. F. Lee
Brown and Helen M. Ingram in their book Water and Poverty in the Southwest, hit
the mark when they quoted Philip L. Fradkin: "When it comes to distributing
water in the West, it has been the politically strong and aggressive who get it. To
be tenacious and knowledgeable helps."51
The New West's Demographics
A demographic profile of the American West in the 1990s illustrates the
changes that have occurred since the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. 52
Unlike the 19th century, people arriving in the West today are not likely making
their living from the land as their ancestors did with farming, mining and
ranching.53 Farming has dropped from over twenty percent of personal income
generated in 1929 to less than four percent in 1989.54 Urban westerners are more
likely to be interested in fishing, hiking, and visiting natural park areas. Urbanites
from Eastern cities are buying vacation or retirement homes and becoming
involved in local land-use issues like forestry and grazing concerns.55 The 1990
census reports that more than half of the nation's population lives in suburbs, up
from a fourth in 1950 and a third in I960.56 Beyond the urban centers, rural growth
in the West is also booming, with an influx of retirees, urban escapees, and
footloose industries like mail order catalogues, computer software companies, and
Tourism is the fastest growing industry in the West today. According to
the Travel Industry Association, the travel and recreation industry is the largest
private employer in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah and
The post-World War n era also signaled new industrial growth for the
western states. As Arthur Gomez points out in his book The Quest for the
Golden Circle, the remote, hinterland subregions including the cities of Durango,
Moab, Flagstaff and Farmington, provided the raw materials of minerals such as
uranium, petroleum, natural gas and timber, to fuel the rapid expansion and
"metropolitanization" of the American West after World War n. Cities such as
Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Salt Lake City owe their rapid modernization to
a process of "intraregional colonialism, in which influential metropolitan centers
exploited raw materials supplied to them from the interior subregions."59 This
created a popular economic trend in western urban growth during the early postwar
The end of World War n signaled the beginning of a new West as the
region's population boomed from 19 million to 51 million people.61 This blast of
newcomers to the West, coupled with the external influences of a larger national
and global economy has created a new environmental context, different from the
19th century when the majority of state and federal water laws were created.
People in the west today understand that long-term sustainability in such an arid
climate is jeopardized by ill-conceived water projects. Westerners now perceive
water as more than a mere commodity as it was once valued by 19th century
frontier visionaries. Today's westerner see streams and lakes, like the mountains
and canyons and vast open spaces as valuable public assets.62 In the late 20th
century people have ventured West to untangle themselves from the urban
metropolis, or at least live closer to wilderness access. To sustain this new
population does indeed require water development for basic human needs.,
The demographics of new western communities speak to the wide range of
values toward the environment. In contrast to the old miner-farmer-rancher-
industrial coalition of the 19th century, the modem western community is likely to
include citizens demanding fiscal responsibility; Indian tribes; residents opposed to
rapid growth ; environmentalists; recreationists; business people whose income
depends on the West's booming recreation economy citizens who cry out for
western rivers, lakes and aquifers to be sustained for their children and
grandchildren.63 It soon becomes clear that many voices are speaking out about
natural resources. "Water, more than any other resource encourages and even
forces the formation of many diverse kinds of communities with a wide range of
Overview of Water and Land Use in Southwestern Colorado
Land and water resources in Southwestern Colorado are being tugged in
many divergent directions. The land is used to sustain a growing urban population
in Durango. Coal-bed methane gas resources are extracted from the Fruitland
Formation. The La Plata Coal Mine currently extracts coal in this region.
Livestock grazing and agriculture also place different demands on the natural world
compared to the flourishing tourist industry which relies on healthy scenery, plump
trout and free flowing rivers for rafting.
The growth of the city of Durango has placed increased demands on water
supplies. In fret, in terms of its municipal and industrial use, "Durango presently
has one of the highest water uses per capita in the State of Colorado."65
Agricultural uses of the land are challenged by altitude and aridity. In La
Plata County, soils are comprised of decomposed shale, glacial outwash and
sandstone. With low organic content and high clay levels, these fretors present
considerable obstacles to growing in this region. Yet despite these obstacles,
with the help of federally funded water projects, irrigated agriculture miraculously
continues to grow. Between 1959 and 1992, the counties of Southwest Colorado
increased their irrigated acreage by approximately 44,000 acres. The entire state
of Colorado increased irrigated lands by 485,000 acres.66
John Wesley Powell hit the mark when he declared the West a region
"where the climate is so arid that agriculture is not successful without irrigation."67
There are essentially two modem irrigation techniques: flood irrigation and
sprinkler. Flood irrigation has change little since ancient times. A ditch diverts
water from a river. The ditch has head gates which when opened flood water onto
a field using gravity to cover the sloping area. Gated pipes are another form of
flood type irrigation. A pipeline is stretched across the uphill side of the field.
Holes in the pipe direct and control the rate of water flow. Gated pipe flood
irrigation and side roll sprinklers are the predominate technique currently in use by
the Southern Ute Tribe.68
Sprinkler irrigation systems include side roll and central pivot. Both of
these systems require hydro or gas powered engine to rotate the apparatus
around the desired field. The advantage of sprinkler systems is their efficiency in
delivering a prescribed amount of water for optimum crop saturation with little
Center pivot sprinklers rotate around a central post, sweeping around a
circle with rubber tires supporting the pipe beams leading to the sprinkler heads.
The Ute Mountain Ute tribe and the Navajo Indians primarily use a center pivot
system for their current irrigation practices.69
Irrigation in Southwestern Colorado is currently serviced by numerous
large-scale federal facilities. These facilities support Indian and non-Indian water
uses, though far more non-Indian acres are irrigated by federal tax dollars than
Indian.70 Located in the Dolores and San Juan River Basins in southwest
Colorado is Me Phee Reservoir and Dam, part of the Dolores Project. By damming
the Dolores River, the Bureau of Reclamation has developed water for irrigation,
municipal and industrial use, recreation, fish and wildlife and hydroelectric power
production. Service is provided to the northwest Dove Creek area, central
Montezuma Valley area, and to the Towaoc area on the Ute Mountain Ute Indian
Reservation. The project supplies an annual average of90,000 acre-feet of water
to 27,860 acres in Dove Creek, 7,500 acres in Towaoc, and 26,300 acres in the
Montezuma Valley. Water reaches the town of Dove Creek by pump and a 40
mile canaL Water reaches the Ute Mountain Utes by way of a 48 mile Dolores
Tunnel and the Dolores and Towaoc Canals.71
Other projects which serve the Indian communities include, Vallecito
Reservoir of the Pine River Project: 13,000 acres of Indian Land on Southern Ute
Res. and 41,000 of non-Indian land. Navajo Reservoir, fed by the San Juan River
and Los Pinos River is an example of a federal project which irrigates almost
entirely Indian land. Lemon Reservoir is by the Florida River and supplies the city
of Durango with municipal and industrial water.
Most commercial farms in this region raise winter wheat, oats, pinto beans,
alfalfa and other hay. In addition, com, com silage, potatoes, and barely make up
the present range of crops cultivated on area forms. The cost of land differs
drastically between irrigated real estate and dry land. Prices for dry land farms
average $350-$450 per acre, compared to irrigated land with center pivot or side
roll sprinklers which sell for $2,000 and more per acre.72
Diverse livestock grazing is the major agricultural use of the land in La
Plata County, Colorado.73 Grazing of horse, cattle and sheep is the most popular,
but llamas are seeing an increase in popularity as pack animals and ranchers are
raising them as well as ostriches in small numbers.74 In Montezuma County,
Colorado there reside 26,572 cows, more cattle than people.75 This region of
Colorado is one of the highest per-capita ownership of horses in the United
States. One horse needs a minimum of 4 acres of dry land grazing.76 All of this
livestock must be fed. Forage production averages 1 ton per acre on dry land and 3
tons per acre on irrigated lands.
Southwestern Colorado occupies a unique quadrant in the Four Comers
region. Its remarkable physiographic setting stretches from snow-drenched
14,000 foot alpine peaks to parched red desert -moistened by less than 16 inches
of rain per year. A variety of ethnic backgrounds reside in this quadrant. Some,
such as the Ute Indians, have resided in these parts for centuries. Other people
here have Spanish and Mexican ancestors, Asian, African-American or Anglo-
European backgrounds. Many people today are arriving from the urban centers of
America's coasts to find a more relaxed way of living or to retire amongst grand
scenery and a temperate climate. The land and its resources is being tugged in
many directions, not all compatible with each other. Although everyone recognizes
the urge to make the most of water resources. "In an arid region there is no more
fundamental source of anxiety to those familiar with the natural environment than
the prospect of water shortage."77 Living in the desert prompts inventive ways to
store water. This dry region is now faced with a decision about how best to
service the diverse needs of its communities. Some believe a large scale water
diversion and storage facility is the answer.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration reported in 1991 the
official existence of over 30,000 dams in the seventeen western states. These
dams have the capacity to hold over 475 million acre feet of water, enough to
blanket all the land west of the Continental Divide under a foot of fresh water.78
The vast majority of that stored water is used for low-value crops on some of the
driest desert regions known to the world.
Since its creation in 1902, the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation has been the
unifying force behind the diverse communities in the West that enjoy the benefit of
stored water. Whether action groups have been rallying support for, or political
action against large-scale federal water projects, no one will deny the Bureau's
critical role in shaping the modem West. The Bureau of Reclamation prides itself
on offering a variety of services to the taxpayer from irrigation for agriculture,
municipal and industrial needs to reservoirs for boating and fishing recreation and
the establishment of aquatic wildlife habitat for a variety of species. Flood control
is another benefit the Bureau offers.
These features benefit all people regardless of ethnicity. However, the
Bureau of Reclamation's job is not so easy. Water battles rage between
environmentalists and developers, between Indians with senior reserved water
rights, and non-Indians currently using water. Current battles exist between
Indians and the Bureau of Reclamation to fulfill existing water obligations.
Arguments arise from formers over expensive irrigation fees. Battles continue
between business owners in tourist economy towns and water conservancy
districts. The fighting over water crosses all boundaries of ethnicity, wealth, rural
or urban. Everyone has different demands for the same water. Everyone shares
the same primordial fear, drought. As one modem westerner put it: "Drought in
the West is as certain as death and taxes..."79
With the certainty of drought staring you in the face, anger surges, and it
has not been until recently that water disputes were settled with the help of public
institutions. According to Elwood Mead, an early observer of western irrigation
practices, until public institutions for adjudicating water disputes were developed,
'"there was either murder or suicide in the heart of every member of irrigation
Human-nature relationships bring different values to the surface. A
framework of relationships and their linked values will serve as guide for this
study. The relationship to water and the land as sustenance, community and
spiritual identity brings out a preservation value; the land must be preserved to
continue to survive. Using water as a means of irrigation promotes a wise-use
value; natural resources must be efficiently used. When water is used as a fuel
for urban development it is likely to be linked with a pro-development value: short
term profits can be made from vigorous growth. Finally, water is used in the
Southwest as a machine for industry. But this is where it gets tricky: eco-
business's need untouched rivers whereas manufacturing, raw material processing,
and power producing need water redirected in specific quantities to keep their
systems moving. The concluding chapter will analyze these relationships and their
competing values in light of the Animas-La Plata project and Spanish padres.
At the time of this writing there rages a battle for water so fierce, it has
carried on for thirty years. This battle draws its lines in the heart of Southwestern
Colorado. It is here, in this arid Four Comeis region, where Spanish padres once
predicted successful irrigation, that a modem water fight tears at every member of
this diverse community of desert dwellers. The Animas- La Plata Project will
serve as a modem case study. Its examination will illuminate the numerous
competing relations and values in this region regarding the land and its most
precious, liquid resource.
Southern Ute Tribe. (1993). Ute web site: http://www.southera-ute.nsn.us/index.htmI
-Father Dominguez reported from New Mexico in 1776 that many Indians did not take
seriously their Christian, saint's names, preferring instead names handed down from their ancestors,
"...most of them do not know their saint's names, and when we call them by their saint's names they
usually have their joke among themselves, repeating the saint's names to each other as if in ridicule."
Fray Francisco Atanasio de Dominguez, The Missions of New Mexico 1776. (Albuqurque:
University of New Mexico Press, 1956), 255.
3See Alfred Crosby's Ecological Imperialism. rCamhridpe- Cambridge University Press,
4Wallace Stegner. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. (New York: Penguin
5Donald Worster, An Unsettled Country fAlburquerque: University of New Mexico
6Eric Bjornstat, Desert Rock (Denver Chockstone Press, 1988), 422.
7 Alan D. Reed, The Doming"** Rum Masters Thesis, University of Colorado, Boulder,
8 U.S. Geological Survey, Reconnaissance Investigation of Water Quality. Bottom
Sediment, and Biota Assoicated with Irrigation Drainage in the Pine River Project Area.
Southern TTte Indian Reservation. Southwestern Colorado and Northwestern New Mexico
1988-89. (Denver, 1993), 6.
^Richard White, Its Your Misfortune and None of Mv Own. (Norman: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1991), 3. See also Also Dan Flores essay, "Making the West Whole Again,"
in the fbrthcomming publication, Reclaiming the Native Home of Hope: Community
Ecology and the West. Robert Kreiter ed., University of Utah Press, 1998
13 Sarah F. Bates, et aL, Search mo Out the Headwaters. (Washington D.C.: Island Press,
16MichaeI Myer, Water in the Hispanic Southwest. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press,
-Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 256.
-1 Reisner, 256.
28 Bates, 22
31 Bates, 24.
34John O. Baxter, OfviHing New Mexico's Water: 1700-1912 ( Alburquerque: University
of New Mexico Press: 1997), 3.
35Stanley Crawford Mavordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico
(Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press: 1988), 24.
3 7 Bates, 32
42patricia F imerick. The Legacy of Conquest fNew York: W.W. Norton, 1987), 136.
43 Bates, 36
44 Bates, 37
45 Bates, 41
48Marc Reisner, Overtapped Oasis. (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1990), 59.
^lpradldn in Lee F.Brown and Helen Ingram, Water and Poverty in the Southwest. (Tucson:
Uiversity of Arizona Press, 1987), 1.
52Bates, 78. As indicated by the 1990 Census, most people inhabiting the western states are
of Anglo-European descent. The modem West is home to an above average white population
and below average African-American population. Above average numbers of Asian-
Americans reside in Washington, California, and Nevada. AH western states have relatively
high Native American populations, with New Mexico, Arizona, California and Colorado,
reporting relatively large Hispanic populations. The 1990 Census indicates that the West is
populated more by younger people than the national average.
58 Bales, 78.
S9Arthur Gomez. The Quest for the Golden Circle. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press,
64 Bates, 8.
65Bureau of Reclamation, Final Supplement to the Final Environmental Impact
Statement. Annnas-La Plata Project. April 1996, Volume II. p. 48.
^State of Colorado Agricultural statistics from internet.:
^Interview with Ken Beck, Project Team Leader for Animas-La Plata, Bureau of
Reclamation, Durango Field office. Personal interview by Scott S. Allen on March 23, 1997.
69Interview with Ken Beck.
7Interview with Ken Beck.
7'Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation, web site:
7~Montezuma County Statistics from internet: http://www.sw.colo.org
73Duran go Herald: June 16, 1996
74 Montezuma County Statistics from internet: http://www.sw.colo.org
751992 Census of Agriculture: http://govemor.state.co.us/gov.dir/ag-dir
76Purango Herald. June 16,1996.
^Brown and Ingrain, 29.
79Brown and Ingram, 29, 30.
80Brown and Ingram, 30.
THE ANIMAS LA PLATA PROJECT: A CASE STUDY
The San J uan Mountains occupy 4,000 square miles of Colorado's
Southwest comer. This rugged range of volcanic origin is the home of thirteen
peaks with summits over 14,000 feet The San Juan Mountains are one of
Colorado's last holdouts of unspoiled nature, containing six designated wilderness
areas including the state's largest, the Wemenuche wilderness named after one of
the original bands of Ute Indians. High above the historic mining town of Silverton,
at about 12,000 feet, rests Denver Lake. Here is the headwaters of a river that is
making headlines. Just below Cinnamon Mountain, gravity tugs at the glacier fed
waters of the Animas River. As it spills out of Denver Lake and starts its hundred
mile journey into the San J uan River, the Animas sweeps past the once flourishing
precious metal mines on Treasure Mountain.
Upper basin tributaries such as Lime, Needle, Grasshopper and Hermosa
Creeks feed into the Animas River making it swift and deep as it plunges down
valley to Durango. From the Continental Divide the Animas River descends 125
miles south through fir, spruce, aspen, pine, oak and juniper trees. Flowing right
through Durango, the Animas River heads Southwest toward the Southern Ute
Reservation and on to Farmington, New Mexico where it joins the San Juan River
ending its 7,000 foot descent. Eventually, the Animas River joins the Colorado at
One of the last free flowing rivers in the West, the Animas is home to an
abundance of native fish. The river's diverse population includes: the mottled
sculpin, speckled dace, bluehead sucker, flannelmouth sucker and roundtail chub.
Hundreds of acres of surrounding wetlands areas allow baltic rush, sedges and
reed canary grass to thrive. The Animas ecosystem is a sanctuary for wildlife
such as elk, golden and bald eagles, harriers, redtail hawks and prairie falcons.
Surrounding wetland and riparian habitat support a healthy variety of migratory
waterfowl, yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, long-billed marsh wren, and
amphibians such as leopard frogs and tiger salamander. Other small mammals call
the river's environs their home: voles, deer mice, muskrats, raccoons and striped
The Animas is also revered by recreationists. Warm days throughout the
year bring out fly-fishing anglers, kayakers, and rafters. It is not unusual to see a
kayaker on a Sunday morning running down Main street Durango in his haste to
hit the river early in the day. And for good reason. The Animas creates world-
class, Class HI white water which attracted Olympic trainers in 1995.2 White
water rafting is also a very popular choice on the river, fueling more than $9 million
worth of river related revenue for Durango businesses.3
Strangely enough, with such a vital water source as the Animas River
flowing through town, the City of Durango obtains most of its water for municipal
and industrial use (M&I) from City Reservoir, built on the headwaters of the
Florida River (pronounced Flor-ee-da). Further down the Florida drainage is
Lemon Reservoir, another source of Durango's water. Although the city does
directly pump a small portion out of the Animas, the majority of its supply is from
the Florida River, located west of town high in the Needle Mountains also in the
San Juan Range.
Due to Durango's most recent economic boom in the last ten years, the city
is currently in the process of planning for future water needs, since their in-town
storage holds at most a week's worth of water for municipal use.4
Durango, a western town of about 13,000 people was best described by
Will Rogers in 1935 as "...a beautiful little city, out of the way and glad of it."5
However, developments in western resource management, and water fights in
particular, have found this "beautiful little city" right smack dab in the way of the
highly controversial Animas-La Plata Project.
The Animas- La Plata project (A-LP) is a symbol of modem western
America where many divergent and controversial interests are brought to a head.
Each party brings a different philosophy to the table. Native Americans want
justice and fulfillment of a 1988 Settlement Agreement to bring overdue water to
their lands.6 Environmentalists want to save a fragile desert ecosystem from the
grind of progress. State and Federal agencies want to continue a path of
reclamation and progress with state of the art hydrology.
What follows is a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Animas-La Plata
River basin, proceeded by the full scale plan and alternatives currently proposed.
1868: Southern Ute Indian Reservation established. At this time Southern Utes
included the Moache, Capote and Weeminuche bands. This date gives the Tribes
senior reserved water rights over virtually all other, non-Indian communities in
1902: Reclamation Act A federal act passed to appropriate funds from the sale of
public lands in the arid and semiarid western United States for the purpose of
constructing dams for large scale irrigation.
1904: The predecessor to the Bureau of Reclamation, the US. Reclamation Service
begins initial study of ways to store water from the Animas River and divert it to
the La Plata River Valley. The Reclamation Service deems the idea unfeasible,
however, proposals continue.7
1936: The Leavitt Act provides that Indian tribes do not have to pay any of the
capital construction costs for Indian irrigation. (Does not include costs for
Municipal and Industrial use)
1962: Remarkably, 58 years later Bureau of Reclamation decides the project is
feasible and seeks funding from Congress.
1966: Both Colorado Ute tribes testify in front of the House Interior Committee in
favor of both the Dolores and A-LP projects
1968: Colorado River Basin Act of September 30, 1968 as a participating project
under the Colorado River Storage Project Act of April 11, 1956.. Congress funds
the project spearheaded by Colorado Congressman Wayne Aspinall. Project cost
$102 million. The project was authorized based on a feasibility report by the
Secretary of the Interior on May 4, 1966.
1972: Ute Indians become involved in legal battles over water in the Four Comers
Region by filing in state court for their 1868 water rights, which predates virtually
all non-Indian water rights in the basin.
1980: The first of several environmental impact statements is released on A-LP.
Mid 1980's: President Ronald Regan's administration shudders at cost of the
project. Cost-sharing agreements follow that pull in local funding and splits the
project into two phases. In 1986, Utes abdicate their claims to San Juan Basin
water in exchange for a third of a share in A-LP's water.
1990: Ground breaking is slated for A-LP. Previously the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service reported that A-LP would not jeopardize the endangered Squawfish and
Razorback cutters in the San Juan River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
reverses their decision and require a revision of the Environmental Impact
Statement. No construction begins.
1992: The Environmental Protection Agency rules the updated Environmental
Impacted statement is inadequate and Bureau of Reclamation must revise it again.
Ray Frost, after 3 tries is finally elected to the Southern Ute Tribal Council based
on his opposition to A-LP.
1995: The National Taxpayers Union and Friends of the Earth join forces to label
A-LP one of the nations top ten most wasteful and environmentally damaging
government projects. The Bureau of Reclamation study finds that A-LP is not
economically viable; only 36 cents on the dollar will be returned to the investment
Republican Congressman Scott Mclnnis gets $10 million to keep A-LP alive.
1996: A-LP Named one of a dozen "corporate welfare" plans on a Washington hit
list drafted by the House Budget Committee.
Governor Roy Romer and Lt Governor Gail Schoettler begin a series of meetings
known as the Romer/Schoettler Process, a forum for discussing alternatives to A-
LP by the various parties.
April: The Bureau of Reclamation revises the 1980 Environmental Impact
Statement and publishes the two volume Final Supplement to the Final
Environmental Statement., which includes a "No Action Alternative" in addition to
1997: Ray Frost, a Southern Ute Tribal Councilman and member of SUGO (So. Ute
Grassroots Organization), and a critic of A-LP is ousted from the council due to
charges that be sexually harassed a 15 year old tribal employee at the Sky Ute
February 14,1997: Project proponents willingly discuss alternatives including
"Animas Lite," a structural down-sized project.
1968. The Crux Year
The single most expensive legislative act in history was signed into law by
President Johnson on September 30, 1968 entitled, The Colorado River Basin
Project Act8 The Act authorized the Central Arizona Project, Hooker Dam in
New Mexico, an aqueduct from Lake Mead to Las Vegas, the Dixie Project and
Uintah Unit of the Central Utah Project, as well as five Colorado Projects: the
Animas-La Plata, Dolores, West Divide, Dallas Creek, and San Miguel. It was
due to political posturing that the state of Colorado received funding for high dollar
water projects. A-LP and other western slope water projects were the master
plan of Colorado Congressman Wayne AspinalL Marc Reisner describes Aspinall
as a "black-eyed former schoolteacher with a testy principal's disposition who had
climbed from a little western Colorado town to become the chairman of the House
Interior and Insular Affairs Committee.9 According to Reisner it was Aspinall
who forced the inclusion of five western slope Colorado projects before he would
approve of any Arizona or California projects. The feet that Colorado didn't need
any western slope water projects -it was the urbanization of the eastern Front
Range corridor that could have used another water project to supplement the
Colorado-Big Thompson project- didn't stop Aspinall from forging ahead with his
agenda. Regarding the five western slope projects, Dan Dreyfus, of the Bureau of
Reclamation reflected, "Those projects were pure trash. I knew they were trash
and (Floyd) Dominy knew they were trash."10 It appears as though politics won
over economic concerns. "The way they got into the bill," continued Drefiis, "was
Aspinall called up (Stewart) Udall one day and said, 'No Central Arizona Project
will ever get by me unless my five projects get authorized too.' Something had to
be done and Drefus was the man to do the dirty work:
When Udall passed the word on to us, we were appalled. The Office of
Management and Budget had just bounced Animas-La Plata. Now we had
to give it back to them and make them reverse themselves. I had to fly all
the way out to Denver and jerk around the benefit-cost numbers to make
the thing look sound.11
That was the state of western politics in 1968. Aspinall didn't want to see
his state's water trickle down to the benefit of lower basin states. The feet that
Animas-La Plata was spared the budget ax was due to a political fight between
the Colorado River's upper basin and its lower basin. If western slope farmers
didn't hurry up and start using their entitlements to the Colorado River as
authorized by the Colorado River Compact, California growers and municipalities
were going to swallow more and more of Colorado's water.12 At this early stage,
A-LP was not an Indian water project, but a political bargaining chip tossed around
in Washington amongst congressmen.
Because so many different agencies are involved, it is very complicated to
understand who is fighting for what. Six major parties are involved and have an
invested interest in the outcome of the Animas-La Plata Project 1) The State of
Colorado, 2) the State of New Mexico, 3) Environmental Protection Agency, 4)
Department of the Interior (which includes the US Fish and Wildlife Service, U. S.
Bureau of Reclamation, U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal land agencies, 5)
A-LP project proponents such as the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy
District, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes, San Juan and La Plata
Conservancy Districts and the San Juan Water Commission, and, 6) the opponents
to the A-LP project, the Sierra Club, White Water Associations, SUGO (Southern
Ute Grassroots Organization) and concerned Durango and other Four Comer
At stake is the $710 million Animas -La Plata project which since its
inception in 1968, has been saddled with delays. The idea behind the project is
simple and has been employed repeatedly thousands of times throughout the
West: capture water from a wet area, pump and pipe it to a dry area. The
Animas River drainage is abundant in moisture and free flowing water. The La
Plata River drainage parallel to the Animas with its source the San Juan
Mountains also, is much less abundant The full scale project would divert
195,000 acre-feet from the Animas, pump it 500 feet uphill to a reservoir for
storage and then pump it an additional 400 feet over a ridge via pipeline and canal
over to the dry side La Plata River basin. A full scale project would also divert the
La Plata and San Juan Rivers for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses in
Durango, Colorado and Aztec and Farmington, New Mexico.13
/Umas-La Plata FWfct
As clearly stated in the opening pages of the Final Supplement to the Final
Environmental Statement for the Animas-La Plata Project Volume 1, the purpose
of the project is to divert river flow in order to create available water for irrigation,
municipal and industrial uses in Colorado and New Mexico. In addition, the project
would also provide for fish and wildlife preservation, recreation facilities such as
reservoirs, and a cultural resource program to be housed at the Anasazi Heritage
Center near Dolores, Colorado.
The Animas-La Plata project, as preferred by the Bureau of Reclamation,
would store water pumped out of the Animas River at Durango to Ridges Basin
Reservoir. Additionally, the project would store water diverted from the La Plata
River and Animas River in Southern Ute Reservoir. The key features of the project
include two off-stream dams and reservoirs (Ridges Basin and Southern Ute Dams
and Reservoirs); two major pumping plants (Durango and Ridges Basin); three
major water transportation systems (Dry Side and Southern Ute Inlet Canals and
Ridges Basin Inlet Conduit); and two diversion dams on the La Plata River (La
Plata and Southern Ute Dam Diversion Dams).14
The average total annual water supply developed by A-LP would be
191,230 acre-feet for agricultural and municipal and industrial uses. Approximately
111,130 acre-feet of water would be delivered to 17,590 acres of mixed Indian and
non-Indian land which is already under irrigation and delivered to an additional
48,310 acres which is not presently irrigated. Also made available by A-LP to
non-Indian communities in Colorado and New Mexico is an annual supply of 40,100
acre feet of water for Municipal and Industrial uses (M&I). The Southern Ute, Ute
Mountain Ute and the Navajo Nation would receive a total annual supply of 40,100
acre feet for Municipal and Industrial uses.15
Phase I Stage A
As a result of a 1986 Cost Sharing Agreement and the 1988 Settlement
Act, A-LP would be constructed and operated in two distinct phases with phase
one split into two additional stages. In Phase I, Stage A the pumping plant at
Durango would be constructed and designed to allow for future water
deliveries(Phase I, Stage B and Phase II) The city of Durango would receive
M&I water via a pipeline to the city's existing storage reservoir, Durango
Terminal Reservoir. Ridges Basin Reservoir would be constructed in two steps to
accommodate the outcome of the seven-year research study of endangered fish in
the San Juan River. Adjustments in size of dam, pump stations and reservoir
capacity would be made according to the research results.16 The La Plata Rural
M&I pipeline would be constructed from Ridges Basin Reservoir to the La Plata
rural area. Rural subdivisions west of Durango would receive water from Ridges
Basin via the Shenandoah M&I Pipeline.
If the reservoir is allowed to be built to full capacity (168,000 acre feet),
M&I water would be available to the, San Juan Water Commission, and the City of
Durango. Water would be accessible to the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy
District and the Shenandoah M&I and La Plata Rural M&I Pipelines following
National Environmental Policy Act obligations. The Southern Ute and Ute
Mountain Ute tribes would have water available in Ridges Basin Reservoir or at
the point of diversion on the Animas River. Both Ute tribes would have to follow
National Environmental Policy Act compliance's in order to use the water.
Phase I Stage B
Completion of Phase I, Stage B would satisfy A-LP's obligation to the 1988
Settlement Act. During this stage the Dry Side Canal, Long Hollow Tunnel,
Southern Ute Diversion Dam and a portion of the Southern Ute Inlet Canal would
be constructed and sized appropriately for future Phase II operations.
Construction of Southern Ute Diversion Dam, part of Southern Ute Inlet
Canal, and an interim extension of the same canal would occur during this stage in
order to service irrigated land in New Mexico because Southern Ute Reservoir and
New Mexico Irrigation Canal are not constructed until Phase n of A-LP.
This final phase would complete the Animas-La Plata project after final
results of the 7 year study of endangered species on the San J uan River.
Constructed facilities would include: Southern Ute Dam and Reservoir; Southern
Ute Recreation facilities; La Plata Diversion Dam; the remaining part of the Dry
Side Canal extended to the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation Boundary; the New
Mexico Irrigation Canal; Alkali Gulch, Ute Mountain, Southern Ute and Third
Terracing Pumping Plants.
Specific Environmental Impacts of A-LP
The environmental impacts of building a major water diversion project are
astounding since they range from natural to cultural resources. While this study
will focus on water related impacts the Final Supplement to the Final
Environmental Impact Statement of 1996 documents a wide range of threatened
and endangered species, as well as impacts of A-LP on the tourist industry,
agriculture, trade, manufacturing, as well as Native American Cultural resources.
Through federal government agencies and laws, initiated by a flurry of
environmental legislation by the Nixon Administration in the early 1970's, the
natural world of modem times is protected by numerous regulations. Dam
building in the 1990's, unlike thirty years ago, is heavily regulated and kept in
check by federal and state legislation which ensures water quality standards for a
vast array of natural resources. Protected resources include: aquatic resources for
native fishery, vegetative resources in wetland and riparian districts, soil
characteristics which might result in toxic or hazardous irrigation return flows.17
Limiting our discussion to just water resources, A-LP will affect four rivers:
the Animas, La Plata, Mancos and San Juan. All of these rivers would experience
to a greater of lesser extent, water depletion, unnatural increases in volume due to
irrigation return flows and stream flow modifications that would impact riparian
topography of these rivers. Of the various metals found in the soils of the project
area including concentrations of barium, cobalt, copper, lithium and strontium, it is
selenium which causes major concern since it effects human and aquatic health.
One way to reduce selenium levels is by using irrigation water only once before
returning it to drainages, rivers or storage. 18 However, water stored in reservoirs
can contain hazardous levels of dissolved selenium and mercury. Since the
Animas River has a heavy metal problem due to nineteenth-century mining
activity, storing water in Ridges Basin reservoir runs the risk concentrating those
heavy metals which can negatively impact fish. 19 Just outside the boundaries of
the proposed Ridges Basin reservoir is a radioactive solids containment cell
buried by Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action. The Department of Energy in
1990 studied potential seepage, ground water movement and seismic stability and
reported that the buried cell would not be impacted by a new reservoir.20
By 1990 the Endangered Species act had a role to play in A-LP. Squawfish
and Razor Back Suckers in the San J uan River would be affected by fluctuating
water levels due to diversion and pumping from A-LP. A seven year study, still
being conducted will conclude definitively whether or not the endangered fish will
be negatively impacted by A-LP.
Meanwhile, Navajo farmers downstream are impacted by the seven year
study which tests reservoir releases to mimic spring run-oft The Navajo Nation
is concerned that the reoperation of Navajo Dam has adversely impacted Navajo
irrigation projects downstream. Navajo irrigation structures at Fruitland and
Hogback were damaged in 1996 as the result of large spring releases made from
Navajo dam for the purpose of conducting research on the endangered Squawfish.
Robert Hayes, Secretary of Shiprock Agency Land/Farra Board reported in 1996:
By not being active participants our irrigation diversion dams were
inundated by the 1992 endangered species habitat emulations (sudden
releases from Navajo Dam). It cost the Navajo people thousands of dollars
to repair these structures, and caused crop damage due to the irrigation
systems shut downs. 21(108)
This poses an interesting question. It is intelligent to simulate natural spring run-
off from a river that has been dammed? Navajo formers offer their perspective:
The Navajo Nation continues to question...the perpetual reoperation of
Navajo Dam to mimic a natural hydrograph. As a result of the research, it
may be determined that large spring releases which mimic the natural
hydrograph destroy squawfish habitat or otherwise create additional
jeopardy for endangered fish.
It leaves the observer with the same question a Navajo asked, "Will the
grassroots Navajo formers become "endangered species too?
The Environmental Protection Agency is not smiling on the project either.
The EPA gave the Reclamation a EO-3 rating for the proposed Animas-La Plata
Project Translated, this means EPA finds the impact of the action
"Environmentally Objectionable." This is one step above their lowest rating of EU,
Environmentally Unsatisfactory. Furthermore, the three rating for the adequacy of
the written impact statement itself, indicates the lowest possible score: "Category
3-Inadequate." 23 Specifically, the EPA identified seven items for the basis for
their rating. Two items deal with the Bureau's inadequate proposal to satisfy the
Clean Water Act for New Mexico and Colorado state water quality standards.24
The La Plata River already contains mercury and selenium in elevated levels which
would further degrade water quality after A-LP "dewaters" a part of the La Plata
River. The EPA blasted the Bureau for its proposed flooding of habitat along the
La Plata River which would raise temperature levels and affect flow, potentially
affecting natural fish breeding such as the roundtail chub -already a candidate for
the Endangered Species List.25
Sam Maynes was bom in Silverton, Colorado in 1933. His name is
synonymous with the Animas-La Plata Project in water law and environmental
circles from the Southwest to Congress. His law partner describes Maynes as,
"dynamic, tough, intelligent, (he) has boundless energy and is a compassionate
guy.26 Maynes is the consummate renaissance western lawyer, skiing and
hunting on weekends and wearing a bolo tie and western boots as he walks to his
office in Durango. "The feet that A-LP is still alive is due to Sam Maynes," said
former Interior Secretary Stewart UdalL27 As an outspoken water attorney Sam
Maynes in the past has represented all the key players who support A-LP; the
Southern Ute Tribe, the Southwestern Water Conservation District and the
Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, the La Plata, Electric Association
and the Dolores Water Conservancy District
Maynes staked his career during three decades of intense dam building in
the west spanning, a dynamic time in the history of the Colorado River."28
"There's been a helluva lot of change...but I've never met anyone who was against
clean water and clean air...or wanted to repeal the Endangered Species Act,"
reflected Mayes. "However, we should be more discriminating in what we are
trying to save and how. We've got to balance the economy versus the quality of
life. If you don't have a good job, you are not too interested in clean air and
water...If this were the Depression, there would be less interest in the
environment than in making sure there was enough money to feed one's family."29
The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after reversing their approval of A-LP, decided
that endangered Colorado Squawfish would be affected after all by water levels in
the San Juan after receiving water from the Animas River. Maynes sees the
problem of squawfish as "a political issue, not a science issue." Maynes predicts
the government will spend $120 million studying the squawfish, a effort he refers
to as, "a retirement program for biologists."30
Though he may not score points with environmental scientists, Maynes'
work with the Ute Indians is well respected. Jim Lockhead, executive Director of
the Colorado Department of Natural Resources spoke highly of Sam Maynes
ability to negotiate between Indians and non-Indians. Lockhead said the 1988
Settlement Act was, the only one I am aware of in the West where tribes and the
non-Indian community sat down and settled tribal reserve rights to the satisfaction
of both sides and then went to Congress arm in arm. That agreement is a
reflection of Sam's work."31
US. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Cok>., has been a vocal supporter
of A-LP and wants the project to proceed as soon as possible. Citing the 78
alternative proposals, Campbell said, "We've studied everything before, but every
time you turn around a new face pops up in Colorado or Washington, and we start
again."33 As Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Campbell is in a
good position to guard the future of A-LP in Washington. Campbell wants to see
the Utes get their water. He knows the details of their landmark Settlement
Agreement. Since 1868 when the Colorado Ute Indian Reservations were created,
Ute Indians have carved a precarious niche in the arid four comers region. Water
plays the key role in keeping Indian land use possible. Without it, all creatures
would literally shrivel. The Settlement Act was the final outcome of years of
negotiation by the Tribes and non-Indian water users to settle, once and for all,
outstanding water rights claims by the Utes in the Animas and La Plata River
basins, in addition to other rivers which flow through either the Southern Ute or
Ute Mountain Ute Tribal reservations.33
But the single most important reason that the project has stayed alive all
these years is that A-LP would satisfy Colorado Ute Indian water rights claims as
entitled to them by the 1988 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act
(Settlement Act). The Settlement Act makes explicit provisions for both Ute
Tribes to successfully use water for agricultural, municipal, and industrial uses "on,
under, adjacent to or otherwise appurtenant to the Tribal reservations."34
The truth stands clear: Ute Indians have a priority date for their water
rights which precedes the priority dates for nearly all the non-Indian water rights in
Colorado.35 Colorado water law begins with the premise of senior water rights.
Since 1868, the Colorado Ute Indians have been entitled to water on their land.
For many years the tribes pursued a fair settlement of their water rights to no
avaiL But by the 1980's, discussions began to reach a negotiated settlement of the
Ute claims with non-Indians, the State of Colorado and the United States. As a
result the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Final Settlement Agreement
(Settlement Agreement) was signed on December 10, 1986.36 Both Ute tribes
sought Federal implementation of the terms of the Settlement Agreement The
Settlement Act to implement the Settlement Agreement, was enacted by the U.S.
Congress on November 3, 1988.37
At the time of this writing, the January 1, 2000 deadline to deliver water to
the Tribes from the Animas-La Plata is fast approaching. If water is not delivered
to the Tribes on or before that date future litigation or re-negotiation of Tribal
water claims will certainly follow.
The Settlement Act underscores the pressing needs of the Tribes to
ensure their rights to beneficially use water for agricultural as well as Municipal
and Industrial uses. In addition, the Settlement Act addressed the need to remove
the potential causes of future water and land disputes between the Tribes and the
State of Colorado and United States government, and other non-Indian water users
in Southwestern Colorado.38 Furthermore, the agreement authorizes the Tribes
to sell, exchange, lease, or temporarily dispose of their water, within existing state
laws. The Settlement Act was haled nationwide as a positive achievement for the
Utes of Colorado.39
Utes and Other Indians
In the 1908 Winters vs. U.S. landmark case involving the water rights of
the Fort Belkcamp Indian tribe of Montana, the U. S. Supreme court ruled that
sufficient water supplies should be reserved with the land designated as Indian
Tribal Reservation land. Water for irrigation and tribal domestic use was part of
the intent to assist Indians with the difficult transition from a nomadic life to an
agrarian and pastoral settlement In 1963, the Winters case was further
supplemented by the U.S. Supreme Court decree in the important Colorado River
case, Arizona vs. California. The amount of water to be reserved few Indians on
tribal reservation lands was now defined as "enough water...to irrigate all the
practicably irrigable acreage on the reservation."40
The appropriation date for an Indian Tribe's reserved water right is the
same date the reservation was established. This date is typically senior to most,
if not all, non-Indian water users in a given watershed. However, many tribes
have not been able to develop their water resources adequately. Meanwhile,
billions of dollars have been invested in water diversion and storage projects by
the Bureau of Reclamation mostly for the benefit of non-Indians.41 As a result,
unquantified tribal reserved water right claims have placed a cloud of uncertainty
on existing non-Indian water rights and diversion facilities. Within the last 20
years, settlement agreements have resolved some tribal claims by expanding
water storage whfle also allowing non-Indian water use.
The Ute Indians of southern Colorado have a unique, if split identity.
Divided into two separate reservations by their own choice, the Southern Ute
tribe and Ute Mountain Ute tribe have different histories of land use. Both tribes
are very similar and shared the same way of life during the pre-European period
through the Spanish and Anglo-American period.42 A decision came once the 1895
Hunter Act was passed: Utes could choose severed land allotments or relocation
to a commonly-held reservation to the west. The Southern Utes chose allotments
and the Ute Mountain Utes chose common land in a distinct reservation in the for
comer of Southwestern Colorado.
The nature of the land in each reservation gave rise to different values.
Both Tribes faced the same obstacles in the twentieth century: assimilationist
policies of the federal government, and loss of land and traditional modes of
existence. But the tribes responded very differently to these obstacles. Richard
Young conducted extensive research on the Ute Nation from archival sources to
tribal interviews and has document this in his forthcoming book, Southern Ute and
Ute Mountain Ute Tribes in the Twentieth Century. Young has chronicled and
compared the different histories of the two once unified tribes. "The Southern Utes
of Ignacio settled on individual allotments, built houses and took up forming; the
Ute Mountain Utes ofTowaoc to the west "maintained a nomadic existence, lived
in tents, and vehemently rejected the idea of forming."43
The Southern Ute people were more cooperative in dealing with the federal
Indian Office than the Ute Mountain Utes who resisted change. Ute Mountain Ute
people "developed a closed society, remaining suspicious of outsiders and hostile
toward any white intrusion." 44 The Southern Utes lived in the "midst of many
non-Indian neighbors on their checkerboard reservation, frequendy intermarried
with Anglos and Hispanics and were much quicker than the Towaoc Utes to adopt
the ways of modem American society."45
The Southern Utes had rivers to irrigate on their individual allotments and
political negotiations with non-Indian neighbors close to Durango.46 Whereas the
Ute Mountain Utes took refuge in some of the least productive land in the entire
state of Colorado. Their isolation from others and inadequate water increased
their hostility towards white and other outsiders. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has
always suffered from lack of water. "The tribe was even forced to haul drinking
water by truck from Cortez to Towaoc daily up until 1990" 47 Only the Mancos
River flows through Ute Mountain territory compared with the Southern Utes who
enjoy the La Plata, Animas, Florida, Los Pinos, Piedra, and San Juan. But senior
rights to this waters existed only on paper while "wet" water was being used by
parties up and down stream.
Young reports that the Ute Mountain tribe has suffered economically due to
their "isolationism and cultural conservatism." But this conservatism and
skepticism of non-Indian ways has "enabled this tribe to retain more of its
traditional culture -its language, its spirituality, its ceremonies, its practices and
beliefs-than the Southern Ute Tribe. 48
Despite these differences and economic hardships of earlier years, both
tribes have recently made substantial progress toward the goal of political and
economic self-determination and independence. The Ute Mountain way of life has
changed due to "the infusion of millions of dollars in oil and gas income and large
land claims awards."49 As well, both tribes operate successful casinos, drawing
in local and regional gambling revenues. The tribes have regained a level of power,
political savvy and respect in western politics that they havent experienced since
they were confined to the reservation in 1868.
Southern Ute Views of A-LP. The Southern Ute Tribe is for A-LP since
it will satisfy their outstanding water rights claims. James J. Formea, acting
Superintendent for Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Southern Ute Agency stated for
the public record:
The tribes have relied upon the promise of the federal government to
construct Ridges Basin Reservoir for the storage of the tribes' allocated
water. The Mure of the federal government to construct the Project would
be a breach of those Agreements and the trust obligation that the United
States Government has to the Indian Tribes.50
Leonard C. Burch, Chairman of Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council concurs with
Formea, urging a full build out of A-LP, highlighting the economic advantages of
the federal government paying for the project until the Utes can start using the
The tribe urges that the Bureau of Reclamation move forward as quickly as
possible to construct the Animas-La Plata Project so that the United States
may fulfill its obligations to the Tribe under the 1986 Settlement Agreement
and the 1988 Settlement Act ....the Tribe is not required to reimburse the
United States for either operating or capital costs of the project until the
Tribe actually puts its water to use. That is a valuable and virtually
unprecedented advantage for the Tribe. The Secretary of the Interior under
the authority of the Settlement Act can waive or reduce the Tribe's
repayment obligations at any time. Finally, in using water from the Project,
the Tribe is freed from many of the restraints of federal reclamation law.51
Clement J. Frost, Chairman of the Southern Ute Tribal Council echoes these
sentiments and points out the Mure of the federal government to resolve Ute
The Tribes and the non-Indian water users should be complimented for
sharing and not litigating over a limited resource. Neither the Tribe nor its
non-Indian neighbors caused the water rights conflict resolved by the
settlement agreement, rather it was brought about by the Mure of the
federal government to properly protect the Indian water resources from the
beginning. The federal government, at least in 1988, recognized this error
and its trust responsibilities to the Indian Tribes by passing the 1988
(Settlement Act)...The suggestion that it is too expensive to keep your
word to the Indian tribes is a philosophy which the United States
Government used to deal with Indians over 150 years ago and should be
Ute Mountain life Perspective. Both Ute tribes are united in their
approval of A-LP. J udy Knight-Frank, Chairperson for the Ute Mountain Ute
Indian Tribal Council outlines Native American values which are shifting toward
resource development to secure the economic future of the Ute Mountain Ute
..in order for a democratic society to survive, the lands and waters of the
nation's watersheds are not to be populated solely by the wealthy and the
urban tourist. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the oldest resident of the Four
Comers Region is grateful for this national commitment (by congress, Le.
settlement agreement) and pledges itself to work with its non-Indian
neighbors for their mutual benefit.
For our part, we pledge to utilize the waters developed by the A-LP to
enrich the land for our people and our neighbors people. We will utilize the
waters in our Reservation to the extent we can develop them economically.
We will bring life to where today only dry soils bake under the Four
Comers sun. Our tribal goal is to make die land and the life of our people at
the Four Comers better for present and future generations.
We are saddened by the shrill opposition to the A-LP and the Colorado Ute
Water Rights Settlement Agreement Sadly, most of the opposition is from
people of wealth and security who live far away from our lands. Regretfully,
they seem not to care about either national commitments to develop the
Animas River equitably or the rare economic opportunities which the A-LP
presents for those living in the rural West who are less fortunate. 53
Indian Spiritual and Cultural Values. Native Americans see the land
as a sacred place, a place of worship that their ancestors have been respectfully
treating for many generations. The La Plata Mountains are considered sacred to
the Hopi and Navajo Nations. One issue with A-LP is that the project area covers
many ancestral hunting, and dwelling sites considered sacred by more than one
tribe. Approximately 3,490 cultural resource sites exist with in the A-LP project
area.54 Of those an estimated 1,400 sites would be impacted by the project.
Regardless of their spiritual and cultural values, both Ute Tribes want federally
piped water more than intact sacred sites. Identified cultural resources in the A-LP
project area include archeological and historical sites dating to the Archaic
Period(6,000 B.C.-A.D. 400), the Anasazi (Puebloan) Tradition (400 B.C.-A.D.
1300), Navajo (A.D. 1450 -1800), the Numic-Ute Tradition (A.D. 1400 -Present)
and Euroanmerican Settlement (A.D. 1700 -Present It is also possible that sites
in the project area may date to the Paleoindian Period 2 (10,000 B.C.-5,500 B.C.)55
In Ridges Basin, a reservoir would inundate an estimated 190 cultural
resource sites which contribute to the significance of the entire Ridges Basin
Archeological District Pool fluctuation in the reservoir may unearth prehistoric
Native American sites and burials In Phase n, where the A-LP project crosses
the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, 1,930 estimated sites are located of which 800 may
be negatively impacted. 56 These would be "significant and adverse" permanent
alterations to the affected cultural resources. Congress approved up to 4% of total
project cost would be dedicated to preserving and relocating and displaying
recovered artifacts to be permanently stored in the Anasazi Heritage Center in
The Hopi Tribe has voiced their opinion regarding the importance of these
sacred sites within the project area and insist that the recovered objects be
identified by Native American experts.
It is the continued position of the Hopi Tribe that...traditional cultural
properties and sacred areas need to be identified through consultation with
the appropriate Native American Groups The Hopi Tribe requests that
consultation with the Tribe be expanded to include the interpretations of
sites and features based upon traditional knowledge. 57
The Navajo Indians also have ancestral ties to this region. "The Navajo Nation
has a cognizable interest in the cultural resources in the project area and its
vicinity...some of the earliest examples of Navajo settlements are found in this
Summary of Indian Views
Native Americans in the Four Comers Region comprise a population of
about 220,000 people.39 Their views of nature and how to best preserve its
wilderness and make use of its resources are extremely diverse. Owing to the
complexity of individual values as much as to tribal allegiances, the range of values
defies a simple generalization. Suffice it to say that before you make a claim about
Indians and their modem views of nature, you better know who you are talking to.
Traditional values of course still exist. A serene reverence for nature will be found
amongst all the various tribes in the Four Comers. But different views of how to
proceed with the future are common. Environmental protectionist values exist
among tribal members who want to see no further damage to mother earth in the
name of urban progress. But the vast majority of written documentation indicates
that both Ute Tribes are in total agreement over A-LP: the want their promised
water as soon as possible. The Utes are in a strategic economic position such as
they haven't seen for over a century. Most likely the Utes will put their M&I
water to develop the natural resources underlying their reservation land.
Opponents may find it objectionable to mine coal or produce electric power from a
coal burning plant, but the Utes are interested in regaining economic power and
securing the future for upcoming generations. It is not out of disrespect for mother
earth or the numerous cultural resources that will be displaced that the Indians
want to develop resources, it is for tribal power and sustainability in a modem
society that gives clout to the economically savvy and wealthy.
Local. State and Federal Agencies
Numerous agencies were included in the Final Supplement to the Final
Environmental Impact Statement Those agencies who are supportive of A-LP
include: Bureau of Reclamation Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Mines. For
federal agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation, A-LP is a chance to finish the last
big replumbing project of the 1968 Colorado River Basin Act.
State agencies supporting A-LP are: Department of Natural Resources and
Colorado State Engineer's Office, Division of Water Resources. Local
government such as the La Plata County Commissioners, need to secure water for
current and future economic growth and respond to the voices of real estate
developers, contrasted with environmentalists and tourism related business such
as white water rafting.
State officials may be using the Ute Indians as a technique for saving a
federally subsidized water project. Ken Salazar, Executive Director of Department
of Natural Resources, State of Colorado:
The State of Colorado has supported the Animas-La Plata Project
for many years and continues to do so. It is essential that the Bureau of
Reclamation proceed as expeditiously as possible with the project in order
to fulfill the December 10, 1986 reserved water rights settlement
agreement with the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe and the Southern Ute
This grand enthusiasm and sense of urgency occurs as the local level as welL
Doris A. Brennan, Vice-Chairman of the Board of La Plata County Commissioners:
The Indian Water Rights settlement was a masterpiece of
negotiations, Indians and non-Indians, statesmen, formers and
businessmen coming together to finally agree on a document that will have
historical significance now and for all time to come. This is what drives the
project It's implementation will be honored by generations to come. It is a
masterpiece in engineering, and I wholeheartedly support it.61
Even the Chairman, Paul Brown, of the Board of County Commissioners in La
Plata County is getting impatient with the Sierra Club and environmental action
groups who carefully analyzed the Environmental Protection Agencys report on A-
I believe that it is criminal the way so-called environmentalists have
used stall tactic after stall tactic to slow the process of the A-LP costing
the taxpayers millions of wasted dollars. "Let's get on with this project and
stop wasting tax dollars!62
Although the majority of citizens who submitted letters to the Final Supplement of
the Final Environmental Impact Statement were opposed to the construction of A-
LP, Mr. R. T. Scott of Durango characterizes the values of those individuals who
do want A-LP to get a green light:
If this project is not built now, Colorado may lose their own water.
If this happens, the residents of Southwest Colorado and Northwest New
Mexico, who suffer the hardships of snowstorms, avalanches, long hard
winters to generate the water, will find themselves also in a drought are in
the dry years during the summer, with no hope of water storage for
recreation, irrigation, or domestic use. Lets cut through the red tape and
delays, and get this project built now.63
For environmentalists, A-LP is an ecological nightmare, typifying how
water can flow against gravity and toward huge sums of cash. Millions of dollars
will miraculously pump water from a wet drainage to a dry basin via massive
pipelines, pump stations and reservoirs. Environmental groups active in the fight
against A-LP include the Sierra Club and its Legal Defense Fund, Ancient Forest
Rescue, American Whitewater Association and Durango area residents. Lori
Potter of the Siena Club summed the project up: "A-LP is a financial disaster and
an environmental tragedy. It is cheaper to truck in bottled water than to pump it
1,000 vertical feet up to irrigate low value crops."64
These groups fear the worst They know the pattern set in motion from
other water diversion projects. They fear what may happen to the Animas' white
water and wild river canyon bottoms which are a teeming refuge for waterfowL
Pumping stations, dams and reservoirs have been known to create drastic
disruptions of hydrological regimes that have prevailed for millennia.65 Pump
station surges can cannibalizing a river's beaches and riparian bottom lands. With
considerable coal reserves on their property, the Southern Ute tribe has stated
they will eventually use A-LP water not for irrigation but for strip coal mine
operations. Some locals in Durango fear the Indians will build a coal burning
electrical power plant, contributing to local air pollution.66
Opponents of A-LP, such as the Sierra Club, claim it would divert about a
fourth of the Animas River at Durango -cutting summer flow in half at the height of
rafting season.67 A massive $63 million pumping station in Durango would push
the bulk of its captured water up 500 feet in the other direction, Southwest, to the
Ridges Basin reservoir. The Sierra Club pins the amount of electricity needed to
pump all of A-LP's water as equivalent to the electrical needs of a city of 63,000
people.67 Two dams are needed to contain the water in Ridges Basin's 4 mile long
reservoir which, at capacity, would be as deep as a 30 story building.68 Ridges
basin is a short distance from Durango. It is a broad valley with sparse clumps of
juniper trees, sage brush and tamarack. Ridges Basin is the home to several
ground nesting birds such as the meadowlark and blue tailed swift It is also an
elk habitat with evidence of deer, coyote, fox, bald eagles and rabbits. But it is by
no means a wilderness area. Two buried pipelines, one for natural gas and one for
electricity currently traverse Ridges Basin. The Bureau of Reclamation already
owns the land and has posted sings for no camping, no fires and no off-road
vehicles. The area is primarily used by light impact recreationists such as hikers
and runners and mountain bike riders.69
A second pumping station would lift water from Ridges Basin another 500
feet over Red Mesa into the "drier" La Plata River basin and into a 24 mile long
"dry side canaL" Most of A-LP water would irrigate 50,000 acres of alfalfa,
pasture, barely, oats and corn silage for livestock feed on what is currently
uncultivated land, as well as supplementing another 20,000 acres of marginally
farmed land. A-LP's economic bonus means approximately $25 million dollars will
be pumped into the local economy.70
Groups such as Colorado Outward Bound, Colorado Mountain Club and
the Colorado Whitewater Association are vehemently opposed to A-LP and its
environmental consequences. Other groups include: Ancient Forest Rescue,
Animas River Guides, Animas River Outfitters Association, Animas River Race
Association, and the Colorado White Water Association. These groups challenge
the calculations of the Bureau of Reclamation who claim only 32 rafting days a year
would be affected by the flux in water levels due to pumping on the Animas River.
Many of these groups share the sentiments of Steven Nicholson of
Bayfield, Colorado who believes the Animas River is "the soul of Durango."
Recreationists find the Animas River a place to renew their outlook and to be
released from the stresses of modem living. The American White Water
Association asserts, as many recreation groups do, that the project would be an
unacceptable waste of taxpayer's money, "with relatively little benefit and many
irreversible adverse affects on the environment and recreational opportunities in
the area."71 W.L. Pfeiffer from Citizen's Water Council, Inc., non profit corporation
lays forth his values: "I was bom in Durango in 1925 and graduated from High
School so it really pains me the way we keep changing rivers, filling wet lands, and
creating tremendous environmental damage."72
Calling the Bureau and other supporters on their revisionist history tactic,
the Colorado Environmental Coalition attempted to set the record straight:
...there is nothing in the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act
that exempts the Bureau from complying with other relevant laws such as
the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the
Endangered Species Act.73
Durango Citizens and Southwest Residents
One would expect farmers to be supportive of federal irrigation projects
which ultimately are intended to help them. Yet farmers who submitted letters to
the Bureau of Reclamation are against A-LP. For example, Susan Komarek of
Bayfield, Colorado stated: 'I have lived in La Plata County for eight years and yet I
do not know one person in favor of this project."74 Durango resident Harold E.
Mansfield, Ph.D., shoots down A-LP:
The Project is a cruel hoax because the agricultural aspects of the
project are not realistic. The water will be too expensive for use in the
meager forms of the "Dry Side." There are very few full-time formers in the
district now. There numbers are dwindling. Sad but true. The real costs of
the project water means that the water will be available to those users
(developers, coal mining companies, electric utilities, industries,
municipalities and other interests) that can pay rates ($54.81 per acre )75
which the former could never afford.76
For more statements from farmers and local residents see Appendix, page 116.
Utes Opposing A-LP
Although most Utes represented by their tribal councils support A-LP some are
dissenting. For instance, Dedra Millich, Southern Ute Indian living in Durango
expresses her land ethic:
...The Animas-La Plata Project is not in the best interest of the
Southern Ute Nation, of which I am a member. Within the boundaries of the
Southern Ute Reservation are some of the top resources in the Southwest:
timber, coal, gas, wildlife and water. We are the keepers of these precious
rights, and everyone wants them.
Indigenous people often refer to Earth as Mother Earth. The mother
was highly valued and her beauty cherished. The rivers are like veins,
carrying nourishing water to all of the land. It is possible to keep the
Animas River free flowing? Does another vein have to be clogged? The
beauty of the river will forever be lost and many of the creatures that live
harmoniously with it There are enough reservoirs in the Southwest, let's
keep one flowing.77
STJGO: Southern Ute Grassroots Organisation
Within the Southern Ute Tribe's clear and firm stance on A-LP is a small
faction called SUGO who is opposed to a full scale A-LP and is suggesting
alternatives. But the group has had troubled leadership. Ray Frost, a Southern
Ute Tribal Councilman and member of SUGO a critic of A-LP was ousted from the
council due to charges that he sexually harassed a 15 year old tribal employee at
the Sky Ute Casino. SUGO's new frontman is Sage Douglas Eagle Remington, a
tribal member who lives in Denver. SUGO consists of small group of Southern
Ute, mostly family members of Remington, ranging in number from as few as 7 to
not more than 200 people.78 The Southern Ute tribe has 1400 members.
Remington takes a much different slant than the official Ute perspective on
A-LP. Remington claims that his own people, the Southern Utes are, "not in touch
with reality."79 He goes further, exclaiming: "My people have neglected their
history."80 He wants his tribe to reclaim their land, eliminating the patchwork
ownership of the reservation by buying back water rights and land using the Ute
Legacy Land and Water Fund. The proposed fend would be generated by diverting
A-LP dollars directly to the tribes so they could purchase land and water rights
along the Pine, Piedra and Florida rivers to increase their home sites and forms.
Remington is opposed to the Ute tribal government, claiming the tribal
council is not representative of the entire tribe. He is suspicious of government
officials, crying out: "Senator Campbell is a buffoon, laying a big political trip on the
public." Even the Romer/Schoettler Process, a mediation forum trying to resolve
the A-LP dilemma for all parties, Remington calls a "waste of time" and they are
all on a "ship of fools."81
Needless to say, Sage Remington is a controversial figure who angers both
Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Councils. It seems clear that SUGO is
strictly on the margins of popularity amongst the Utes, though the Sierra Club's
Animas-La Plata Home Page on the World Wide Web frequently uses quotes from
SUGO members to claim that even the Indians don't want A-LP.82
Clement J. Frost, the current Chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribal
Council, upon hearing that Sage Remington would present SUGO's stance on A-LP
to a young impressionable audience at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the
Spring of 1997, wrote a letter to the audience to make a clear statement separating
the Tribe from SUGO.
"The misguided, inaccurate and non-factual allegations made by Sage
Douglas Eagle Remington and the SUGO group, and their so-called
alternatives to the Animas-La Plata Project, do a tremendous disservice to
both the Indian and non-Indian people of our communities in Southwestern
Frost reiterates that the Utes have been behind A-LP since 1966. Frost
shoots down SUGO's assertions that the Southern Utes are feeing shortage of
land for home sites and farms. The SUGO alternative which suggests buying land
and senior water rights along the Pine, Piedra, and Florida Rivers is non
productive. "The feet is, the Tribe does not need additional water on the Pine,
Piedra and Florida Rivers."84
Sage Remington has upset the Ute Mountain Utes as welL Earnest
House, former Tribal Chairman and member of the Dolores Water Conservancy
District, whose grandfather was Jack House, last traditional Tribal Chief, also
wrote a letter to the audience at the University of Colorado. "Mr. Remington does
not speak for the members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe or its elected leadership.
Mr. Remington betrays his responsibility and Ute blood by jeopardizing his family
and other members of the Ute Nation as to their future rights."85
Clearly SUGO's perspectives on A-LP are not well received in the Ute
Indian community. Nevertheless, their different perspective sheds light on modem
Indian values. Some Indians would rather have dollars in place of water projects.
In order to by-pass federal government long-promises, a few Indians would rather
purchase back former Indian lands and senior water rights. This perspective
assumes that such land and water rights are up for sale. It is a longing for local
autonomy combined with a long-seated mistrust of the US government to make
good on their promises for water.
Phase I of A-LP is mostly federal money. Phase II requires state funding
and voter approval Phase I would divert and store, but not deliver, long-overdue
water to the Ute Mountain Utes and Southern Ute Tribes. However, storage in
Ridges Basin Reservoir is just a stone's throw away from Southern Ute
Reservation property. But this still fuels the flames of Indians who feel cheated by
the whole A-LP proposal such as former SUGO leader Ray Frost: "We've been
Aim flammed. Where will we ever find $184 million to get the water to the
reservations? All of our water has to deal with the delivery system, and all our
water is in phase two, and we know phase two will never be built."86 Echoing
that sentiment is Linda Baker-Rhode, Southern Ute Tribe: "I feel like I've been
mislead, I feel like we've been misrepresented..."87
In the final analysis, the majority of Ute Indians are in favor of A-LP as a
means to a secure economic future. A small laction such as SUGO serves to
illustrate the complexity of modem Indian values toward nature. Not all Indians
agree on the best way to secure water rights on their reservation. Not all Indians
agree that federally sponsored large-scale irrigation projects are the answer to
future prosperity and economic independence of the Tribes.
Alternatives do exist including non-engineering tactics to establish
conservation, and increase tribal water power-marketing. This and other options
would minimize the need for new trans-basin diversions by emphasizing instead
water use efficiency measures and use of existing water supply systems. In
addition an option includes a down-scaled pumping plant on the Animas River, and
increased irrigation efficiency and supplemental pumping from nearby McPhee
Reservoir on the Dolores Project88 In October, 1995, the water resource
consulting firm Hydrosphere conducted an Animas -La Plata Alternatives Study.
The report explored a range of non-structural and structural solutions as an
alternative to a full scale build-out of the A-LP project These alternative solutions
meet Ute Tribal water rights as spelled out in the 1988 Settlement Act. It is
possible to fulfill the goals of A-LP of with a mixture of non-structuial and
structural alternatives.89 See Appendix p. 117 for details on Non-Structural
Summary of Modern I.and and Water Values
The unique complexity of the Animas -La Plata project is a grand prism
which splinters many modem values and attitudes toward the natural
environment In a nut shell one could conclude that A-LP is a tangled deal
between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Ute Indians with the EPA and other
environmental protectionists wedged in the middle, successfully stalling the
transaction. The wide range of modem values can be accurately distilled into four
A: The Wilderness Preservation Value: valuing nature as a place of spiritual and
ancestral culture. This category includes some, though not the majority of modem
Ute Indians. The Sierra Club and other affiliates are found in this category.
B: Wise Use-Conservation Value: utilizing resources wisely in the spirit of
Theodore Roosevelt The Bureau of Reclamation and other federal and state
agencies -with the exception of the EPA, foil under category B.
C: Pro-Development Value: short term immediate profit from real estate and
industrial development Developers looking to expand Durango's suburbs with
homes, offices, golf courses featuring exotic and thirsty landscaping all contained in
D: Eco-Business Value: preserve unspoiled nature for its scenic quality to sell to
tourists and recreationists. Local business's which rely on healthy scenery to
make their profit fell under this category.
These four categories are further explored after a look at Spanish
missionary use of water and natural resources. Underlying these four categories is
a power struggle between all the players trying to advance their interests. Once
again remembering Fradkin: "When it comes to distributing water in the West, it
has been the politically strong and aggressive who get it."
With the arrival the of the Spanish in the Southwest in the 16th-century,
water was used as a controlled resource. As a source of power over Indians, the
Spanish successfully manipulated water to their political and economic advantage
under the veil of converting "savages" to civilized people.
Spirituality has played a large role in the way historically water and land
have been used in the West When Christianity arrived with the Spanish in the
New World, its values toward nature were strikingly different than Native
American values. By examining the world of the Franciscans, Dominguez and
Escalante in particular, a historical model of water use is helpful to modem water
disputes such as A-LP. The Franciscan world view reminds us that earlier
Europeans were keenly interested in resource development, primarily water for
irrigation, in the Animas and La Plata River basins. As well, the Spanish were
involved in conflicts amongst themselves and with Indians over water use. The
Spanish legal system was effectively used to adjudicate water disputes amongst
individuals placing municipal needs above private ones. Although socially highly
stratified, the Franciscans in their mission towns in the Southwest fostered a
sense of community identity through aggressive water development
1 Final Supplement to the Final Environmental Impact Statement. April 1996, IH-71.
-PaddW Magirine. Dec. 1995.
3Paddler Magazine. Dec. 1995.
4Interview with Bill Roberts, Editorial Editor for The Durango Herald. Telephone
interview by Scott S. Allen, March 23, 1997.
sCentennial Nature Trail Guide, published by the City of Durango.
6Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Final Settlement Agreement was signed December 10,
1986. This Settlement Agreement was implemented by congress on November 3, 1988 as the
7 Duran go Herald. Aug. 4, 1995.
8Reisner, Cadillac Desert. 290.
11 Reisner, 292.
19FSFEIS, m-21, 26.
^FSFEIS, Vol. H p. 39.
24FSFEIS, Vol.np. 37.
^FSFEIS, Vol. D p. 37.
26 Empire Magazine in The Denver Post April 27, 1997, p. 20.
32Empire Magazine, The Denver Post April 27, 1997, p. 22.
39Evahiation of Colorado Ute Water Settlement 1990 by weQ known and respected
Washington DC. Indian law firm, Sonosky, Chambers & Sachse advised the Tribal Council,
'Tribe wiD receive a considerable better set of benefits than it could have received through
litigation. It is our opinion that the Tribe has negotiated a desirable settlement of its water
rights.' From letter to Eric Stein, April 15, 1997.
40Water Information Program sponsored by the Southwestern Water Conservancy District:
http://web.fron tier met/SCAN/wip
4-Richard Young, The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain rite Tribes in the Twentieth
Century. (Master's Thesis. University of Colorado, Denver, 1993), 249.
50FSEIS, April 1996
^-Letter to Eric Stein, April 15, 1997.
54 FSFEIS, m-116.
39Inchides: Ute Mountain Utes, So. Utes, Hopi and Navajo Nations based on 1990 Census in
Gearger Russel, Amwvjm Indian Dipper (Phoenix: Thunderbird Enterprises, 1995), 43.
64Tbe Denver Post April 27, 1997.
65Marc Reisner, Overtapped Oasis. (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1990), 45.
^Interview with Bill Roberts.
^Sierra Chib, 1997, web site for Animas-La Plata:
69Field observation by Scott S. Allen, March, 1997.
70Becky Rumsey, H ieh Country News. 1.
72 FSFEIS, 215.
73 FSFEIS. 224.
78Letter from Clement Frost to legal counsel Eric Stein and personal interview with Alice
Walker, March 3, 1997
79Frotn Sage Remington lecture, University of Colorado, Boulder. April IS, 1997.
8^See Animas-La Plata Home Page address in the Bibliography.
^Letter to Eric Stein from Clement J. Frost, April IS, 1997
86From the Animas -La Plata home page on the World Wide Web. Updated 8/15/96. See
bibliography for address.
88From the Animas -La Plata home page on the World Wide Web. See bibliography for
89H ydrosphere, October 8, 1995.
FRANCISCAN WORLD VIEW: TRACING EUROPEAN ATTITUDES
Spanish in the New World
In a short span of less than 40 years, from 1492 to 1530, the Spanish
explored the Caribbean, sailed along the eastern shores of North and South
America, located the Pacific Ocean, navigated the Gulf of Mexico, located the
mouth of the Mississippi River, landed in Florida and Conquered Mexico. Their
desire for wealth and opportunity brought them to the American continent and
Francisco Vasquez de Coronado to the American Southwest. To keep the
Spanish moving through their pueblos, Indians spoke of the seven rich cities of
Cibola lying to the north. Coronado found no gold but did see the Grand Canyon,
the Zuni Pueblo and the Plains region of the North America by 1540.
Juan de Onate was the most important of numerous explorers sent from
Mexico to occupy and settle New Mexico.1 By 1604 Onate did settle New
Mexico, making it an outpost for new expeditions traveling north into what was
identified as Ute land in Colorado and Utah.
By the 18th century Spanish explorers like J uan de Rivera were heading
into the Four Comers region and the Durango Valley in 1765, renaming mountains
and rivers and calculating natural resources for human settlement2 Following on
the heals of Rivera, the Spanish padres Fray Atanasio Dominguez and Fray
Silvestre Velez de Escalante traveled north from Santa Fe into Ute territory.
Crossing the Animas and La Plata River, Dominguez and Escalante made very
astute observations of these river basins which are currently on the minds of
nearly every Four Comers resident. Representing a Franciscan world view,
Dominguez and Escalante's perspectives of nature in 1776 is very pertinent to
modem water users in 1997, as will become evident
Spanish Views of Nature
Moving slower in a life of Bronze age practices, Native Americans
evolutionary pace changed once the knowledge of the Iron Age, smelted with
Christianity and material science crashed on their shores in Spanish Galleons.
When Columbus first bumped into the Caribbean, opening the gate for future
Spanish exploits in the Americas, he really was at the foot of another world.
Different weather, different flora and fauna, and strikingly different customs
greeted him. Yet Columbus is not changed by this marvelous journey, maintaining
a strictly utilitarian view of nature -as would befit any expedition funded by the
I have no doubt there must be many plants and trees which would
be valuable in Spain for tinctures and medicinal spices, but I am very sorry
to say that I am unfamiliar with them. 3
Here, Columbus displays at once his material, market driven attitude and a
blatant naivete toward the exotic wonders of the New World. The Spanish and
pursuing Europeans had much to be excited about. Their utilitarian stance above
the animal and plant kingdoms -ordained by God- spread the American Continent
out like a buffet, granting them a perverse privilege of all-you-can-eat.
Francisco Vasquez De Coronado in 1540 pushed deep into the American
Southwest where he recognized a similar landscape to his homeland. His journal
also highlights a very utilitarian view of nature -one of the hall marks, along with
the idea of progress, of European society.
J udging from what was seen of the borders of it, this country is very similar
to that of Spain in the varieties of vegetation and fruits. There are plums
like those of Castile, grapes, nuts, mulberries, oats, pennyroyal, wild
marjoram, and large quantities of flax, but this does not do them any good,
because they do not know how to use it.4
Coronado's quick judgment of the Indians demonstrates his view of nature:
it is no good if you don't use it Coronado has come from a denuded European
environment, where a utilitarian philosophy was rapidly consuming whole forests
for fuel in Coronado's time. It is estimated that an average European in 1500
consumed one ton of wood a year.5 Obviously Europeans had much to be excited
about upon viewing the vast stock of American natural resources.
Of course the Europeans didn't arrive completely empty handed. They were
very generous in serving up Christianity. In addition, they carried with them a
heinous bevy of ruinous diseases: smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, cholera,
typhoid, pleurisy, scarlet fever, diphtheria, influenza, gonorrhea, viral pneumonia,
malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, and alcoholism.6 These mostly invisible
exchanges were the most deadly, creating a natural chain reaction, a biological
warfare of unintended sabotage of early American, Aztec and Inca civilizations.
The native population of the Americas fell from 57 million to just over 6 million by
1680.7 Since the arrival of the Franciscan friars in the Southwest, only 17,000
Pueblo Indians remained by 1680, declining by more than half.8 More than by
mere brute force, the Europeans conquered the Americas by releasing deadly
pathogens on defenseless native immunities.
Hunting and Farming Practices
By the time Europeans made contact with North American tribes in the
16th century, most of the wild game back on the continent and especially in Great
Britain had been hunted into extinction, most notably the wolf and the bear.
European hunting practices were used for both food production and mere sport. It
was not uncommon for kings to literally clear the forest A single hunt in Europe,
in 1585, killed 1,532 wild boar.9 There was little concern for limits or worry of
extinction- perhaps a habitual short sightedness, but exploration had always
opened new hunting territory.
The conquerors of the New World found a paradise brimming with wild
game, many species unheard of in Europe. Father Alonso de Benavides records
his observations from New Mexico in 1630.
There seems to be an unlimited stock of game. The cottontails and jack
rabbits are countless, and the foxes, wolves, lions, wildcats and bears are
also very numerous.10
There are also many rivers containing a great abundance of fish...catfish,
trout, silvery chub, eel, shovel-nosed sturgeon, matalotas, suckers, gar pike
and many other kinds of fish.11
This "unlimited stock" and "great abundance" of fish and game was due in
large part to the tow, well dispersed population density but also to the respectful
approach to hunting undertaken by the North American tribes, who limited
slaughter and discouraged overkill. Ingrained in religious and ethical codes were
restrictions imposed to limit over consumption. In a society where the natural
world is sacred, taking life in order to feed a community was an intimate and ritual
task. Animals which provided great food supply, the deer and buffalo among
others were considered friends. Ojibwa people were known to cradle the head of
a dead animal in their hands while blowing tobacco smoke into its nostrils to
appease its understandable anger and loss, ending with a speech about the
regrettable necessity of destroying "friends" in order to subsist.12
Subsistence meant a combination of hunting and farming for both Europeans
and Indians. Farmers in western Europe, at their best, maintained the fertility of
the land by crop rotation, composting rich plant nutrients and livestock
excrement13 But this was by no means compensation for the crashing numbers
relying on a stressed agricultural system. Needless to say the Spanish were
rather excited about fresh American soiL Father Benavides boasted to the King
from New Mexico in his Memorial of 1630, perhaps exaggerating to refinance his
mission efforts, of the wonders of the American environment which had adapted to
European crops from irrigation:
All this land is extremely fertile and whatever is planted in it
produces a very abundant yield -com, wheat, kidney beans, lentils, chick-
peas, Lima beans, vetches, pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupes,
cucumbers, all kinds of vegetables, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, artichokes,
garlic, onions, prickly pears, pitahayas, very fine plums, apricots, peaches,
nuts, acorns, mulberries and many other things which I omit lest I seem
While Europeans by the 16th century were completely dependent upon the
labors of agriculture -which was subject to numerous crop failures, due to weather
and poor soil. Native Americans had the luxury of combining hunting and
gathering with a "shifting horticulture based on the com-beans-squash triad."15
This ideal arrangement was very energy efficient and conserved natural resources
in several ways impressing modem thinkers like Kirkpatric Sale and Carl Sauer to
claim agricultural superiority for the Indians despite their obvious lack of
In terms of domesticated animals, the Europeans held the advantage:
herds of cattle, oxen, sheep, goats, donkeys pigs, and of course the immense
power of the horse. With little more than the dog, the North American Indian had
done remarkably well in stretching natural resources and preventing overkilling of
An intimate knowledge of living in the balance with land was cultivated and
passed down orally from generation to generation for centuries providing
remarkably stable crop growth. Perhaps compensated for the lack of horse power,
Indian people were endowed with an extremely useful and varied grain -com.
With this wonder crop native people in North America developed specialized
forming techniques -evidence of their views of nature.
One such technique was called "three sister" forming, where com stalks
were used as a trellis on which would grow beans and squash. The squash acted
as a mulch for the other two "sisters" and became a moisture retaining ground
cover.17 Coronado observed the Pueblo Indians at Zuni in 1540 living off a diet of
com beans and squash. Coronado understood that the Zuni worshipped water as
a god, "because it makes the maize grow and sustains their life."18
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca discovered on his remarkable journey (1528-
36), totally immersed in Indian culture, the survival-use of prickly pears: "These
are a fruit of the size of eggs, red and black and taste very good. For three
months they subsist upon them exclusively, eating nothing else."19 This ability to
sustain themselves in desolate environments -when needed eating only seasonal
plants, is a tribute to Indian adaptability.
Of course Europeans were adaptable as well. Coping with over-crowding
in Europe, explorers sought new worlds and an opportunity for progress and
material wealth. The momentum of progress that spread out from Western Europe
has given reason to pause for modem thinkers like Kirkpatric Sale. "This
separation from the natural world, this estrangement from the realm of the wild, I
think, exists in no other complex culture on earth." In Sale's view Europeans have
created an expanding, disturbing western society with "frightening distance
between...the deep silent rhythms of the world and the deep recurrent rhythms of
the body."20 While this may indeed be true, the "frightening distance" between
human and natural world allowed for an amazing, though abstract, management of
the most precious liquid in the desert: water. Abstract reasoning allowed
Europeans to codify, exploit and efficiently manage natural resources, rapidly
accelerating the change begun to North American ecosystems in modest ways by
Indians. Though Indians certainly had oral agreements between tribes and
recognition of tribal hunting and camping grounds, infractions often met with war,
the Spanish arrived with books of written laws, privileging the literate and
maximizing land use at a rate never seen before in the Southwest.
The Spanish crown in the 18th century became acutely preoccupied with
defending the territory of New Mexico. Two-thirds of the world's silver was being
extracted from the mines of Northern Mexico in the provinces of Nueva Galicia,
Nueva Vizcaya and Nuevo Leon. These mines kept the Spanish empire solvent
and its security was threatened by raiding bands of Indians on horseback
interrupting orderly trade and communication between the northern provinces of
New Spain.21 In addition, Spain was feeling international competition for land in
the New World. The end of the French and Indian War of 1763, granted Spain the
entire trans-Mississippi West and the English inherited everything to the east.
Now Spain and England were face to face in North America. As Spain felt the
encroachment of the English to the East, a Russian threat from the north, in
Alaska and the Northwest meant trappers speaking Russian were approaching
California. Spain's reaction to these threats and its attempt to retighten control
over its new world colonies was subsumed under the effort of the Bourbon
By 1759 Spain's empire was sagging. As King Charles the HI took the
throne he faced decreasing revenues from the Americas and decreasing export
volumes in the trans-Atlantic trade. Charles HI gathered with ministers to help
revive and restore Spain's international prominence. The result was the Bourbon
Reforms, a strict series of economic, administrative, political and military
restructuring. The reforms sought to recolonize Spanish America by increasing
taxation, industrialization, and communication by colonizing marginal areas of the
empire, fortifying defenses and removing special status and privilege from the
Church, the nobility, and the common sheep herder. In 1768 Charles in dispatched
the Royal Corps of Engineers to investigate re fortification of the northern frontier
of New Spain (New Mexico, Southern Colorado) and establish new east-west
links within the provinces. These lines of trade and communication were vital to
security from both Indians and other foreign nations. The official report of the
Fiscal Officer of New Spain's treasury in 1789, recommended a new line of
transport and communication from Santa Fe to Monterey:
Commerce between California and New Mexico will facilitate the export of
their goods and their grain, will contribute to population increase in that
area and will protect them from insults and the enemy ready to invade.22
Within the context of the Bourbon Reforms Father Dominguez teamed up
with Father Escalante and set out to explore a northern, overland route to
Monterey and to survey native populations for potential missions in Colorado and
Utah. This was seen as yet another tactic to establish Spanish presence in its
poorly fortified northern frontier.
On July 4, 1776, while the founding fathers of the United States were
signing the Declaration of Independence, fathers from another nation were busy
preparing for a small, humble expedition in what would become -72 years later-
the United State's western back yard. In the middle of summer heat in Santa Fe,
Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante, were
granted permission from Mexico City to blaze a trail north and west to the
Franciscan missions of Monterey, California. Treading on native ground the
Spaniard's eyes were toward the sky; toward the heavens and the lost souls they
could save and to the stars to literally guide them through a savage and arid
geography.23 Unbeknownst to them, these Spanish padres would traverse some of
the driest land in North America as they wandered by sextant, compass, and
Indian guides through the heart of the Colorado Plateau.
Keeping a prodigious journal, Dominguez and Escalante's primary goal was
to establish a trade route to the missions of California, making initial contact with
potential converts. But any expedition funded by the Spanish Crown had more
objectives than mere evangelism. The myth of El Dorado, the seven cities of
Cibola died hard. Gold, silver and valuable land was also important in securing
Spain's fir northern frontier from neighboring nations. Diligently Dominguez and
Escalante noted in their journal from July to December, 1776, possible mining
ventures and, more importantly, the potential for fruitful settlement. Obviously
the single most important factor in choosing a settlement in the desert is a reliable
source of water and Dominguez and Escalante were quite detailed in their journal
about this precious commodity.
By retracing the steps of the famous Spanish fathers in 1997 -221 years
later it is fascinating to see how their predictions for irrigated settlements, and
utilitarian views of nature as a resource radiate patterns still relevant today.
Dominguez and Escalante were by no means the first ones to explore the
Southwest Juan Maria de Rivera headed at least two expeditions into
Southwestern Colorado. Sent by the governor of New Spain to check on reports of
silver mines, he went north in 1761 or 1765. He kept a journal of his travels which
contained important landmarks useful to Dominguez and Escalante on their
expedition in 1776. In feet they carried the Rivera journal with them, retracing his
steps for the first month of the journey.24 Two of the members of the Dommguez-
Escalante party, Don Joaquin Lain and Andre Muniz had accompanied Rivera on
his earlier travels into Colorado and Utah.
Stopped by hostile Native Americans, who were irritated by repeated
evangelism, Father Garces sent a letter from his journey into Arizona east to the
mission at Zuni, New Mexico relating the situation of "obstinate Hopis." This
letter eventually reached Dominguez in Santa Fe, confirming his strategy to travel
north to avoid the Hopis and explore instead the land of the Utes. The Ute Indians
however, generally enjoyed good relations with the Spanish who called them
"Querechos" -buffelo eaters. Father Dominguez reports from Abiqui, New
Mexico, in 1776 that the Utes came to trade for horses laden with excellent
deerskins, willing to pay 15 -20 skins for a quality horse. The Utes also brought
deer or buffelo meat to trade for maize or com flour. l-ike their Commanche
neighbors, the Utes also sold captive Indian slaves to the Spaniards.25
Trade between the Spanish and the Utes centered around Taos. Items
included meat, hides, tallow, suet, salt were transported by dogs before the
adoption of the horse. Utes trade for cotton blankets, pottery, com and small green
stones, and later horses.
Spanish officials had to guard themselves against any possible alliance
between the Pueblo Indians and the Utes or other Plains tribes since those tribes
were constantly disrupting the Spaniard's control of and arrangements with the
Pueblo Indians.26 The period of 1640 to Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was generally
peaceful between Utes and Spanish. The Utes became a stronger group to reckon
with once they used the horse, this encouraged the Spanish to present a peace
treaty to the Utes by the 1670's. It was the first treaty made by Europeans with
the Utes.27 The Southern Ute bands did not join in the Pueblo revolt of 1680
because of this treaty.28 During the 12 years of Spanish absence, Utes raided the
Pueblos and other Indians and by 1692 upon Spanish return, the Utes had gained
great respect amongst the other tribes. The Spanish also held the Utes in great
respect, with the resecuring of Northern New Mexico under Spanish rule, Don
Diego de Vargas immediately renewed contact with the Utes, inviting them to
Santa Fe to trade as they had done prior to the revolt. Despite Spanish absence
and the Pueblo revolt, the 1670 peace treaty with the Utes remained intact well
into the 1700's.29
From 1700 to 1750 relations among the Utes, Comanches, Apaches and
Spanish were "confused, shifting from warfare to alliance and back again."30 By
1750 peace with the Spanish was established after several years of fighting
between Utes and Commanches and Utes and Spanish. The Utes cooperated,
realizing they needed the trade in horses that the Spanish provided.31 The Spanish
wanted soft deerskins from the Utes and also wanted to trap for beavers and other
fur bearing animas in the numerous rivers of the Ute domain 32 Spanish interests
in the land of Cibola and its potential wealth continued as did the need to
strengthen the northern border in accordance with the Bourbon Reforms. Finally,
locating a land route to the new capitol of California, Monterey from Santa Fe, put
Spaniards deep into Ute territory.
Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776
Against this background of former Indian revolts, newly instituted Bourbon
Reforms, and reports of "obstinate Hopis" to the west, Dominguez and Escalante
headed north into the land of the Utes following, at the beginning, the route taken
by Rivera in 1765. Leaving the central plaza in Santa Fe, humbly, they traveled
"without noise of arms." Members of the 10 man expedition included the senior
leader of the expedition, Fray Atanasio Dominguez -bom in Mexico City and 36
years old at the time of departure. Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante was the co-
leader of the expedition and scribe for the daily notes from which the diary was
later constructed. He was about 25 years old, native of Spain and in 1775 was the
Franciscan missionary in charge of the Zuni pueblo which granted him considerable
experience with both the Zuni and Hopi tribes. like Garces, Escalante had a few
harrowing encounters with Hopi "devil worshipping." Andre Muniz was the chief
guide and interpreter of mixed Hispanic and Indian descent He had traveled
among the Utes a year before the expedition. Don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco,
in his mid fifties, was the famous cartographer and astronomer who was a former
army captain in Spain and held numerous civil and military posts throughout New
Spain's Northern frontier. His maps served as the standard for the Colorado
Plateau until replaced by U. S. Geologic surveys in the mid nineteenth century.
The rest of the expedition crew consisted of six other men ranging from 20 to 60
years of age.
In brief, the expedition left Santa Fe in July and traveled north into the
south west comer of Colorado, up the Dolores river, over the Uncompahgre
Plateau, into the Gunnison River basin, north to Delta, over Grand Mesa, Crossed
the Colorado River and headed due west into Utah. They made it as for west as
Salt lake (Lake of the Timapanganos). By October their plans for Monterey were
abandoned and they traveled south through central Utah to return to Santa Fe.
They avoided the Grand Canyon, crossing the Colorado at Glen Canyon. Reaching
Oriabi by November, the padres pushed east to return home to New Mexico on
January 2, 1777, completing their more than a thousand mile journey.
When viewed as a template, the Dominguez and Escalante expedition
crisscrosses an incredible number of modem water diversion projects, totaling 20
with the most notable being Glen Canyon Dam, the most current and controversial,
the Animas-La Plata. As the first Anglo-Europeans, the Franciscans trek survey
the driest lands that in less than 200 years would become the scene for the world's
largest dam and river projects.
As they traveled north the two padres carried their Franciscan world view
which shaped how they perceived the land of the Ute Indians. As educated men of
the Enlightenment, Dominguez and Escalante's faculties of reason were tuned to
the betterment of humanity. Their blind ambition and positive belief in the
righteousness of their expedition surely sustained them during the rough and
tumble seven months of their desert journey. Their Franciscan world view had
already been shaped by their contemporaries in the New World who had been
viewing nature as a resource to be tapped. The land they traversed was not
scenery, it was raw possibility. The Franciscan's minds were seized by
the topography for future growth, their eyes wide for clues in the land for the
successful expansion of the Spanish Crown and the Kingdom of Christianity. Their
ideal of civilization was a sedentary, agricultural life, not a nomadic wandering like
the Utes they encountered. Channeling water resources to directly assist their
ideal was a foregone conclusion.
Searching the landscape, the Franciscans looked for clues as to the scarcity
or abundance of water. Their eyes had been trained to see water in terms of
irrigation ditches. Their perception of river depth, size and vigor were shaped by
the context of irrigated farming as they were accustomed to at the missions. They
were the front runners of western real estate developers, eye balling the parched
land for a way to squeeze in a mission town: in their eyes not for personal profit
but for the good of the church and the forward progress of a Christian civilization.
The Spanish were always scouting for land suitable for settlement and
were amazed by what they saw. Compared with exhausted resources back in
Europe, America offered fresh ingredients for settlers. Moving north out of Santa
Fe towards the Animas-La Plata basins, Fathers Dominguez and Escalante
carried a copy of the 1765 Rivera journal with them, and were well aware of the
scarcity of water in the region they had just embarked: "The waters of the river
(Chama) are very good, although not ample...the waters wane into sterility some
years and even disappear in the severity of dry years."33 Even Rivera was used
to seeing wild rivers in terms of resource. Dotted throughout his expedition
journal Rivera noted: "...there flows an amount of water equal to an average major
Using the Rivera journal as a guide through the early portion of their own
expedition, Dominguez and Escalante described in detail what they valued about
this new land:
August 7, 1776
Here it has a very large meadow, which we named San Antonio, of very
good land for forming with the help of irrigation, together with all the rest
that a settlement requires by way of firewood, stone, timber, and pastures
-and all close by.35
Today, this same area is a parcel of irrigated crop land close to the San Juan
River near Carracas, Colorado. Even in 1776 it was recognized that irrigation
would play a key role in developing the great American desert The following
passages from the Dommguez-Escalante Journal illustrate not only the West's
arid climate but also the aggressive need to make the most of natural resources
needed to sustain life.
August 2, 1776
Where the latter begins, and below a small mesa, there is a small spring of
perennial flow; however, for the horse herds to drink even a little of it, it
will be necessary to dig waterholesJ36
August 3, 1776
The river's meadow is about a league long from north to south, good land for
farming, with the help of irrigation', it produces a great deal of good flax and
abundant pasturage. There are also the other prospects which a settlement
requires for its founding and maintenance. Here it has a good grove of
The Spanish padres made note of water sources for their horses, but also with an
eye on the future: "These lakes with the valley mentioned are very suitable for
raising large and small livestock.38 Of course, modem readers must be alert to the
intentions of the padres. Dominguez and Escalante were funded by the Crown
and intended to establish new missions on the royal bank rolL Their journal
notations could indeed have been written as grant proposals to continue royal
financing of the Franciscan effort.
These journal entries were made in the early days of the expedition as it
crossed New Mexico in Southwestern Colorado, the very same region where the
Animas-La Plata project sits on hold today. Today our modem communities rely
heavily on irrigation systems to support agriculture as well as municipal needs.
Over two hundred years ago, as the padres entered the Animas River
valley they described the river that is today making headlines. These descriptions
pay tribute to the strength of this wild flowing river. Rivera spent the whole day
crossing the Animas River which in Spanish means, animated, excited, vigorous
and powerful.39 July 5, 1765: "We spent the whole day crossing the river because
of the width and slope, since it came up over the saddlehom of the horses."40
Here we have recorded for the first time European contact with the
infamous Animas River. A river that would in due time be one of the last to be
considered as a dam and diversion site. For the Spanish padres it was not a site
for recreation. If it was a site of spiritual inspiration it was not noted. We can
only conclude that the crossing of the Animas River in the late 18th century was a
calculated a flair, where direction, size and volume were recorded for future readers
to understand the river's potential as a resource.
Dominguez and Escalante:
August 9, 1776:
We went down a rocky and not too lengthy incline and arrived at El Rio de
Las Animas, near the western point of La Sierra de la Plata where it has its
origin. We crossed it and halted on the opposite side. It is as large as El
Norte, and now carried somewhat more water and with greater rapidity,
because here its currents, which run from north to south, have a steeper
frill, and it flows like the foregoing ones into the Navajo. Through here it
runs through a box channel, but farther down it is said to have good
meadows. There is no good pasturage here, but there is some a little
The Animas-La Plata River project is a knot of tangled interests -each
strand with its legal status -where water law can be used as leverage to further
one's interests. Two hundred years ago the Spanish made the most of their
meager water supplies by implementing a flexible yet for reaching legal system.
Spanish Water Law
The Spanish viewed natural resources such as water as a commodity that
could be codified and split into many sub categories for bureaucratic control and
management The Spanish legal system reveals its inherent values toward nature.
An amalgam of Roman, Germanic and Moorish law, the Spanish legal system of
the 17th century reflects an empire coming to grips with post-conquest acquisition
of a New World many times greater than the size of Europe. Relations between
New World Indians and Spanish and Creole settlers as well as legal rights to
natural resources, produced literally hundreds of thousands of royal
pronouncements concerning legal matters in the New World.42 It soon became
obvious to the Crown that a systematic approach was necessary. The result was
the four volume Recopilacion de leyes de los reynos de las lndias or the Law of the
Indies published in 168143
The founding ordinance for the town of Pitic (or Hermosillo), Sonora is
considered the most revealing water document on the 18th century in northern
New Spain.44 In article 6 of the Plan de Pitic, it is made explicit that water is to be
shared by both Indians and Non-Indians. "Its pastures, woodlands, waters,
hunting grounds, fishing areas, quarries, fruit trees, and other things it produces
shall be for the common benefit of Spaniards and Indians."45 Ethnicity was not to
be an issue.
In such an arid climate, water disputes were to be expected. Conflicts
thrived amongst Spanish interests at odds with each other. Missions against
presidios, settlement towns against mining towns, municipalities against
individuals, and, of course, Spaniards against Indians. However, a well conceived
legal doctrines were very helpful in resolving conflicts by way of compromise. The
Spanish legal system made use of seven criteria for adjudicating water fights: 1)
possession of as just title to the land or water, 2) Prior use -not an absolute
concept overshadowing the other criteria; 3) Need; 4) Injury to a third party, 5)
Intent; 6) legal right of municipal over the individual, and 7) Doctrine of equity and
the common good. A simple matter of digging an irrigation ditch across land to a
farm plot, in theory, had to pass all seven criteria. The doctrine of equity and the
common good protected Spaniards and Indians alike. The Spanish legal system
was not simply based on prior-use. Prior use was merely one element of seven
that a water judge used in settling a water dispute. 46
When a new Spanish town, presidio, or mission was established, even
though Indians were generally guaranteed a percentage of the water supply, this
share was routinely reduced by legal and illegal means.47 This situation was the
result of Spain's dual agenda: convert Indians and afford them due protection as
wards of the Crown but at the same time exploit New World natural resources to
fuel an expanding empire.48 Water conflicts naturally occurred between Indians
and Spaniards, often between large powerful Spanish hacendados and neighboring
Indian tribes, but also resulted from competing water interests of Spanish towns,
presidios, missions and small landholders. Unlike modern times, water conflict did
not arise due to population growth. Native populations declined rapidly in the
decades after Spanish conquest and compensated for the arrival of new Spaniards
and mestizos. Rather, water conflict arose from demographic and economic
changes. Concentrated populations in towns and missions forced new water use
practices that frequently resulted in conflicts with Indians.
With the arrival of the Spanish, irrigated agriculture came to dominate the
natural environment more than previously. However, it was not irrigation alone
that intensified water use in the Southwest. Spanish livestock greatly increased
demands on water.49 Cattle for example, far outnumbered people in some
regions. Over-grazing increased aridity in the delicate topsoil increasing the
desertifcation process and even prompted sporadic water shortages in some
areas.50 New economic ventures such as mining, also strained water resources.
Even a medium sized Spanish mining operation used more water than a half a
dozen towns or missions.51 Additionally, new technologies brought by the
Spanish such as gristmills were powered by water and placed new uses on water
reserves as they increased in popularity throughout New Spain in the 18th century.
Having dealt with matters of arid land holding on the Iberian peninsula, the
early Spanish land grants in Mexico did not as a matter of course contain water
rights.52 Spanish water law made clear distinctions between private and public
water rights. Land, water and mineral wealth were all apart of the royal domain.
Water on Crown lands in New Spain could be used by the public without special
permission for these purposes: drinking, bathing, recreation, watering
domesticated animals.53 In New Spain there existed no riparian rights for
agricultural or industrial uses. A piece of river front property entitled the owner to
domestic water rights only. But, ground water originating on a piece of land did
become the private property of the owner. Ground water was protected by
Spanish water law as a source of individual free enterprise.54 Surface water
however was the balancing point since it was protected by law as common
property to be used by all to benefit the whole community. This unique balance
was the keystone to Spanish water law. "Spanish water law...was an ingenious
system that provided the moral mechanism for bridging the gap between the self
interest of the individual and the larger concerns of society."55
It wasnt until the second half of the sixteenth century that Spanish
interests turned toward land acquisitions.56 From the 1520's to the 1540's Spain
was mostly interested in exploiting Mexico for its native treasure, gold and silver
mining and making use of Indian labor. Spain turned to land acquisition once the
native population plummeted from European disease, leaving open previously
occupied land. The Spanish used their legal system to secure control of these
lands. Coupled with the Spanish-European concept of private property, first
recognized in the Spanish judicial system in 1265,57 Spaniards authorized by the
Crown began to resettle Indian lands. Where native populations still lived, the
Crown created a congregation policy, moving Indians into new communities for
conversion. This process opened up even more valuable land, often with a ready
supply of water. But the congregation policy was so abused that King Philip n
stopped it in 1560.58
Another aspect of Spanish legal force in acquiring land was the decision to
allow certain individuals the power to make land grants to settlers. By 1523,
Heman Cortez possessed this power as governor to New Spain.59 Soon
afterwards, other local authorities such as viceroys, governors, and mayors were
given the same privilege. Even individual presidio commanders in the Southwest
were given the power to grant land to new colonists and established settlers who
wanted more land. This policy, which flexibly dispersed power from the Crown to
local agents, greatly expedited the granting of land to Spanish legacy. Land in the
New World quickly became private property to be passed on to Spanish heirs.
But, private property did not automatically entitle the owner to exclusive water
rights. The community was still above the individual
As Spain established permanent settlement in North America it did so with
great background experience in dry land farming, irrigation technology and water-
use management that regulated not only water supplies but also people and power
relationships. As Spaniards established towns, garrisons and missions, water
control became the central issue in the arid Southwest Spanish missions became
unique institutions that embarked on conversion though catechism and other
trappings of European culture such as extensive irrigation of Old World crops.
Missions: Agriculture and Irrigation Systems
Sometimes referred as "Conquistadors of the Spirit," Spanish missionaries
played an important role in applying irrigation technology to the arid climate of the
Southwest The Franciscans were a part of the powerful economic and
bureaucratic structure of the state and church which supported them in their efforts
to accompany explorers, set up missions and peacefully convert and keep Indians
on the side of Christianity. Although it was the intention of Dominguez and
Escalante to convert the Utes and create a string of missions along the northern
rim of the Spanish empire, the Crown did not follow through on the padre's advice.
The Utes escaped the crush of a Christian civilization for another hundred years.
With the exception of California, the Franciscan missions foiled to advance
Spain's Northern frontier, and eventually became less strategic than presidios or
forts in terms of Indian defense. Missions, however, remain a historian's
sanctuary for studying Spanish-Indian relations and how the two groups valued
and used the natural environment The Missions in New Mexico were vital
locations not only for conversion but also as schools to teach the native converts
how to husband European domestic animals such as horses, sheep, goats, pigs,
and chickens. Christian doctrine and social behavior were closely tied for the
Spanish which necessitated teaching Indians how to dress, cook, eat walk and
talk like Spaniards.60 Missionaries also taught how to irrigate and cultivate
European crops and introduced new iron technologies such as wheels, saws, nails,
planes chisels and spikes.61
Often tiroes the need to secure adequate water supply came before the
construction of the mission church.62 In fact, building a community acequia,
teaching the Indians how make a "beautiful irrigation ditch," was frequently first on
the agenda for the Franciscans.63 Postponed until completion of the acequia were
houses, public edifices and churches.
Construction of community acequias demanded intensive labor. The
missionaries needed the help of the local Indians in order to complete their vital
project As a result ditch digging and dredging became a community wide effort
placing Indians and Spaniards together in a labor-management position.64
The Acequia, or community ditch was the most prevalent feature of Spanish
irrigation in New Mexico and is still in use in rural areas today.65 Settlers had to
exert tremendous effort in order to build an acequia and so planning a ditch was no
small matter. Diversion dams and acequias were only partially modeled after
those in Spain and Mexico.66 Settlers, and missionaries generally lacked adequate
surveying equipment, heavy tools and the requisite engineering skills resulting in
simpler and less efficient irrigation systems than those found in the Old World.
Most importantly, obstructions in the desert were commonplace: boulders, small
hills and trees all had to be contoured around.
Once a stream was located as suitable to divert with a wing of stones, or
optimally a mason dam, the large ditch, the acequia madre, was typically built
about two to four miles above farmlands. Gravity did its work allowing water to
flow from the main ditch to smaller ditches and eventually to laterals leading
directly to the fields.
The collective manpower needed to construct the acequias required brute
labor and intelligence. Indians and settlers provided the labor. Often the mission
father, being the most educated man in the area, improvised as hydro-engineer.
The men used primitive hoes and wooden shovels when iron tools were not
available as dirt was excavated on rawhides pulled by oxen 67 The work was
excruciatingly slow in order to construct an average acequia madre of two to six
feet deep and up to five yards wide.68
Clearly the missionaries went to great lengths to get water to their meager
fields. Of course the Pueblo Indians and other settled tribes in the Rio Grande
Valley had previous irrigation experience. Many of the community irrigation
customs of the Pueblos were compatible with Spanish customs.69 These were
allowed to continue in accordance with the laws of the Recopilacion which provided
that ancient Indian culture should be maintained and respected.70 Spanish
practices such as labor organization under a community elected mayordomo and
techniques of dam and acequia construction were eventually adopted by the
Because of the high instance of water disputes, Spanish towns needed
special water judges to adjudicate water rights. The titles of these special judges
varied: some were called comisionados, some alcaldes de agua, others jueces de
agua or mandadores.12 Under different names their duties were singular to
silence water fights. In Indian towns the Indian governor acted as the water judge.
The role of these various water judges was to order strict rotations for water
usage as the mayordomo or ditch boss implemented and enforced the official
orders. 73 During water shortages and droughts, the mayordomo had the rough job
of setting up water-use schedules. In 1731, mayordomo Juan Estevan Rebolledo
was ordered to: "divide up the available water by turns, giving first one user, and
then another, a fixed period of time so that everyone will have the chance to
irrigate his fields."74 Often the schedules required setting up rotation on twenty-
four hour basis, having farmers draw lots to see who had to irrigate in the middle of
the night! 75
Violations where frequent and the mayordomos duty was to report the
infraction to the water judge who would render a decision, often a fine. In smaller
towns the mayordomo was the only water official and would settle disputes and
fine violators accordingly.
The acequia association was often the only informal government agency
small towns had. Every year the irrigators would meet to elect their own
mayordomo and set a salary for his duties. Sometimes the mayordomo was the
only official in small villages and therefore enjoyed the prestige and recognition
which often went beyond regulation of the local water supply.76
The acequia madre, or mother ditch was considered common property, built
by the community. It was the mayordomo who was responsible for its annual
maintenance and repair as well as for its equitable distribution. The mayordomo
also collected the use fees from the individual irrigators. In settling disputes the
mayordomo had to manage fairly the diverse interests of the acequia association.
Association interests might include more than just farmers irrigating crops but also
the watering of livestock, laundering clothes, operating mills, and for sewage and
garbage disposal. Clearly disputes would surface since not all of these uses are
compatible with one another. Careless upstream users could easily pollute their
downstream neighbors with human excrement, kitchen and bath wastes and small
dead animals which might contaminate the community acequia. Ordinances were
repeatedly issued to combat these various infractions which were more
pronounced in larger towns and villages. But even livestock grazing and trampling
the banks of the acequia was a recurring problem for colonial irrigators and
required mediation by either special water judges when available or my the many-
La fatiga, was the aptly named term for annual spring cleaning and
maintenance of the acequia madre. This community wide activity was the
responsibility of the mayordomo. The process included removing debris and silt
from ditch channels, repairing erosion damage to side walls and banks. Widening
and deepening of the acequia brought the most complaints from the labor crew.
Most acequias were common property of the town and so all persons who had
enjoyed its benefits were mandated to participate in La fatiga. (Contrasted to
modem times where ditch companies are contracted to clean and repair, acequia
associations directly involved the community with the scarcity and demands of
their water system.) Labor hours were pro-rated for each individual according to
number of hours each irrigator was entitled to water.78 Wealthy land owners
could opt to hire others to do their ditch duty for them, but were still required to
contribute in the form of equipment, horses and wagons.79
Even with their prior experiences in extensive dry land forming, the Spanish
met their match in the American Southwest It was no easy battle establishing
permanent irrigation systems in New Mexico, but rather a rough and tumble game
of survival between the humans and the ever changing and responding natural
desert environment Spanish irrigated agriculture was subject to droughts, leaks,
floods, locusts, and poor labor relations. Some missions did better than others.
Father Dominguez provides a remarkable first hand account of 18th century New
Mexico frontier life in his 1776 Missions of New Mexico. The picture that is left
by Father Dominguez is a mission system struggling not only under a waning
Spanish Empire but also the extreme heat of forming in a parched desert landscape
where nature is predictably unforgiving. In his report on Zuni, Dominguez
This pueblo has no river, but an anoyo which flows only in a very rain
season or when snows melt And when this does not occur, they open a
number of wells in it, some of which have good water and others, bad. In
this way I indicate the great labor necessary for the building of church and
convent lor, water being scarce, the difficulties may be imagined.80
Not all the missions enjoyed irrigation. Some, like the one in Pecos was
dependent on rain and in drought years experienced a very low crop yield.
Indicating the recent drought Father Dominguez noted: "as a result what few
crops there usually are do not last from the previous October, and hence these
miserable wretches (Indians] are tossed about like a ball in the hands of
fortune."81 Acequias were indeed shared by all in accordance with Spanish water
law. Dominguez noted in the mission of San Juan, "they are irrigated by a ditch
common to settlers and Indians."82 Father Dominguez conveys his cultural
values that favor hard work, individual initiative and progress as he reports from
the mission at Abiqui: "The lands are extremely fertile, but their owners, the
Indians are sterile in their labor and cultivation, so they do not yield what they
might with attention, and as a result so little is harvested that the Indians are
Another problem of colonial water use in the missions of New Mexico was
fair use. It seems the situation is much as it is today: upstream users hold an
advantage over downstream users. In his report on the Villa of Santa Fe, which
Dominguez found lacking in splendor compared to Mexico City, he indicates the
age-old problem of location of a water supply:
...and although it carries enough water to be called a river, it is not
overabundant Indeed, it is usually insufficient and at the best season for
irrigating the farms, because there are many of them it does not reach the
lower ones, for the first being higher up, keep bleeding it off with irrigation
ditches, and only in a very rainy year is there enough water for all84
To all who rely on water in the desert, it becomes the life-blood of a
community. It is fitting that the Spanish named a minor ditch off a main, a
sangria,85 Blood and water go hand in hand. This is quite evident in 1776 at the
pueblo of San Ddefonso: "...the Nambe River, which is very scanty by the time it
reaches these parts, because everyone located beyond Nambe bleeds it, as is
understood, and when it dries up, there are hardships for those of these lands."86
When the weather cooperated and the harvest was plentiful in the orchards
which provided pears, grapes, peaches it must have seemed like a paradise. This
provides modern readers with a glimpse of the fruits of future of large-scale
irrigation projects. "They are watered by the said river through very deep, wide
irrigation ditches, reports Dominguez from CochitL, "and they yield such good and
abundant crops..."87Finally, Father Dominguez indicates the scale of mission
"Some of their lands are good, some better, some mediocre. They are
watered by the said river though very wide, deep irrigation ditches, so
much so that there are little beam bridges to cross them. The crops taken
from them at harvest time are many, good, and everything sown in them
Father Dominguez' report on the missions of New Mexico paint a picture of
widely scattered success on the Spanish frontier. Irrigation was taking hold -in
some cases merely extending and accelerating native techniques of dry land
forming already in place. Ecosystems were changing as Spanish values mixed but
never blended with Indian values of the natural world. Spain continued to explore
the deepest, driest regions of the North American desert By the middle of the
18th century Spain was over committed. The New World settlements were
stretching the Crown's financial resources too for. In terms of government control,
Madrid was a very long way from Mexico City. A restructuring of institutions was
necessary to maintain Spain's position in the New World's ever-changing political
From 1520 to 1821 the Spanish Empire stretched out over two huge
continents. The success of the northern settlements around Santa Fe and
throughout the coast of California required an assertive approach to taming what
nature had to offer. In the driest areas modified hydrologic engineering, which
Spain had developed with Moorish influence throughout the centuries on the
Iberian peninsula, was applied to the desert Southwest. The mission institution
was an agency of conversion which preached the values of European civilization.
Those values included irrigated agriculture to produce water-exotic crops such as
watermelons, peaches, and grapes. The mission also taught animal husbandry and
demonstrated water use needs for horses, cattle and sheep.
Spanish water law segmented the natural world into categories for more
efficient management and control, balancing private and public interests. The
community acequia was the keystone to Spanish frontier living, bringing Indians
and non-Indians together under the ideal bettering of both.
With the arrival of the Spanish, irrigated agriculture came to dominate the
natural environment more than previously. However, it was not irrigation alone
that intensified water use in the Southwest. Spanish livestock greatly increased
demands on water.89 Cattle for example, for outnumbered people in some
regions. Over-grazing increased aridity in the delicate topsoil increasing the
desertifcation process and even prompting sporadic water shortages in some