To say that the Animas-La Plata (A-LP) Project faced a multitude of political and regulatory challenges and setbacks throughout its planning and construction is an understatement. In the nearly 60 years from the A-LP’s planning authorization in 1956 to the completion of construction in 2013, Congress passed both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, each adding time and complexity to the already-large project. Changing support for federal investment in water projects in general and in irrigation in particular had a major effect on the A-LP.
Congress authorized the construction of the A-LP in the Colorado River Basin Project Act of September 30, 1968. The original vision of the project was large in scope—2 dams, 7 pumping plants, and 200 miles of canals and pipelines—to serve both agricultural and municipal interests in southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico.
Over the following decade, economic, political, and environmental changes challenged the development of the project. But by the mid-1980s, the project gained new life in the Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement. Proponents of the settlement viewed the construction of the A-LP as a path toward meeting the water supply needs of the Southern Ute Indian and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribes. Under the leadership of thenCongressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the A-LP was incorporated into the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act of 1987.
Despite the recharacterization of the project and the necessary authorization, the project struggled for another decade. Environmental groups argued that the needs of the Ute tribes could be met via other means, and Congress renewed its debate over the benefits and costs of the overall project. Those debates forged a leaner A-LP: the total elimination of irrigation, a far-less-developed water supply, a smaller offstream reservoir, a pumping plant, and an inlet conduit. Finally, with the passage of the Colorado Ute Settlement Act Amendments The Role of Archaeology in the Development of One of the Last Reclamation Reservoirs in 2000, Congress authorized the Bureau of Reclamation to implement and complete the revised project, and Reclamation in turn officially began construction in 2001.
Rick Gold, former Reclamation Durango office manager and subsequently the Upper Colorado regional director, described the feeling within Reclamation at the time the project plan was modified. “During that time, we at Reclamation pursued myriad issues and worked on moving the project forward so that the water supply for Colorado, New Mexico, and the tribes could be developed.”
The Requirements of History
One of the unique and significant challenges the project faced was the mitigation effort needed to gain compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 and to reckon with the scope and weight of southwestern Colorado’s history and cultural resources.
The NHPA was intended to ensure the preservation of historic sites by requiring completion of an impact analysis on the proposed construction grounds. The proposed A-LP Project site was situated in a “rich archaeological region, particularly for prehistoric ancestral Puebloan, or Anasazi sites,” according to Alex Wesson, senior project manager and archaeologist for SWCA Environmental Consultants and an archeologist on the A-LP Project. The discovery and preservation process for the A-LP Project would be a major component of its permitting process.
Anticipated project impacts to over 70 archaeological sites were mitigated through a multiyear archaeological data recovery program. Alex Wesson described the complexity of the archaeological mitigation program for the project, which “involved carefully digging in layers, screening all the dirt, capturing all the small pieces of bones or pottery, documenting all the artifacts, analyzing the findings in the laboratory, making detailed maps of what was discovered, and using all that information to write a report . . . [then] curating and preserving the artifacts in perpetuity. This process was very time consuming because it involved multiple stages.”
Although the initial analysis started in the 1970s, changes in archaeological practices and technology sparked a reexamination of the reservoir site area in 2005 that did not conclude until 2008. During the process, archeologists collected numerous artifacts and examined human remains at the sites. According to Mr. Wesson, this led to “additional consultation with over 20 tribes and pueblos every time human remains were found . . . to coordinate the final resting place for the remains.”
For projects that inevitably have to complete an archeological survey and possibly evaluation and mitigation efforts to become compliant with a regulation, Mr. Wesson recommended that the best action is to “start the process early, rather than waiting.” He asserted that “factoring in consultation and preservation after the design phase . . . will lead to more costs and delays from redesigning the project.” Completing the necessary studies as soon as practical allows for projects to be built to protect the historic value of the area and will prevent frequent changes.
Whether a project is seeking a 408 permit or pursuing mitigation efforts to accommodate an endangered species, the story of the A-LP’s regulatory process highlights the importance of beginning communications with the necessary regulatory bodies and starting the process as soon as possible. These efforts will help to ensure that project plans can be developed with certainty and stakeholder expectations can be met in a timely manner.
Mr. Gold provided insight into the challenge the frequent adjustments posed for the project team. “The project kept changing. It went from being a task of building a multipurpose agricultural and municipal and industrial project under 1968 authority and law to the management of all of the social, political, environmental, and financial challenges to ensure the resulting reformulated project is completed successfully and in compliance with 21st century law and policy.”
Today, after nearly 50 years, the A-LP has been completed, but Mr. Gold acknowledges some stakeholder concerns with the reduced size of the resulting project. “A lot of people ask, ‘We were promised a much bigger and broader project, and that is all we are going to get?’ That is a difficult thing for those project water users to come to grips with, particularly when it takes 50 years to complete.”
From that initial 1968 authorization going forward, the attitude in the United States changed toward new environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, and new priorities were established for federal investment in water. The AL-P was a project caught in the transition. The development of water storage facilities, particularly those seeking federal financing, is a difficult and timeconsuming process. Keeping the foundational assumptions constant enough for long enough to complete the complex planning, environmental, financial, and construction processes is difficult. It takes continuous communication and coordination with a broad range of stakeholders and interested entities.