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Animas-La Plata, from Western Colorado Congress

Review by Ed Quillen

Water – July 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Animas-La Plata
A video from Western Colorado Congress
P.O. Box 2461
Durango CO 81302

Perhaps I should start again with the disclaimer that “we don’t usually review videos here, but…”

However, I suspect that in the future, we will review videos here quite often. Production equipment and skills are now available at our “grassroots” level, and video has become another way to put a message before the public.

This one is not entertainment, nor really a documentary. It’s a piece of advocacy like a book or long magazine article that attempts to inform and persuade. As society in general becomes more visual and less literate, it’s only natural that public discourse will take the same route. I might not like it, but I’ve got to deal with it.

The topic is the Animas-La Plata water project, which directly concerns the Four Corners region, not Central Colorado. But the issues — trans-basin diversions, free-flowing rivers, recreation, agriculture — are pretty much the same as those that surround our water controversies: Elephant Rock in Chaffee County, Son of AWDI in Saguache County, Union Park in Gunnison County, Aurora Water Bank in Park County, etc.

Animas-La Plata (A-LP) would divert water from the Animas River near Durango and transport the water to the La Plata drainage.

One rationale for A-LP is that the United States is required by treaty to deliver water to the Southern Ute reservation near Ignacio. Thus Colorado politicians who routinely attack federal pork-barrel spending find A-LP a worthy exception.

However, plans call for construction in two stages, and the Utes would get no water from the first stage. There’s no guarantee that a second stage will ever be built, and the Southern Utes are divided.

The project is big, complicated, and expensive. Water would have to be pumped up more than 400 feet from the Animas River to a storage reservoir, and further pumping would be required to distribute it in the La Plata drainage. This means a new coal-fired power plant to provide the electricity for the pumping.

Farmers downstream on the Animas worry that they will lose their water to farmers on the La Plata, and La Plata farmers worry that they won’t be able to pay for the water.

Animas-La Plata provides a simple overview of the project, as well as interviews with a variety of opponents who question its costs — for every dollar spent, the project will return only 36 cents in benefits, they say, and even if construction were free, the project would still lose money on account of its electric bills.

The narrator’s tone is dispassionate, moving from engineer to farmer to Ute to recreationist after a brief explanation of the project. The presentation is straightforward with few graphic effects.

My problem with A-LP is that I know dozens of opponents, and most are people I like and respect. I’m skeptical about water projects in general these days — there was a time when they may have served the public at an acceptable cost, but all the cheap and easy stuff, from the Grand River Canal to the Hoover Dam, has already been built.

So I know the “anti” side pretty well. But I’d like to understand what’s behind the “pro” side. Animas-La Plata would have been more useful if it had explored the other side, the way a good documentary would.

Even so, it’s an easy introduction to a complex topic. –Ed Quillen