Options to pump Animas River water to Redmesa for irrigation were recently floated to the Southwestern Water Conservation District, though none of the projects have funding.
The proposals would pump water uphill from the Lake Nighthorse intake to Redmesa Reservoir, east of the La Plata River and about four miles north of the New Mexico border.
“The 700-foot elevation difference is the reason it hasn’t been done, and demand is the reason it won’t go away,” said Steve Harris, a water engineer who designed the projects. “Taylor Reservoir is an attempt to better use what little water is out there, but we’re still short-changed.”
Under the 1922 La Plata River Compact, the state is required to send half of the La Plata River’s flow from Hesperus, when it is discharging at 100 cubic feet per second or less, to New Mexico. But hot summers, peak irrigation season and subsequent low flows can prevent Colorado from fulfilling this obligation.
The Bobby K. Taylor Reservoir, just south of Redmesa, was designed to allow Colorado water users to divert water that would otherwise flow to New Mexico. Harris’ designs would offer another means of getting water to La Plata County’s Dryside.
But some circles protest the idea of pumping water uphill, calling it a backdoor route to fulfilling the full scope of the Animas-La Plata Project.
“SWCD’s exploration of new schemes to dewater the Animas River is alarming due to environmental, financial and climate change concerns,” said Jimbo Buickerood, public lands coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, on behalf of the group. “As Congress previously determined, the proposal to pump water uphill for almost 1,000 feet to grow hay was not in the public interest. That is still true today.”
The Animas-La Plata Project received congressional authorization in 1968 to supply water from the Animas and La Plata rivers to the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, Navajo farmers and Dryside farmers. But in 2000, Congress approved a significantly downsized version of the project – which removed the irrigation component so that the project’s water could satisfy only municipal and industrial uses.
The same argument was made over the construction of Long Hollow, or Taylor, Reservoir, which drew the ire of a group opposed to the Animas-La Plata Project called the Citizens’ Progressive Alliance. It took issue with the fact that Taylor Reservoir was built with $15 million out of a $30 million state fund initially set aside in the mid-1980s to pay for a portion of the Animas-La Plata Project, before it was decided that federal taxpayers would foot the bill.
Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said he disagreed with the perception that the original Animas-La Plata Project design is being piecemealed via smaller scale projects.
“When the project was downscaled, we and La Plata users had to look at alternatives to meet needs and demand,” Whitehead said. “This is not a means to implement the original project at all, and nothing precludes looking at the possibility of federal funds.”
He added that it is not unusual to strike agreements to carry water using federal facilities, and that the most likely scenario for putting Southwestern’s water rights to use will be to divert water to existing irrigated lands.
The proposals vary in construction and operational costs and size.
One would pump 14 cfs from the Lake Nighthorse intake to Redmesa Reservoir, discharging at points along the way including at Long Hollow Reservoir. The cost of construction is estimated at $43.5 million. Another proposal, which would cost about $430 million to build, would pump 287 cfs through larger pipelines. This project would require new infrastructure because the 287 cfs would exceed existing infrastructure’s capacity.A third proposal would pump 14 cfs directly from the Animas River to Redmesa Reservoir for a construction cost of $58.5 million.Whitehead said it would be premature to name a preferred design, or say how a future project might be funded.
“The important thing with all of them is that they all show there are benefits, and it comes down to refining them and seeing who would potentially partner with us.”