“Water is life,” said Selwyn Whiteskunk, Ute Mountain Ute elder, tribal councilor, and longtime water expert. He spoke at the Sept. 21 workshop, “Water Connections: Adaptation from our forests to our deserts,” hosted by the Southwestern Water Conservation District and the Four Corners Water Center at Fort Lewis College.
“Water is for fighting” seems to encapsulate the Anglo-American approach to this precious resource. The institutional response to mitigate such conflict is the system of prior appropriation: “First in use, first in right.” Native Americans, of course, were first in use on this land, but early treaties that codified those rights were ignored for a century.
To settle water rights for the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute tribes here, Congress funded the Animas La-Plata Project that created Lake Nighthorse. A-LP has a complex history nearly as long as that of the “fighting” adage. It finally allocated most of the stored water for use by the two Ute tribes, but not funding for delivering water to either. This created a daunting access challenge for the Ute Mountain Utes, the center of whose reservation lies beyond Mesa Verde. A-LP water also has been purchased by the city of Durango, the La Plata Archuleta Water District, the La Plata West Water Authority and the Lake Durango Water Authority.
For Durango, accessing Lake Nighthorse water would be a critical hedge against drought. Consequently, the city included developing its “available water supply resources” in the 2018 update of La Plata County’s Local Hazard Mitigation Plan. (Having such a plan in place is a prerequisite for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)
The infrastructure to access that water is a highlight of the city’s new Water System Master Plan, which will be reviewed by the Durango City Council in the next few weeks. The plan calls for delivery of Lake Nighthorse water to the College Mesa Water Treatment Plant, among other system improvements. An engineering study in 2022 to refine cost estimates for delivery of Lake Nighthorse water to College Mesa is the logical next step.
To economize on these expensive infrastructure investments, the city and LAPLAWD are discussing possible joint funding. In addition, LPWWA, partnering with LDWA, began delivering residential water via Lake Durango to the Dry Side of the county in 2020.
Such collaboration must also occur in the larger context of the Colorado River Basin. The current regime for allocating diminishing river flow expires in 2026. Unfortunately, the underlying Colorado River Compact of 1922 allocates a volume greater than the 20th century average; projected flows under climate change are even less. Falling water levels in Lake Mead in the current drought prompted declaration in August of the first ever curtailment of downstream water rights, beginning in 2022. Few doubt that the future holds further restrictions that will affect everyone.
A collaborative interstate agreement to reallocate the Colorado River’s diminishing bounty beyond 2026 surely will include increased conservation. Contributions must come from the basin’s 40 million people (including those outside the basin who receive water by trans-mountain diversions) and its 3.5 million acres of cropland. As discussed at the FLC meeting, improved forest management may contribute by protecting the water that Mother Nature delivers to the “water towers” in the mountains every year.
Climate change and extended drought are the backdrop for all these actions in the 21st century West. The theme of the FLC water meeting was adaptation. Whiteskunk stressed that adapting is what his people have always done. He also emphasized the understanding that in our region today, the path to successful adaptation is collaboration, so that we all have sufficient access to the water that sustains life.