U.S. may face lawsuit for opposing water bill Ute tribal leaders threaten action over alleged broken promise


WASHINGTON -- In a move that Ute tribal leaders say may force them to sue the federal government for their water rights, the Clinton administration announced strong opposition yesterday to a water settlement bill for southern Colorado and northern New Mexico and called for the measure to be rewritten.

"I, as chairman of the Southern Ute Tribe, will climb upon my war pony and spread to all the Indian nations across the country that the administration has broken its promise," said Clement Frost, chairman of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, one of the two tribes involved in the settlement.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican, said that until yesterday, the administration had supported the bill, which would have resolved water rights issues remaining from an 1868 treaty with the Ute tribes. The plan to divert the Animas and La Plata Rivers in southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico has been the subject of numerous bills over the past 30 years.

"This is our last time to sit down and negotiate -- we've gone as far as we can go," Frost said. "We'll go to court if we need to. We don't have anything else to give up."

Campbell, who blasted the administration for "back-stabbing" and "pulling the rug out from under the tribes," said the administration's opposition effectively kills the legislation.

"I've encouraged the tribes that maybe they should go back to court and sue," said Campbell, who had co-written the bill with Sen. Wayne Allard, another Colorado Republican. "It's going to be long, litigious and expensive for the taxpayer."

Campbell's bill, the Colorado Ute Settlement Act Amendments of 1998, would build a reservoir and pumping plant on the Animas River near Durango, Colo., along with other features for municipal and industrial water supplies, to serve Ute tribes and other communities in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

The scaled-down version of Animas-La Plata -- known as "Animas La Plata Lite" -- would cost approximately $300 million, far less than the $754 million project Congress approved in 1988. But environmental groups have attacked the plan as just the first step in an attempt to reinstate the original, larger plan.

Steven Richardson, director of policy for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the administration had three concerns: that the current plan lacks a mechanism to deliver water to the tribes, that the bill waives environmental laws, and that the bill waives a law that would require the tribes to pay for the parts of the plan that don't affect their land.

Richardson, who refused to say whether President Clinton would veto the bill if it were passed by Congress, said the administration plans to release an alternative package this summer.

A lawsuit by the Ute tribes would put into question many issues of water rights in southwest Colorado, said Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton.

"Such litigation would involve virtually all water users in the Animas and La Plata basins, take many years of trial and appeals, cost millions of federal, state, and local taxpayer dollars, and undo decades of cooperation between Indians and non-Indians in southwest Colorado," Norton said.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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