Salazar pulled into reservoir debate
Democratic nominee accused of ‘backroom dealings’ in Long Hollow plan

The La Plata River trickles southwest of Durango earlier this week. The small waterway frequently fails to supply New Mexico with a required quantity of water. The controversial Long Hollow reservoir has been proposed to help./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

A big name is being pulled into the storm of controversy circling a new reservoir proposed near Durango. Ken Salazar, Colorado Attorney General and the newly nominated Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, has been accused of inside dealings on Long Hollow Reservoir. The project is planned for La Plata County's "Dry Side" and has met with strong resistance.

According to plans, Long Hollow Reservoir would be a relatively small body of water just north of the Colorado/New Mexico border. It has been pitched by the La Plata Water Conservancy District as a way of satisfying the La Plata River Compact, which was drawn up between Colorado and New Mexico in 1922. According to the compact, half the flow of the La Plata River must be delivered across the state line for New Mexico's use. Sometimes the compact is effective. Often it is not, particularly during summer months when agricultural use and temperatures are both at their yearly highs.

The La Plata Water Conservancy District has worked since 1994 to help fulfill Colorado's end of the bargain. Currently, the district has its eye on Long Hollow, a tributary of the La Plata River located just south of the town of Red Mesa and 4 miles north of the New Mexico border. The reservoir that is being proposed would inundate roughly 160 acres and be a relatively minor 5,432 acre-feet in size.

At one point in Long Hollow's history, it was tied to the larger Animas-La Plata project, but was eliminated when A-LP was scaled down. Without the Animas River as a water source, the "Dry Side" reservoir would rely on groundwater collected from natural precipitation as well as irrigation return flows. The plan started making its way through the Army Corps of Engineers' Water Quality Certification process late last year and immediately drew heated opposition.

"After putting out the public notice, we received numerous comments and we had concerns of our own," said Kara Hellige, chief of the Corps' Durango office.

Charges have been aired that the irrigation returns will negatively impact La Plata River water quality and downstream fisheries and not adequately fulfill the compact. Among its biggest skeptics is its supposed beneficiary, the State of New Mexico. "There are numerous concerns," Hellige added. "We have requested something along the lines of an operational plan so we can know what all the impacts are."

Meanwhile, one of Long Hollow's biggest critics has not been asleep at the wheel. The Citizens' Progressive Alliance has long accused the project of being a dirty deal. Now, the group claims that Colorado Attorney General and senatorial candidate Ken Salazar has been involved in backroom dealings.

Irrigation equipment lies dormant on farmland just south of Wildcat Canyon. Long Hollow opponents allege that the reservoir is an attempt to add development value to this relatively arid farmland./Photo
by Todd Newcomer.

On July 22, Citizens' Progressive Alliance filed a Colorado Open Records Act request with Salazar's office. The request turned up substantial legal involvement by the attorney general in the Long Hollow application. However, Salazar's office also elected to deny the Citizens' Progressive Alliance access to more than 50 documents and correspondences citing attorney client privilege. When contacted, Ken Lane, deputy attorney general, said that members of staff in the know were unavailable. Consequently, the office was unable to comment on Salazar's involvement in Long Hollow.

On the other hand, Phil Doe, Citizens' Progressive Alliance chair, openly accused Salazar of giving free legal advice to the La Plata Water Conservancy District and questioned how the conservancy district can be considered a client. "Salazar is supposed to be protecting the public interest, and he appears to be protecting the interests of the 88 landowners and water users in the La Plata River drainage," Doe said. "He's using public money to advise this water district. Why should the attorney general's office be helping these guys out when it knows that the river is already over-appropriated."

Doe added that of the 88 landowners, State Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, owns the most acreage and has political ties with Salazar. With this in mind, Doe charged that Salazar appears to be pulling strings in Isgar's favor. "Salazar should be protecting the public interest," he said. "He's protecting the interests of his friends as far as we can tell."

Doe concluded, "This has all the earmarks of corruption. Everything you look at in this effort is against the common good."

In terms of other violations of the "common good," Citizens' Progressive Alliance alleges that the project will cheat Colorado taxpayers out of millions of dollars and provide a back door to resurrect the full scope of the Animas-La Plata project.

"I think the whole history of this is a backroom deal to make the La Plata whole again after they cut the irrigation side of the Animas-La Plata project," said Doe.

According to the Citizens' Progressive Alliance, the backroom dealings began in 1986, when the State of Colorado set aside $30 million to cover its share of A-LP. However, in 1999, the full costs of A-LP were transferred to federal taxpayers. That $30 million was never repaid to Colorado, and $15 million of that sum was awarded outright to the La Plata Water Conservancy District for the Long Hollow project.

"Eighty-eight landowners in the La Plata River drainage are getting a $15 million gift," Doe concluded. "They're not going to give up on this. They've got $15 million of the public's money, and they're not giving it back."

In spite of opposition, the La Plata Water Conservancy District is not giving up on the Long Hollow project. Because of the district's inability to meet specific Army Corps' deadlines, the application is currently considered to be "withdrawn" from the certification process. However, Long Hollow is merely on the back burner, according to Hellige, and the district is continuing to work on making it a reality.





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