|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
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'
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
equipment lies dormant on farmland just south of
Wildcat Canyon. Long Hollow opponents
allege that the reservoir is an attempt to add
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.