A-LP Lite grows porker

Skeptical citizens peppered Bureau of Reclamation officials with questions about the ballooning costs of the Animas-La Plata Project at a meeting Dec. 19 in Durango.

“Isn’t lying to Congress a criminal activity?” asked Michael Black of Taxpayers for the Animas River, a nonprofit advocacy group. Black, a longtime foe of the controversial dam project, accused the bureau of “low-balling” construction costs in the 1999 estimates presented to Congress and then trying to blame the cost overruns on the Ute Mountain Utes.

But Bill Rinne, deputy commissioner for the bureau, said that while the agency “failed to rigorously review” original cost estimates, “we haven’t found anything that said anyone was lying to Congress.”

Sixty to 70 people, many of them clearly opposed to the project, turned out for the daytime meeting. Officials promised that future meetings would take place during the evenings, when more people could attend.

A-LP, which is a scaled-down version of a massive project first proposed in the 1960s, is designed to satisfy water-rights claims for the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute tribes under a 1988 settlement.

A plant to be built on the Animas River will pump water uphill to a 120,000-acre-foot reservoir in Ridges Basin. An average annual depletion of 57,100 acre-feet from the river is allowed. The Animas-La Plata and Southwestern water districts in La Plata County and another district in San Juan County, N.M., will also receive some water, as will the Navajo Nation.

The project got the go-ahead from Congress in 2000, at which time it was estimated to cost $338 million. That figure came from the Ute Mountain Utes, who had contracted with a Chicago firm to calculate the cost.

Construction began in spring 2003. In July 2003, BuRec did an updated cost estimate and announced that the price tag had swollen to $500 million. The announcement prompted an explosion of criticism as well as calls for probes into the reasons behind the burgeoning costs.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton asked for a review, and the bureau completed that report in November. The Dec. 19 meeting was designed so officials could answer questions about the report. It was not a public hearing, explained Barry Wirth, BuRec public-affairs officer.

Rinne said the reasons the 1999 estimate was inaccurate were:

  • It was incomplete because of errors and was designed at an “appraisal level” rather than a “feasibility level.”
  • BuRec failed to conduct a rigorous and meticulous review of the estimate. “When we had the ’99 cost estimate going into the (final) EIS (environmental impact statement), we did not conduct as rigorous a review as we should have,” Rinne said.
  • Some costs have increased since the authorization in 2000, including costs of relocating a gas pipeline and moving County Road 211, and additional security required after 9/11.
  • The bureau failed to include fully the costs associated with the Indian Self-Determination Act, which requires that Indian tribes have first right of refusal on contracts involving work done on reservations. That meant that the Ute Mountain Utes’ Weeminuche Construction was able to win a contract for the construction work without a bidding process.

In response to the cost overruns, Rinne said, the bureau has reconfigured its project construction committee and put Rick Ehat, project construction engineer, in charge of all aspects of construction management. The longtime project manager, Pat Schumacher, was removed from that position in December.

But attendees at the meeting voiced doubts about the bureau’s measures.

“Where’s the public on the project construction committee?” demanded Sage Remington of the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization, which opposes A-LP. “Where were the water conservation districts in all this? They are just as liable for this fiasco as you guys and if they have extra millions of dollars they should contribute to the cost overruns.”

Remington added that he was “tired of hearing you guys be contrite.”

Phil Doe of the Citizens Progressive Alliance, another project foe, also asked about accountability to the public. “Why have there been secret meetings when those people (the project’s stakeholders, such as the water conservation districts) don’t pay over 3 percent of the costs?” he asked.

“There were not secret meetings that I’m aware of,” Rinne replied.

Project proponents were criticized for an Aug. 14 meeting in Ignacio that included representatives of the two Colorado water districts, which are subject to state open-meetings laws. The group, which also included tribal officials, lobbyists and state officials, was discussing the cost overruns.

Critics said the meeting was not announced to the public or the press, although officials with the Animas-La Plata water district said they had announced it. The meeting was reportedly tape-recorded, but A-LP district officials said the recording was blank because of a malfunction.

At the meeting, other audience members asked how the cost overruns will directly affect the project and whether the price tag will go up even more.

“We’re confident we can build this for $500 million,” Ehat responded.

Rick Gold, regional director with the bureau, said the funding comes year by year, not in a lump sum, so the overall total doesn’t matter as much. “Congress did not say, ‘You must stay within this limit.’ The budget process is done on an annual basis.” What the overruns mean, he said, is that there will be some “stretch” in how long it will take the project to be completed. Instead of finishing in 2007, it may not be done until 2008 or later.

“The only cost increase now is supposed to be inflation,” Gold said. “It’s our ardent hope that that will happen. That’s the only increase we anticipate.”

Project proponents had sought $58 million in funding for Fiscal Year 2004 but received $47 million. Gold said that doesn’t mean Congress is souring on A-LP, it’s just a result of “under-financing” by legislators.

“I don’t think anything that’s happened here has impacted the resolve of the Department of the Interior, Congress or the president to move forward with this project,” Gold said.

Howard Richards, chair of the Southern Ute tribe, likewise said the project won’t be derailed at this point, though he said he was “deeply concerned” about the cost overruns.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “It’s going to proceed.”

For information on A-LP, go to www.usbr.gov/uc and click on A-LP Project. Wirth can be contacted at (801) 524-3774, or by e-mail at bwirth@uc.usbr.gov. For environmental concerns, call Harold Jensen, environmental specialist, at (970) 385-6589.

From January 2004.