— By Lisa Meerts —

The Daily Times

DURANGO, Colo. — Once the winter freeze softens next year, Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP) workers will lay the 2.1-mile pipeline that will eventually feed Lake Nighthorse 120,000 acre-feet of water.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday it awarded the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe's Weiminuche Construction Authority the $17.6 million contract to build the inlet conduit, or pipeline. Construction should begin in the spring and finish in 2009.

"(People) should be able to spot our work as it climbs up the mountain," said Rick Ehat, A-LP project construction engineer. "But then, when we're done, it'll all be restored and it'll be difficult to tell where it is."

Work on the A-LP project began in 2002. The dam stands 157 feet high, and at 73 percent completion Ehat said freezing temperatures will prevent any more labor work this year. About 44 percent of the entire project, expected to be finished in 2012, is complete.

Construction of the pump station and reservoir will fulfill the requirements of the 1988 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act and the Colorado Ute Settlement Act Amendment of 2000. It will pipe water from the Animas River into a reservoir roughly the size of Vallecito Reservoir and release it back into the river through a creek bed. Several parties, including the Southern Utes, Ute Mountain Utes and the Navajo Nation, will control the water rights.

The A-LP project inspired quarrels among environmentalists, ranchers, American Indians and more. Some complained the reservoir would ruin habitat of local wildlife. Others said it was too large in its original form and eventually the project was scaled back in size.

Doug Hendrix, a public affairs specialist with the Upper Colorado Regional office of the Bureau of Reclamation, said water from the Animas River will be pumped into the reservoir only when the river has high enough flows. One example would likely be during spring runoff, when the river often reaches its highest annual peak.

Ehat said the pumping plant, located south of Santa Rita Park in Durango, is 62 percent complete. The units may be tested starting in the fall of 2008. He added when the inlet conduit is complete, they will push water uphill into the reservoir.

The A-LP project should cost an estimated $552 million. Even as the cost for materials rise, the project remains under budget, said Ehat. It also remains on schedule, and should continue to be so as long as U.S. Congress continues to grant the necessary appropriations.

The 2007 fiscal year budget has not yet been passed and the project has instead been given extensions, said Ehat. He expects the next Congress will be asked to pass the budget and that extensions will be given until that point.

Lisa Meerts: lmeerts@daily-times.com.