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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

A Lifetime Project

The Late Sam Maynes Fought Ferociously Throughout His Storied Career

By Russell Martin

Legendary water attorney Sam Maynes absolutely hated to lose, he always was quick to confess to friends and colleagues: something that goes a good distance toward explaining why the Durango lawyer who died in July was so successful during his remarkable and oftentimes controversial 46-year career.

Over the course of nearly half a century, Maynes's foremost and longest fight—one that earned him reputations in various quarters as either a tireless water champion or a stealthy backroom operator—was his battle for the hugely controversial Animas-La Plata Project, the $500 million Bureau of Reclamation venture in southwestern Colorado scheduled for completion in 2011.

In the decades following its 1968 authorization by Congress, Animas-La Plata repeatedly stalled and occasionally appeared utterly dead in its tracks, but time after time, Maynes successfully mustered small armies of colleagues in the Four Corners region, Denver, and Washington, D.C. to revive it, revamp it, and move it forward—tenacious efforts that finally culminated when actual construction of the project began in 2002. This was an event Maynes long had dreamed of and one he lived to see, a battle the pugnacious Irish-Italian with a quick smile ultimately won, many observers believe, largely because he fought for it so tenaciously.

Frank E. ‘Sam’ Maynes was born in 1933 beside the Animas River in the high-mountain town of Silverton, fifty miles north of Durango, where his father labored as a hard-rock miner. In 1949, the Maynes family moved downriver to Durango, where soon he was mucking-out the Silver Dollar Bar—in which his father had become a partner—each morning before classes at Durango High School. Two years later, he was off to Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where he played football and basketball—rather fiercely by all accounts, in part, no doubt, to make up for his small size—and studied economics. When the after-effects of a severe concussion he had suffered during a football practice were enough to keep him out of the Marines, Maynes enrolled instead in the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder. There he met Jacqueline Stahl, who was working toward a teaching degree and who would become his wife and ‘angel’ until her death from complications of multiple sclerosis, a disease she endured throughout much of their 45-year marriage.

Except for a year the newlyweds spent in El Paso, Texas, Maynes spent his entire professional career in Durango, where he quickly made something of a name for himself defending an itinerant carnival worker charged with savagely beating a popular young hairdresser. Although townspeople were eager to see the carnie pay severely for his crime, Maynes succeeded in getting the charges against him dropped on a technicality: the district attorney had neglected to list the victim as a witness to the crime. ‘People around town thought I was terrible,’ Maynes often remembered rather proudly, and he was convinced the case helped cement early on his reputation as a lawyer who could find every conceivable loophole to help secure a successful outcome for those he represented.

By the late 1960s, Maynes had assured Jacqueline that he would make an effort to practice as little criminal law as possible. Despite the fact that at the time he knew little about water law, he soon acquired an important new client--the Southwestern Water Conservation District. The young lawyer who by now had four children to support proved to be a quick study, and beginning in 1965, he dove deep into the world of water law in ways that astounded his colleagues.

In 1965, the only thing Maynes knew about water, joked his longtime friend and colleague Fred Kroeger—who has served on the board of the conservation district since Maynes became its counsel—was that water was essential for the taking of showers, for swimming, and mixing with bourbon. Yet there was something about the arcane world of absolute decrees, direct-flow rights, and prior appropriation that quickly fascinated him.

‘With water in this part of the world,’ he explained, ‘it became clear to me that there was an awful lot to lose and an awful lot to gain.’
On his first trips to Washington, D.C., lobbying Congress in support of the proposed Animas La-Plata Project on behalf of the Southwestern Water Conservation District—Maynes renewed acquaintances with Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Leonard Burch, a former high school basketball opponent. Each man had been a talented and aggressive athlete in his youth; each encountered something substantial and very likable in the other, and before long they formed a fraternal bond that endured for the rest of their lives.

Burch pressed the tribal council to name Maynes its general counsel, and it did so in 1968, the same year that Congress authorized the Animas-La Plata and a series of other massive water storage projects throughout the West. As it was then proposed, the ALP would deliver municipal water to communities in both Colorado and New Mexico, as well as agricultural irrigation water to the region's non-Indian farmers. About a third of the project's total water supply was slated go to two Ute tribes—the Southern Utes and the neighboring Ute Mountain Utes. But Maynes soon began work to secure even more water for the tribes—water rights they claimed the federal government granted them back in the nineteenth century.

It was Maynes's innovative and determined water advocacy on behalf of Colorado's two Ute tribes that, in the end, made him both deeply revered and sometimes reviled in the Four Corners region and beyond. And it was far from surprising—to his friends and detractors alike—that Maynes ultimately found a way to serve both his Native American and water-district clients at the same time.

The Animas-La Plata's first substantial set-backs came in 1977 when the Carter administration suspended its construction along with a number of other Western water projects whose estimated cost-benefit ratios appeared to make them poor public-works investments. Yet by the end of the 1980s, ALP still survived on the drawing board, in largest part due to Maynes's legal and lobbying efforts, together with his insistence that construction of the ALP could lead to the settlement of the Utes' water rights claims.

Maynes shrewdly proposed that the two Ute tribes would agree to end their ominous federal lawsuit—one filed by Maynes himself and which, if successful could have claimed much of southwestern Colorado's water—if local interests and the federal government would agree to allocate to the two tribes the lion's share of the water in the Animas-La Plata Project. With the steadfast support of Ben Nighthorse Campbell, then a U.S.

Representative from Colorado's Third Congressional District, Maynes led the ultimately successful battle that resulted in the passage of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act of 1988, officially incorporating settlement of the tribes' longstanding water rights claims into construction of the Animas-La Plata project.

Although throughout the 1990s the project remained stalled by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion claiming its construction would endanger the Colorado pikeminnow—as well as a series of suits filed by the Sierra Club, the Durango-based Taxpayers for the Animas River and Citizens Progressive Alliance citing its environmental and economic costs—the project remained stubbornly alive. And Maynes himself began to joke that the acronym ALP increasingly seemed to stand for ‘A Lifetime Project.’

‘The Animas-La Plata never would have reached the construction phase without Sam—and without his partnership and deep friendship with Leonard Burch,’ said Lynn Herkenhoff, administrative assistant for the Southwestern Water Conservation District. ‘He knew all the players, and he knew how to play with them all.’ ‘Quite simply,’ agreed Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, whom Maynes had helped mentor early in his career, ‘Sam was one of the handful of 'deans' of water law and water politics. . . . He was a small-town practitioner with a statewide and national reputation.’

Sixteen months before his death from cancer, construction of a much scaled-down Animas-La Plata project finally commenced. The project no longer included any water for agricultural irrigation and was a fraction of its originally proposed size, but Maynes relished the triumph nonetheless. ‘My dad liked to say that he was a lousy loser, but a damn-good winner,’ his son Sam W. Maynes, now a partner in his father's firm, remembered. ‘He was a fighter and he fought for the Utes and for Animas La-Plata with everything he had. He saw the beginning of its construction as a huge victory. For himself; for everyone he cared about.’

For nearly forty years, Maynes devoted virtually all his professional time to the water districts and tribes he represented, and although he created bitter opponents along the way, he amassed legions of devoted friends as well—people who, in remembering him, speak foremost about his robust sense of humor, his wonderful storytelling skills, his deep dedication to his family, to his particular part of the world, and to his clients. ‘My dad was the most generous person I've ever known,’ his son affirmed. ‘I never knew anyone more persuasive, or anyone who made friends more easily.’

The future of southwestern Colorado and of the people of Southern and Ute Mountain Ute tribes have been dramatically shaped by this miner's son who skills and determination never to lose made him legendary from Durango to Washington, D.C. Remembered by many as one of those larger-than-life characters who come along only rarely, he was the kind of person who, in retrospect, seemed destined to cut a wide and consequential swath through the decades given to him.

‘I can't imagine the world without Sam Maynes,’ Herkenhoff offered on the day her dear friend's full life came to a close.

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