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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

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise

By Dan MacArthur

An old tribal legend holds that a Ute chief once stood in the San Juan Mountains and proclaimed that all lands touched by the water belonged to his people.

And although the Utes would never be able reclaim their once vast homeland touched by these waters, many generations later in the 1990s, the Ute Mountain Utes did finally succeed in bringing irrigated agriculture and a clean, reliable source of domestic water to their reservation in southwestern Colorado. That water was a long time coming.

The Ute Mountain Utes, also known as the Weeminuche or ‘people who keep the old ways,’ are one of seven individual bands within the Ute Nation.

Their reservation covers a total of some 933 square miles primarily in Colorado, with smaller portions in New Mexico and Utah.

For more than a century the tribe hauled drinking water by wagon and later by truck from Cortez to Towaoc—the only tribal town—a 30-mile roundtrip. In this desert and cactus landscape, growing crops without irrigation was not even considered. But soon it became clear that reliable water supplies were the lynch pin to the future success and expansion of the tribe. They needed water not only to supply their homes with clean drinking water, but for industry, commerce, and—if they could prevail—to grow food for their families and the region. It was then, some 30 years ago, that the Utes decided to undertake the formidable challenge of asserting their federal reserved water rights claim.

The tribe pressed its claim under the Winters Doctrine, established by a 1908 Supreme Court ruling that the federal government reserved water rights ‘by implication’ on behalf of the tribes dating back to the creation of their reservations. The Ute Mountain Ute's claim dated back to 1868. As in many federal reserved right cases, the problem arises that the reserved water rights are then senior to those of many non-Indian irrigators. This creates a potentially explosive scenario whereby very senior water rights could potentially be ‘called out’ by the reserved Indian rights.

In particular, the Utes challenged the amount of water being withdrawn from the Mancos River by the federally-funded Jackson Project. The Mancos River is a major tributary flowing southwest from the La Plata Mountains through the Mancos Valley between Cortez and Durango. Jackson Project diversions by non-Indian ranchers, they argued, were drastically depleting river flows through the reservation.

Many were convinced if successful in their challenge, the Ute Mountain Utes and other area tribes could dry up almost all non-Indian uses of water in southwestern Colorado. ‘They certainly had a claim on the Mancos River,’ acknowledges John Porter, former manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District for more than two decades. ‘Everybody conceded they could probably dry up the Mancos Valley.’

Finally, it was the federal government that stepped forward to help fulfill its obligation to the tribe. Authorized under the Colorado River Storage Project Act of 1968, the Dolores Project—involving construction of McPhee dam and reservoir—was proposed in part to resolve the Utes' water claims, and to provide water for non-Indian irrigation, municipalities, and fish and wildlife. Local voters overwhelming approved the repayment contract for the project in 1977, just before it was placed on a White House ‘hit list’ for elimination. One of the only reasons the multi-purpose project eventually survived many contend, was because of the importance of the Indian water rights issue, and the federal government's need to fulfill its obligation to the tribes.

Dolores Project construction started in 1980 and the first water was delivered to Cortez and surrounding areas some six years later. But the Utes still had to wait. In fact, it was not until 1990 that treated drinking water reached the reservation through a 20-mile pipeline constructed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. It was an emotional experience when the tap was turned and water started flowing, recalls Ernest House Sr., tribal chairman at the time. ‘It's a very different feeling when you actually see water come out of a faucet,’ he says, ‘It's a great feeling.’

House, who intermittently served as chairman for half his 20 years on the tribal council, says he knows his grandfather, Chief Jack House, also would have been pleased. One of the last of the traditional chiefs, Jack House is credited with recognizing the importance of regaining the tribe's water rights and dedicating his energy toward that goal until his death in 1971.

But the wait wasn't over yet. The Utes were still awaiting the water allocated to them for agricultural irrigation. Specifically, they were awaiting 23,200 acre-feet of water promised to irrigate some 7,600 sagebrush acres south of Towaoc. It was 1999 by the time the tribe received its full measure of water delivered through a clay-lined canal extending 41 miles south from McPhee Reservoir. At last, the tribe's first major agricultural operation could become fully operational.

‘Everything is irrigated. We couldn't do it without irrigation,’ says Paul Evans, who for a dozen years has served as general manger of the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise. Divided into farming and ranching operations, the enterprise employs 16 full-time and five seasonal employees.
Sales of crops and cattle supplement the tribe's revenues from its other natural resources including oil, natural gas, and grazing. The tribe also operates a casino, RV park, truck stop, pottery factory outlet, and tribal park. Most recent figures indicate that the tribe generates about 900 jobs, making the Utes the second-largest employer in the area.

Evans says the farm truly is ‘state-of-the-art’—although he's reluctant to use that term because, ‘I don't want to sound like I'm bragging.’

The farm features 110 center-pivot sprinkler irrigation systems, ranging in size from 40 to 140 acres, operated by the force of gravity-fed water. It employs the latest in modern technology including geographic positioning satellites, computerized links with fields, radio-controlled irrigation systems and weather stations. All are integrated into a centralized control center at the Farm and Ranch Enterprise headquarters.

Evans says the tribal council set two equally important goals for the Farm and Ranch Enterprise: to be a successful and profitable business, and to provide opportunities for youth. The tribe numbered almost 2,000 members according to 1999 census results, most in their twenties or younger and living in Towaoc on the reservation. Providing meaningful jobs—and careers—for these young Utes has implications for the future success of the tribe that go beyond profits.

The intent, according to Evans, is for tribal members to eventually take over the entire enterprise. ‘They want us to work ourselves out of a job,’ he explains. And operations have been successful—including earning the tribe the second-highest honors in the nation last year for its Ute Mountain Gold variety of sweet corn.

‘I'm very positive about the Farm and Ranch Enterprise,’ says former tribal chairman House. ‘It has been very good and fruitful for the tribe.’ ❑

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