Today, U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and Congressman John Salazar announced that they have sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urging the department to prioritize the long-overdue rehabilitation of the failing Pine River Indian Irrigation Project, which is used by the Southern Ute tribe and others in the area.
First established at the turn of the 19th century, the Pine River Indian Irrigation Project currently provides approximately 124,000 acre feet of water via 175 miles of canals and ditches to more than 10,000 acres of land in Southwest Colorado, only a portion of its potential. The Government Accountability Office has declared the project severely deteriorated because of neglect and lack of funding, and it's not uncommon for users to go without water, making it virtually impossible for many to make productive agricultural use of their land.
The lawmakers introduced the Pine River Indian Irrigation Project Act in June 2009 because they believe the Southern Ute tribe and the other users have waited too long for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the Interior Department, to rehabilitate the project. Their bill would direct the Interior Secretary, acting through the Commissioner of Reclamation, to fully assess the needs of project. It would also grant the authority to the Secretary to provide grants to and enter into cooperative agreements with the Southern Ute tribe to assess and repair infrastructure so that the project more suitably meets user needs. The federal government would pay for no more than 75 percent of the total costs, with the tribe assuming the remainder.
Last month, Southern Ute Chairman Matthew Box and the tribe's Director of Natural Resources, Lena Atencio, testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee about the immediate need for the repairs. Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan agreed that the federal government should act.
The Interior Department, however, has not taken a position on the bill nor begun to address the needed repairs. In their letter, the lawmakers ask Secretary Salazar to prioritize the repairs. "We stand ready to work with you to ensure water users of this irrigation project have reliable access to the water they need," they wrote.
"The people who depend on this system have gone for too long without the water they need to make use of their land," Senator Udall said. "There is no question there's a need for these repairs. The Southern Ute Tribe wants to do its part. We just need the federal government to step up. It's time to act."
"It's high time to upgrade this long-neglected project so people in the area have access to the water they need to put their land to productive use," Senator Bennet said. "Washington needs to fulfill its responsibility to ensure that current residents and future generations have reliable access to the water they need to make a living and build for the future."
"The Pine River irrigation Ditch will serve the Southern Ute Tribe and other water users in the area. This is an important project for the region, one which is long overdue and needs to move forward," Congressman Salazar said.