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Birds sit atop an unused pivot at the Farm & Ranch Enterprise. (Corey Robinson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has rights to Colorado River water that it can’t access and unresolved water rights claims in New Mexico and Utah. Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart, who views the future of the tribe’s water supply as a critically important topic, is set on securing those resources. But in a Colorado River Basin that is already over-allocated and deep in a two-decade drought, it won’t be easy. 

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is one of 30 federally recognized tribes in the basin. The tribe’s reservation spreads across approximately 900 square miles in the southwest corner of Colorado as well as parts of New Mexico and Utah. The tribe has about 2,100 registered members, most of whom reside in Colorado. Heart, who has served a total of 23 years on the tribal council with 12 of those years as chairman, recently spoke with the Colorado Sun at his office in Towaoc, the tribal capital.  

The following has been edited for clarity and length. 

The Colorado Sun: Chairman, can you give us an overview of some of the top water challenges facing the tribe at the moment? 

Manuel Heart: The first thing is we’re in the 100 year anniversary for the Compact of the Colorado River Basin. First and foremost, we as Ute Mountain need to be part of that process. But we need to quantify our water rights. In Colorado, most of it is quantified, but not having a delivery system from Lake Nighthorse over to the Ute Mountain Ute reservation — that’s the No. 1 for that piece. 

On the New Mexico side, we’re still working on negotiations right now. We’re looking at something where it’s going to benefit the tribe down the road and still have access to the water. We have, I think, 9,000 acre-feet in the San Juan River. So we’re trying to figure out how we can utilize that. Right now, we’re losing it. It’s going down river, and we’re not even catching it or capturing it or anything. We’re just losing it. 

Sun: All 9,000 acre-feet?

Heart: It goes into Lake Powell. We really want to quantify that. We’re in negotiations right now with the state of New Mexico. On the Utah side, they reached out to us and we need to work with our legislators to quantify the water rights. We have a ranch over there, Perkins Ranch, but we also have a community over there that I’d like to look at MNI (municipal and industrial) and ag water. We were just out there yesterday to look at the proposal from Blanding (across the Utah border) to extend their airport runway — and it goes right into our ag area for growing wheat and hay out there. So, we want to know how to negotiate that. 

What I want to do is priorities for Ute Mountain in all three states on water — what programs, what initiatives. Farm & Ranch is probably going to be allocated 25% water this year. Last year was 10%, so I’m thinking we’re going to be getting a little bit more water this year. I did go to Vegas a couple weeks ago and I looked at Lake Powell. It looks really bad. 

Sun: What was it like to be there? 

Heart: It was — seeing a lot of people pulling boats around with for-sale signs. And a lot of tourists taking pictures. I even stopped by a couple that were from Virginia; they didn’t realize how bad the water was out here. And how many people, 40 million people, utilize this water. I explained to them about the different things — the compact, the two countries, the 30 tribes. We all need to work together to make a better future. There’s going to be challenges. There’s going to be something through legal battles. But they need to include everybody because everybody has that water right as governments. In the next five years, it’s going to really hit the fan, so to speak.

Tomorrow is my 10 Tribes Water Partnership meeting that I chair. We’re going to talk a little bit about our next steps. I know the Department of Interior reached out to the seven states and said we need to figure out how we’re going to look at this compact and how we’re going to utilize the water. Lower Basin is already doing legislation on cutting some areas. But the water comes from the head gates up here in the mountains and we really need to start from here too, and really look at how things are going to impact tribes right now. They’re still not including tribes. They reached out to the seven states, I didn’t even hear about until after the fact. So, I’m kind of a little frustrated with Interior. I really want to push to have them more transparent and tell them information about how we’re going to plan for the future.

Sun: The Colorado water rights you were talking about, when were those settled? 

Heart: ‘80s for the Doloroes, the McPhee reservoir. But we had senior rights on the Mancos River. We had to give up the senior water rights — an 1868 priority date — to get the reservoir. Now that one is subordinated to 1988, I think. 

Sun: A junior right. 

Heart: Yeah. And then Lake Nighthorse it’s also an 1868 senior water right. We did get 16,000 acre-feet for each tribe. 

Sun: When it comes to accessing that water in Lake Nighthorse what are the challenges there and what do you hope to be able to accomplish in the next few years? 

Heart: I’m hoping to find some funding through this infrastructure bill that was passed in Congress. If we can get $300 million — it cost before, when the project was authorized, $200 or $250 million — to bring it over. There were a few pumps. The majority of it was gravity flow. So if we can get something similar to that to bring it over all we’re looking for is funding. That’s the first option to bring it to Ute Mountain Reservation. 

I’d like to build our own storage here, whether it’s in the Mancos Canyon or if it’s something that’s going to come around and we put up pumps to bring it over to the Farm & Ranch. But we have to be able to be in control of what the destination of the use of the water is because they’re telling us we can’t use it for ag. 

Sun: That water was originally going to have some agriculture designation? 

Heart: Yep. That’s why I’ve always told our council and our congressmen or senators we should have the final say on what it’s going to be. Because we don’t know what the future holds for us as we’re growing population wise and our needs. We might need more water at the ag farm and ranch or we might need it for municipal if we want to build a community in New Mexico.

Sun: When were those initial plans done to bring the water over here? 

Heart: ‘80s and ‘90s and during the ‘90s they had funding sources so originally it was $750 million. Congress finally settled on $500 million. We got the storage but no delivery system. We’ve been there for 10 years with 16,000 acre-feet in that reservoir but we can’t use it. But we have rights to it. It’s very frustrating. On the industrial side, we’ve been looking at renewables and hydro, trying to build something that would bring revenue. We have a project on the shelf that’s a hydro project. The cost of it is so high that we need to find capital to build it. But we have the water resource for it. With what’s going on with fossil fuels, it’s kind of moving toward a different direction. In reality, global warming is here. It’s been here. And the drought is really going to get a little bit more serious.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm & Ranch Enterprise and Bow and Arrow Milling are seen beside the irrigation canal from the Dolores Water Conservancy District on March 9, 2022. (Corey Robinson, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Sun: How has this drought impacted the tribe? 

Heart: It’s impacted it a lot. We started noticing it a while back, especially for our ceremony up on the mountain. Our springs are starting to dry up. The deer population has left. We have no deer now. We have a lot of elk but the elk go down to Farm & Ranch because they have all the pivots and the hay down there. So, we built an elk fence to have them not come into the farm but there are some that jump across the cattle guard. Eventually, what’s projected is the drought is going to get a little bit worse than what it is. We need to look at it now. Not 20 years down the road. Time is of the essence. That’s why Interior needs to be part of the process with us. 

Sun: What has your experience been recently working with the state of Colorado on these types of water matters?

Heart: State of Colorado we do have Becky Mitchell, she’s a strong advocate. She’s advocated we need to work with the tribes. They own about 25% to 30% of the water in the Colorado River Basin. It needs to start here in Colorado. New Mexico is thinking of supporting the tribes, so is the state of Utah. It’s the rest of the states in the Lower Basin that we need to target too because they’re the ones that are using most of it. They’ve been over-allocated on their water. So, we need to cut them back. And they’re saying, “Well, you guys need to cut back up there.” We can’t. We need it just as much as they do. Everybody up here in the Upper Basin is doing the best they can. The Lower Basin needs to really look at their golf courses, their lawns, legislation has got to be introduced to really monitor and control and streamline the water use.

Sun: If you were able to get access to the water that was designated yours as part of the tribe’s settlement, what happens to the people who are using it now?

Heart: They’d have to say, “Well, sorry for using your water, we’re gonna give it back to you.” I’m hoping they would say that. But they’re not. They’re gonna fight for it. They’re gonna say, “Well, we’ve been using it, it’s use it or lose it.”

Towaoc, Colorado, located beneath Sleeping Ute Mountain off of highway 491 in Southwest Colorado is home to approximately 340 families and is the capital of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sun: Would that impact anybody here in Colorado?

Heart: Yes.

Sun: Where do you hope these water discussions go in the more short-term, over the next six months?

Heart: Last year, we created our Water Resource Committee and that committee’s tasked with prioritizing where are we going to go with water. As I’ve mentioned, we’ve quantified most of Colorado’s but we still need to get the infrastructure to come over from Lake Nighthorse. For New Mexico, we’re going to bring to council negotiation of where we’re going to be going with that water. On Utah, we need to go to some legislature sponsors to help us to quantify; they reached out to us. Timeline is key. 

I was just out at White Mesa yesterday on the airport and had our BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) superintendent and we started talking about water and she said, “Well, it’s going to take you guys 20 years to quantify your water rights in Utah.” I said, “I don’t have 20 years.” By 20 years, everybody is going to own the water and it’s going to be gone. 

Sun: How do you keep the momentum going, for yourself and for the tribe, to continue to work on these issues that have been going on for so long?

Heart: Well, I guess it’s the passion of what I’m trying to do. Keeping our people alive, keeping them motivated. Telling them that this is ours. We’ve got a water treaty of 1868, we need to stand firm on that. We have land. Let’s take care of it to the best of our ability. 

Sun: A big challenge.

Heart: You really need a solid plan where everybody’s at the table to meet the needs of what we’re all facing. And if we don’t do that, then we’re going to be doing it at the 12th hour, when a lot of it is gone, and everybody’s at the courts litigating over a few drops when we could have prevented that if we do it earlier. 

Chris Outcalt covered Western water issues for The Colorado Sun until December 2022. He began his journalism career in New Hampshire, then moved West and became a reporter at the Lafayette News. He also was an associate editor at 5280 and a...