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Towaoc Had No Running Water in the 1970s. Now it Does, and the Tribe Irrigates a Farm. What Changed?

Austin Cope

The gravel road that leads to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise winds through 11 miles of desert grass and dry brush.

But 20 minutes’ drive from the highway, as the road comes over the top of a hill, the desert landscape stops at the edge of huge field of bright green alfalfa plants. More fields appear as you come closer to the farm.

The water that allows these plants to grow comes from a reservoir about 20 miles away, via 41 miles of canal. It allows the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe to grow over seven thousand acres of alfalfa, corn, wheat, and to raise over 600 head of cattle. The farm sells the commodities on national markets to support the tribe.

But this farm hasn’t always been here. In fact, the story of its origin relates closely to how that reservoir--called McPhee--was built. It also tells the story of how the Ute Tribe used its sovereignty to bring water to its people.

Before European settlers arrived in the region, the Ute people were highly mobile. Instead of farming, they harvested wild plants and hunted wild game. But in the mid 1800s, they ran up against white settlers, who had been encouraged by U.S. Government to settle out West.

Several treaties with the federal government in the mid-1800s forced the Ute people onto reservations in Colorado and Utah. One of those reservations was the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.

But in the desert, water is an important part of development. And at first, white settlers controlled most of it. Over the course of a hundred years, several dams were built to irrigate parts of the surrounding region, but the irrigation never reached the reservation. Even by the 1980s, local water manager Mike Preston recalled showing people the difference between tribal lands and the nearby valley.

“We used to take them up on a high point, where you could look south over the reservation on a sea of brown,” he said. “You could look north up the valley and see this lush, irrigated valley.”

At that time, the Tribe’s headquarters and principal town of Towaoc didn’t even have drinking water. Residents had to haul it from the town of Cortez, about 15 miles away. Eric Whyte, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and a longtime employee of the Ute Farm and Ranch, was a child then.

“They had an elderly group of men that would get a truck, and go to Cortez,” Whyte said. “They’d fill that water truck, and how many trips they make depended on how much water they used.”

He says his family had two 100-gallon tanks that they would fill full of water.

“Sitting there waiting, and when they came you’d go out there, fill your pail, and that’s what you’d drink your water with,” he continued.

The federal government had planned to build another dam that could have brought more water, but that project had been placed on hold indefinitely by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

However, the Tribe needed the water, and it had some bargaining power.  A U.S. Supreme Court decisionfrom the early 20th century had given it senior water rights in the region, based on a treatyfrom the 1800s. The tribe could have claimed water from the Mancos River, where reservoirs had already been built, but doing so would have taken water from existing farms and communities. Moreover, there was no infrastructure to transport the water to the main part of the reservation.

Preston, who was on a negotiation task force initiated by the Tribe, explained the dynamics of water law settlements.

“There’s two types of settlements,” he said. “One’s called ‘paper water,’ where you get some sort of decree, but you don’t have a way to develop it. The other is called “Wet water.” That’s water that you can actually drink and put on crops,” he said.

Instead of a cash payout or a water rights decree to settle the claims, the tribe opted in favor of “wet water.” In a settlement with the U.S. Government, which literally involved an act of the U.S. Congress, the tribe gave up its more senior water rights on the Mancos River in favor of more junior water rights on the Dolores River. The settlement also brought federal funding for canals and pipelines to deliver water to the reservation, and covered startup costs to build a farm. Most importantly, it involved the construction of a large reservoir along the Dolores River, called McPhee.

It followed almost exactly the same plan that had been placed on hold by Jimmy Carter in the ‘70s. And though other irrigators and communities in the region were involved in the decision,

Preston said the project would not have happened without the tribe’s involvement.

“In 1986, when the settlement got signed in principal, the tribal chairman told me, ‘get ready to build a farm,” he said.

The farm started trial crops in 1987, and it has expanded its size over the years to what it is today. But just because the Tribe has the water rights and the infrastructure doesn't mean the farm can use as much water as it wants. Click here to learn about how the farm uses state-of-the-art technology to manage its water and resource consumption-- and how that sometimes isn't enough.

This story is part of Western Slope Resources Reporting, a collaboration between community radio stations KSJD, KBUT, KVNF, KDNK, and KOTO. It provides in-depth coverage of how people and organizations are finding creative and positive ways to overcome natural resource-related challenges.

Austin Cope is a former Morning Edition host for KSJD and now produces work on a freelance basis for the station. He grew up in Cortez and hosted a show on KSJD when he was 10 years old. After graduating from Montezuma-Cortez High School in 2010, he lived in Belgium, Ohio, Spain, northern Wyoming, and Himachal Pradesh, India before returning to the Cortez area. He has a degree in Politics from Oberlin College in Ohio.
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