Time Machine Tuesday: Ute Indian Water Rights

Animas-La Plata Project

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the federal government’s passage of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act of 1988. Three years prior, in 1985, the US government, the State of Colorado, and Colorado’s two Ute tribes began negotiating for water rights for Colorado’s two Ute reservations in the southwest corner of the state. Colorado’s Ben Nighthorse Campbell sponsored the 1988 act in Congress. With the passage of the act, the Utes’ rights to surface streams and tributary groundwater on the reservations were upheld. Amendments in 2000 allowed for the construction of the Animas-La Plata water project, which had first been planned for the area in 1956.

In the years leading up to the 1988 act, the State of Colorado published several studies on the area watersheds and the Utes’ tribal water rights. These studies include:

along with several other reports for nearby watersheds. Search our library’s digital repository for more studies. Also in our library you can find the 2001 publication How Well Do You Know Your Water Well?: Groundwater and Water Wells in Southwest Colorado, which was prepared in cooperation with the Southern Ute tribe.

The Animas-La Plata project was not completed until 2013. To learn more, see:

At our library you can also view a 1988 geotechnical map of the project.

For the history of Colorado’s Ute tribes and reservations, see Southern Ute Lands, 1848-1899: The Creation of a Reservation and The Last War Trail: The Utes and the Settlement of Colorado, available for checkout from our library; and Ute Tribal Paths, an online exhibit from History Colorado. For additional resources, search our library’s online catalog. Finally, for background on tribal water rights – although predating the 1988 act – see the publication Indian Water Rights in the West: A Study (1983).