LA PLATA COUNTY — For Jeff Richmond, the starkest example of being tied to a dilapidated federal water delivery system was the year he faced a water user’s nightmare: His water was cut off for more than a month in the middle of the growing season because of an upstream system failure.
For Clifton Baker, a former Southern Ute rancher, it was never being sure if he’d get his water in time to grow hay for his cattle, his sole source of income.
Marikay Shellman recalled being a young mother and having to go out with neighbors to clean debris from earthen irrigation ditches so she could get her irrigation water.
These water users and hundreds more like them in southwestern Colorado draw water from a federally managed irrigation system with a decadeslong backlog of maintenance issues that would cost $35.3 million to address, according to 2024 federal estimates.
It’s one of 16 similar irrigation systems in the West, called Indian Irrigation Projects, run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Parts of the projects are in complete disrepair, and they’ve been chronically underfunded for so long that it would cost more than $2.3 billion to completely fix them, according to the bureau’s 2024 estimate.
To complicate matters further, the federal government and tribes do not agree on who is responsible for maintaining the system.
In December, a state task force called on the Colorado legislature and Gov. Jared Polis to put pressure on Congress and the federal government to do something. The ranchers said more funding and more local staff would be a good place to start.
“It is every little thing. I needed a new headgate installed. … Water erodes ground, obviously, and it has just needed so much maintenance,” Shellman said. “I would say the biggest need that (local staff) has right now is probably manpower.”
“A ticking time bomb”
The federally owned Pine River Indian Irrigation Project provides water to about 12,000 acres of land in southwestern Colorado.
Each spring, water is released from Vallecito Reservoir in La Plata County and flows south in the Los Pinos River toward New Mexico. Along the way, some water is siphoned into the Pine River project, which includes about 175 miles of earthen ditches, metal headgates, concrete diversion structures and chutes, called flumes, raised on stilts.
About 400 water users, including about 100 non-Native farmers and ranchers, rely on water from the system to support their agricultural businesses. Residents in the nearly 900-person town of Ignacio use its water for their lawns and gardens.
“It seemed like there’s always an issue,” said Baker, a Southern Ute tribal member whose family raises cattle and grows alfalfa. “So we can’t really rely on the water being delivered the day it’s due because of ongoing problems, like maybe there’s a washout.”
Dozens of smaller irrigation structures, constructed before 1920, have collapsed and been abandoned. Ditches have eroded to the point water can’t reach raised headgates. Multiple large, antiquated flumes are in danger of failing.
One structure, called Butzbaugh Flume, carries water over private farmland on concrete stilts. The concrete is crumbling. Exposed rebar is corroding. Enough water is leaking that a bed of cattails has grown beneath it.
“It’s a ticking time bomb waiting to happen,” Pete Nylander, head of the Southern Ute water resources division, said in October, during a tour of the system with water officials from around Colorado.
At the wrong time of year, a break could cut off irrigation water to 1,722 acres for the whole season.
The main ditch, the Dr. Morrison Canal, has breached three times, according to the tribe. Those breaches impacted about 3,100 acres downstream — including Richmond’s 120-acre ranch.
It took over a month for a recent serious breach to be repaired, he said while driving across his land on a sunny 9-degree day in January.
“Pretty rough — couldn’t get water,” said Richmond, who grows alfalfa on his beef cattle ranch near Ignacio. “The bank was gravel bed, and it was just seeping out and going toward the Pine River.”
The interruption shrank his profit margins by about 40%, he said.
For years, a pipe carrying water to her property had a serious leak where it crossed above another ditch, said Shellman, who raises cattle and grows orchard trees on 40 acres.
“We’re allowed so much water, so they turn the headgates to the amount we’re allowed, and then the water was leaking all over the place. It was just crazy. It was, for many years, like beating your head against a brick wall,” Shellman said.
Since a new staffer took over the local Bureau of Indian Affairs office, the situation has improved. Now, her maintenance requests get addressed, whereas in years past she’d have to call for weeks or fix a problem herself.
“I just see that they have done so much great work,” Shellman said. “[The work] will continue. It’s years and years and years of neglect that they are catching up to.”
The mounting cost of neglect
The Pine River system is the only federal Indian Irrigation Project in Colorado and one of 16 scattered across nine Western states.
These projects have nearly always been short on funds, according to a 1996 federal report. Some “have deteriorated to the point that the continued delivery of water is doubtful,” the report said.
For years, the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not know how many repairs were needed or how much they would cost. That makes it hard to know how much funding to seek to repair the projects, according to a 2006 Government Accountability Office report.
Estimates for the Pine River project repairs have ranged from $20 million to $109 million.
In the past, the total estimated cost to fix the maintenance backlog for all 16 projects has ranged from $570 million to $850 million. As of mid-January, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said it would be closer to $2.3 billion.
But other federal reports said the bureau was not staffing the projects properly or sharing necessary information with tribes in a timely manner. With all the other work the bureau does, managing irrigation was “not a priority for BIA,” a follow-up report in 2015 said.
For its part, the bureau chalked it up to funding challenges.
“The physical state of the BIA’s irrigation projects is related to a historic inability to recover the full cost of operating and maintaining its projects,” it said in a written response to questions from The Colorado Sun.
Fees charged to irrigators are the main source of funding for the Pine River project. Money can also come from other sources, like grants, state coffers and federal programs.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs collects these operations and maintenance fees from irrigators to pay for expenses including salaries, equipment, maintenance and supplies. The bureau also sets the fee amount, which has risen from $8.50 per acre in 2005 to $23.50 per acre in 2024.
“We estimate the current assessment rate would need to double to provide full operations and maintenance service to the project,” the bureau said in its written response.
In Colorado, the situation has left irrigators feeling frustrated and stressed.
Even with the increase over time, the fees still do not generate enough income to catch up to the millions of dollars needed to fully repair the system, according to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
Plus, the fees are already too high for some growers facing already-thin profit margins. That means, each year, water users are paying fees that strain their budgets for a system that isn’t up to maintenance standards and doesn’t always deliver water properly.
“That’s always been a problem,” Baker said. “The rates have been increasing when the condition of the system wasn’t the best.”
Who bears responsibility?
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs also disagree over what type of responsibility the bureau has regarding the Pine River project.
The tribe says the federal government has a “trust responsibility” to operate and maintain the system.
“While we are Tribal Members, we are also citizens and constituents of the United States,” wrote Lorelei Cloud, the tribe’s vice chairwoman, in a prepared statement. “If the roles were reversed, we would likely have faced significant criticism for not maintaining the system decades ago.”
The question of trust responsibility — a fundamental and massively complex component of the tribal-federal relationship, tribal law experts say — is one of the biggest ongoing issues in federal Indian law. It was a key question in a recent Navajo Nation water case, in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the United States.
The specifics of these legal obligations often date back many decades to treaties and agreements between the U.S. and tribal nations, said tribal law expert Heather Whiteman Runs Him.
This trust relationship was forged at a time when the U.S. government made a concerted effort to erase, subjugate and assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American society, she said, which is key to understanding its development.
In general under this framework, the United States assumed a role of trustee with tribes as beneficiaries.
In this role, the U.S. should protect and preserve tribal resources, like water. Over the decades, the government has often failed to act in the best interests of tribes and their resources, said Whiteman Runs Him, who is a member of the Crow Tribe of Montana.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs said it had responsibilities defined under federal law, but not, specifically, a trust obligation.
“The BIA does not have a trust obligation to operate and maintain its irrigation projects,” the bureau’s written response said, citing federal statutes. “The BIA is responsible for assessing the project’s water users for the costs of operations and maintenance.”
That came as a surprise to Southern Ute attorney Lisa Yellow Eagle. In a combined statement, the tribe said this disagreement could be one of many reasons there is a maintenance backlog for the Pine River Indian Irrigation Project, locally dubbed the PRIIP.
“I will maintain that there is a responsibility to protect that water,” Yellow Eagle said. “The PRIIP is a federal project that is maintained by BIA, which again is a U.S. agency that holds that trust responsibility to defend and protect tribal resources.”
Taking it to D.C.
As the higher-ups debate the legal responsibilities, the local BIA office is doing its best, water users say.
For the community, it’s considered bad taste to criticize: Everyone is a neighbor. The BIA office is within a mile of the Southern Ute casino and government headquarters, and staff from the bureau and tribe collaborate regularly. At the same time, it’s widely acknowledged that there are challenges.
Locals say the BIA office is understaffed. Southern Ute water division employees have been filling in gaps. But because of the Pine River Indian Irrigation Project’s deteriorating condition, they’re left climbing down rickety ladders or crossing streams on wooden boards to do maintenance — hardly safe conditions, Nylander told officials, who were part of the Colorado River Drought Task Force, during the October tour.
The tribe has already spent at least $4.9 million of its own money working to improve the system.
Audits of the projects say the buck stops in Washington, D.C., with Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Congress allocated $466 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to be used between fiscal years 2022 and 2027. But only $7 million per year is for the 16 Indian Irrigation Projects, according to the tribe.
In addition, Congress has underallocated the Indian Irrigation Fund since its formation in 2016, giving it closer to $10 million annually — far less than the $35 million promised.
After touring the system in October, water officials from the Colorado River Drought Task Force brainstormed ways to help, like removing state funding barriers, tapping into more federal dollars and pulling political strings.
“There’s been a huge focus on tribal water issues, and I don’t want us to get to a point where that wanes. Between now and 2026, I think that will continue to be a focus,” said Commissioner Becky Mitchell, the state’s top Colorado River negotiator, after seeing the system during the October tour. “We have to take advantage of this moment to get things done and to really elevate the needs of the tribe.”
Aging infrastructure is a widespread issue in Colorado and the nation, causing leaks and racking up a mountain of future costs that water providers will need to address, often by raising water rates. In the task force’s final report in December, the group recommended that the state legislature prioritize funding to repair aging infrastructure and make sure tribes can access those funds.
The group also recommended that the General Assembly, along with Gov. Jared Polis, send a letter to Congress advocating for increased funding for the Indian Irrigation Fund.
Whether that happens is currently in the hands of state legislators, like Sen. Dylan Roberts of Summit County, who said there was momentum to write the letter, maybe as early as February.
On a chilly Friday in January, Jeff Richmond looked over his snow-covered alfalfa fields and recalled when he started farming.
At 6 months old, he was riding on hay in the back of his grandfather’s John Deere swather, a hulking machine used to cut hay and small grain crops. Decades later, he still likes the work: It gives him time to think. Agriculture is a way of life in his part of La Plata County, he said.
They need the system to do its job and deliver water to keep that way of life.
“If you don’t have your water, you don’t grow a crop,” Richmond said.