The Old West Moves East

When I was a boy, my farm town used to put on a show called a greased pig contest. A young pig would be greased and set free in a watered down arena. To the rough-edged delight of townspeople, the local kids, those daring enough, would climb inside the arena and attempt to catch the greased pig, which they would soon learn was smarter, faster, and, oh, so very much slicker. The mud and feces besmeared pig catcher got to keep the squealing and exhausted animal which in a year or so would end up on the family dinner table.

This tradition has moved east, for I saw something that reminded me of it just the other day. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee provided the slicked-down arena. The Navajo Indian Settlement Act, S1171, was the greased prize. A plane-load-of-free-loaders from New Mexico were the eager and expectant participants.

But before this show could come to Washington, advance men, like those who used to come to the farm towns to advertise a coming event such as a carnival, circus, or even a greased pig contest, were needed to make it a success. Chief among the new breed of advance men was the Bush administration’s new Secretary of Interior, the erstwhile Governor of Idaho, Dirk Kempthorne. He had proven essential to the carnival atmosphere by issuing a slick opinion, called a hydrologic determination, that there is more water in the Colorado River than anyone ever imagined.

So how is there more water? Why, because our diminished rivers no longer fill our shrunken reservoirs. Ergo, there is less evaporation from these reservoirs and therefore more water available from our rivers. Thus, we enter the head-spinning world of New-Science-on-the-Potomac where politics trumps all reason, all common sense. Indeed, this New Science, truly, as the poet would have it, “calls all in doubt.”

And what’s to be done with this miracle water found on the drought stricken Colorado River? Well, that plane load of free-loading politicians and assorted hangers-on, headed by representatives for presidential aspirant Bill Richardson, had come east expecting to celebrate the easy passage of S1171. Thereby, Kempthorne’s miracle water would be used to expand the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (NIIP) and to build a billion dollar pipeline to Gallup, New Mexico, and to portions of the Navajo Reservation–with all but a sliver of the costs coming at taxpayer’s expense.

As for the Navajo-Gallup pipeline, the Indian Health Services will have to find 100’s of millions of dollars more to get the water to the intended Indians, especially those living seasonally in isolated traditional dwellings known as Hogans. In the case of Gallup, a city of about 30,000 souls, its ruling elite dream of becoming a new Moab for mountain-biking, boutique-beer-swilling Yuppiedom–if they only had the water.

But perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the scheme S1171 represents is the fact that the billion-dollar, federally-constructed NIIP loses large amounts of money every year even though the Congress, for decades, has funded all its operating costs, ignoring its own long-standing prohibition against doing so. Some suspect payola, postponing, thereby, a long over due accounting of all Indian irrigation projects and hiding the outsized lies undergirding them. These circumstances give finer definition to what Washington means when it promises to help the Indians.

Yet, despite all the advance work done to make the hearing a greased success, a damper was put on what should have been a festive, glad-handing event by the most unlikely of participants. The Department of Interior, the very people preaching the good news that the Colorado River is brimming with new water for new projects, announced that since it had not participated in the New Mexico Indian negotiations resulting in the Navajo Settlement Act now before the Committee, it could not support it. There was no hush, because at these affairs there are no surprises.

Out of 23 senators on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, only two were in attendance, both from New Mexico. Putting on an amateurish act of sputtering disbelief so common to western melodrama, Jeff Bingaman, the Committee chair, played the good cop, while Pete Domenici, the Committee’s Ranking Member, played the bad cop. In fact, Domenici could be heard declaiming loudly, off mike, that they would just take this plan to the Corp of Engineers to construct if Interior didn’t fall in line.

And why did Interior, the Department of Bad Irrigation Projects, as they,re known out west, decide to wreck a hearing that had every indication of being well staged for quick passage of S1171? The new Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Bob Johnson, speaking for Interior, said the bill did not comport with longstanding policy requiring, among other things, that OMB review the economic feasibility of Indian settlements and the costs of other alternatives.

Imagine my surprise at this complete turnabout, since only weeks earlier I had brought the subject of economic review of the Navajo settlement up with Mr. Johnson at a Bureau conference entitled “Managing for Excellence. (The words and wisdom of convicted felon and former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles were held up for approbation several times during the conference, indicating, perhaps, just how ambitious an undertaking bringing excellence to Interior really is.)

In that setting, Johnson had told me it was not the habit of Reclamation to require economic evaluation of Indian projects even though federal policy required it. I asked if they didn’t think it was important to know if the public’s money was being well spent on these projects, particularly in light of the fact that NIIP lost money, lots of it, every year. No answer was forthcoming other than a meaningless deflection about everyone having a right to an opinion.

Now, for another subplot in this growing western melodrama–The small grassroots organization I chair had insisted several years ago, when the infamous Animas-La Plata project, another purported Indian project, was up for funding, that the published policy governing Indian water settlements be observed, including an economic evaluation. We consulted with OMB itself where we were told that office had been directed to butt out. Moreover, the attorney representing the Department of Interior, a flack by the name of Mike Connors, told us straight out that, while the policy was still in force, Interior was free to apply it selectively. This all took place during the Clinton administration when the hapless Bruce Babbitt was running Interior, thus giving the lie to the idea the Bush administration invented the concept of executive exception. Mr. Connors can now be found working for Senator Bingaman as counsel for the Committee.

And then there are the absent 21, the members of the Committee who sensibly were not there, knowing, first hand, that someone else’s greased legislation is nothing to wrestle with. But the Senator from Colorado, Ken Salazar, noted for his easy collapse into a compromising position on almost any and all issues probably should have been there unless he truly believes the water alchemy concocted by Interior. Otherwise, the water Senators Bingaman and Domenici want for New Mexico belongs to the people of Colorado under an interstate treaty called the Colorado River Compact, and Salazar should be protecting the interests of Coloradoans. But remember he’s already caught his porker. It’s called the Animas-La Plata project and quid pro quos are what Washington runs on.

Is it too cynical, even in a world as obviously devoid of decency and justice as present-day Capitol Hill, to suggest that Senator Domenici’s recent conversion to the get-out-of-Iraq brigade might be a bargaining chip for billions of dollars in new water projects for New Mexico?

One thing is for sure, Mies van der Rohe’s dictum that “less is more” has been turned into a carnival of nonsense, greasy legislation and all.

In an interesting coda to the above, Senator Domenici, still in a “I want it, I get it frame of mind, gave a direct warning to former Iowa congressman Jim Nussle and the Bush administration’s new designee to head OMB at his confirmation hearing. He told him that if OMB did not reverse course on S1171 that he would not vote favorably for his confirmation.

But there is still more. In a more recent House hearing on its version of the Navajo settlement act, HR1970, Colorado congressman Mark Udall, apparently acting as surrogate for his cousin, New Mexico congressman Tom Udall who is HR1970’s sponsor, lit into the fretting Bob Johnson, Reclamation’s new commissioner, who is obviously only carrying stinging coals for OMB.

Declaring himself the undying friend of the Indian, Udall said OMB had to get over its queasiness about how the public was being asked to spend its money, for after all hadn’t Governor Richardson promised at least $75 million toward a tax bill that will easily exceed $1 billion in construction costs alone? Wasn’t that enough he intoned? Never once did Mark Udall, the man who would be the next Democratic senator from Colorado, ask questions concerning the baffling hydrologic study; never once did he elicit concern over the adverse impact this settlement would have on Colorado’s legitimate rights to water in the Colorado River under the interstate compact; and never once did he show concern that more irrigation for the Navajo might actually cause them to lose more money than presently.

PHIL DOE, who once worked in the Interior Department, is chair of Citizens Progressive Alliance in Littleton, Colorado. He can be reached at: