A really big straw
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. – After a year of more-or-less polite discussion about a proposed pipeline what would send water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Colorado’s urban corridor along the Front Range, the gloves have come off.Directors of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District last week voted to seek delay of federal review of the project.Eric Kuhn, the agency’s general manager, told the board it’s unclear whether Colorado has sufficient rights to undeveloped water from the Colorado River basin. The Legislature, he notes, has mandated a study to determine the remaining availability.Kuhn also predicts that the transmountain diversion could harm the interests of Western Slope residents, particularly farmers, should sustained drought occur, as many climate scientists warn could happen.Entrepreneur Aaron Million disputes Kuhn’s logic. “I don’t believe the Chicken Little, the sky-is-falling argument,” he says.The way to address global warming-caused drought, he says, is to provide additional water storage and delivery. Flaming Gorge, although located on the Utah-Wyoming border, holds 3.8 million acre-foot that Colorado could draw upon.”The risk is ours, not his,” says Million, alluding to his proposed privately funded distribution system.The River District encompasses 15 Western Slope counties, from Steamboat Springs to Ouray. Representatives from Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties respectively are John Ely, Arn Menconi and Richard Stephenson.Million has applied to the Bureau of Land Management for a right of way across Wyoming. He has also applied to the Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, for a contract for water in the reservoir.
Ever since the drought of 2002, Coloradans have been talking about “big straws.” Most Coloradans – about 88 percent – live east of the Continental Divide, while about 75 percent of the state’s water falls on the Western Slope.Little of Colorado’s water remains unspoken for, particularly in the headwaters regions festooned with ski resorts. Front Range cities are laying plans to capture those final pails of water. The most immediate proposals are in the Winter Park-Granby area.What water that remains unallocated is far downstream, near Grand Junction, or on the Yampa River, where Steamboat Springs and Craig are located.Hence the visions of big straws, or pipelines.One such straw has been advocated for decades by David Miller, who envisions a reservoir on the western flank of the Sawatch Range, at the headwaters of the Gunnison River. But courts have ruled no extra water exists there, so he would have to divert downstream from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near the town of Delta. The idea hangs by the slimmest of threads.A 2003 study conducted by state officials found 15 potential big straw alignments, ranging in cost from $3.7 billion to $15 billion. The most attractive alternative is a pipeline along Interstate 70 to the Continental Divide near the Climax Mine. The study found no fatal flaws but many problems. It has spawned no actual proposals.A more formal idea was announced last year by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. The district operates the Colorado-Big Thompson project on behalf of the northern Front Range from Boulder to Fort Collins, and farmers in the South Platte River Valley.This pipeline could draw 20 percent of the annual yield of the Yampa River. It’s Colorado’s most unallocated and untrammeled river. No dams block the main stem as it flows into Dinosaur National Park.In this plan, water would be drawn from an off-channel reservoir west of Craig 250 miles east to the Front Range. As in Million’s project, the essential market for this water would be cities, particularly in Denver’s south metro area, which currently rely mostly on wells. Those wells are expected in coming decades to be increasingly expensive to operate and with more marginal results.Water prices have been escalating even more rapidly than real estate in those areas, in some cases hitting $20,000 an acre-foot.In Steamboat Springs and Craig, the pump-back idea has spawned both cheers and catcalls. Brian Werner, spokesman for Northern, said a coalition of interests, probably including state government, must be aligned before the project can move forward. That coalition, he says, must include the Western Slope.”The only way you ever build something like this is if you make everybody happy,” he explained.The formula was established in the 1930s when Green Mountain Reservoir, located north of Silverthorne, was built as compensatory storage for diversions of the Colorado-Big Thompson project. In authorizing the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, Congress gave Ruedi Reservoir, some 14 miles east of Basalt, to the Western Slope.Northern Colorado is not pushing this plan rapidly, but instead publicly saying it should wait until after the legislative-ordered study to better determine how much water Colorado has rights to under interstate compacts reached in 1922 and 1948.The most realistic estimates of Colorado’s remaining entitlement, said Werner, range from 300,000 to 700,000. Others, however, believe global warming will shrink the river’s flows, and hence Colorado’s rights.
Million’s proposal is the most novel of all the straws. Growing up in Boulder, Million spent summer vacations in Utah at his grandparents’ farm along the Green River near the town of the same name. Later, he worked as a farmer in Montrose, but succeeded more easily in real estate development in Fort Collins.After returning to Colorado State University to work on a doctorate in economics, Million was studying at the library one evening in 2003 when he paused before a map of the Western U.S.He studied the Green River. It forms south of Wyoming’s Jackson Hole, in the Wind River Mountains, entering Colorado briefly near Dinosaur National Park. The Green carries nearly as much water as the Colorado River when the two meet near Moab, Utah.Million then eyed Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and hit upon an idea that apparently no one had thought of before. Why not divert water from that reservoir? It’s a U.S. government facility, not the property of any one state.He envisions twin 42-inch-diameter pipes sloshing the water along Interstate 80 through Wyoming, where the Continental Divide barely rises above 7,000 feet. From Laramie, the pipes would descend to off-channel reservoirs near Fort Collins, for distribution to cities as far south as Colorado Springs.Cities will want the high-quality Green River water instead of buying up farms for their water rights, says Million. He also argues the new supplies from Wyoming would cause Front Range cities to drop plans for additional headwater diversions from Western Slope locations like Grand Lake and Aspen.Million says he has unidentified backers for the project, which he estimates will cost $2 billion to $3 billion. He estimates annual pumping costs at $60 million annually.
Million’s idea was the first major new water idea in several decades in Colorado. Club 20, the Western Slope advocacy group, was friendly, but at a meeting last week took no stance. In May, The Denver Post lent editorial encouragement that fell short of an endorsement. Environmentalists have been skeptical.Without mentioning Million’s project, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs agreed with the concept of additional storage as an answer to global warming-induced drought.But Million’s plan has also been met by what Ed Quillen, publisher of Colorado Central, a Salida-based magazine, calls hostility. He believes that major water organizations see Million invading what they consider to be their turf. Nearly all water projects of the last century were conceived by public or quasi-public agencies. Million’s is essentially a private venture.”I think there is a lot of hostility to a private project,” says Quillen, who also writes columns for The Denver Post.Million agrees. The River District’s opposition “has nothing to do with water, and everything to do with ego and power,” he charges. A project of this scale would take 25 years to get done if sponsored by a public agency, “because everybody and their dog would be fighting over the scraps from it,” he said.Few contemporary people are familiar with private, non-government organizations benefiting from delivery of public water resources, says Doug Kemper, executive director for the Colorado Water Congress, a consortium of water interests.That said, precedents abound. The state’s first major transmountain-water-diversion project, the Grand River Ditch, located in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, was done by a private company, Water Supply & Storage. Private companies delivered water to Denver for the first 60 years of the city’s existence.The Homestake water-diversion project, which is partly in Pitkin County, began as a private enterprise in the 1950s. It paired with two municipalities, Colorado Springs and Aurora, for execution. More recently, ski companies from Winter Park to Vail have partnered with local governments to create water storage projects.Million is thinking big. He believes the Green River system could, without harming other needs, including endangered fish species in Utah, accommodate a withdrawal of 250,000 acre-feet. By comparison, the Colorado-Big Thompson project diverts 213,000 acre-feet annually from the Grand Lake area.The Bureau of Reclamation sees less water available from Flaming Gorge -165,000 acre-feet and possibly less, depending upon downstream needs of endangered species, says Dave Truman, head of resource management division at the Salt Lake office.
Yet there are questions whether even that much water will be available, given global warming. Many climatologists predict that the warming climate will make droughtlike conditions persistent in coming decades.Estimates range widely. Brad Udall, director of the Boulder-based Western Water Assessment, which includes a consortium of government and academic scientists, warns against placing too much confidence even in what he calls consensus science.”Having said that, I sure wouldn’t bet money on more flow out of the Colorado River,” he adds. “A prudent person would expect less flow, starting at 10 percent and getting worse.”Plenty of scientists have predicted worse. Should this happen, Colorado could have no additional water left to develop. Indeed, some current water diversions may be curtailed in order to meet compact obligations to deliver water downstream to Arizona, Nevada and California. Colorado’s state government has taken this potential seriously enough to allocate $2 million for various studies, in case it does happen.While that threat “may be years or decades away,” says Kuhn in a memo to River District directors, “my concern is that because the project is proposing to divert water to the East Slope, where the water could not be physically returned to the West Slope, the risks are almost entirely on the West Slope, primarily on West Slope agriculture.”Carbondale-based Ken Neubecker, vice president of Colorado Trout Unlimited, shares that concern. Cities such as Durango, Grand Junction and Rangely could theoretically grow now by developing unallocated water in the Colorado River system. If Colorado has no water left to develop, the towns and cities will instead look to buy farms for their water rights, he says. Thus, Western Slope farms would ultimately be sacrificed for municipal uses, on both sides of the divide.There’s also dissent on the Eastern Slope. David Getches, dean of the University of Colorado School of Law, said at a March conference that the growing evidence of global warming should discourage massive transmountain diversions. Even if private investors should want to build pipelines from hundreds of miles away to deliver to the Front Range, it’s not good public policy to build a society that cannot be sustained, he says.Many, including Getches, argue that there’s a broad public risk to a water project like Million’s. If the project promises a certain yield of water, but global warming or sustained drought interrupt the flow, then society bears the cost of finding new water for the thousands who have come to depend on it. Undeterred, Million has moved ahead. The application for right of way along I-80 is now in a preliminary phase of review, says Walt George, the national project engineer for the BLM. He says the four federal agencies involved – the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service – are discussing which agency should lead the review.”More power to him if he can make it happen,” says the Northern District’s Werner, speaking of Million. “We think he has a few more hurdles in front of him than he thinks he has in front of him.”Allen Best writes frequently about water supply issues in Colorado and the American Southwest for both magazines and newspapers.
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