Can big straw quench Colorado’s thirst?
Vail, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” After a year of polite discussion about a proposed pipeline what would send water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah and Wyoming to Colorado’s to the growing cities along Colorado’s Front Range, the gloves are coming off.
Directors of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District are being advised by Eric Kuhn, the agency’s general manager, to oppose the project proposed by Aaron Million, a former rancher turned entrepeneur.
It’s unclear whether sufficient water in the Colorado River basin remains to be developed, says Kuhn. The Legislature, he notes, has asked for 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.
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 in Utah and Wyoming, holds 3.8 million acre-feet that Colorado could draw upon.
“The risk is ours, not his,” says Million, responding to Kuhn’s recommendation.
Directors of the agency are scheduled to consider Kuhn’s advice at a meeting on July 17 and 18. The district encompasses 15 Western Slope counties, from Steamboat to Ouray. Eagle County’s representative on the board is County Commissioner Arn Menconi.
Meanwhile, 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 water falls on the Western Slope.
Relatively little of that Western Slope water in the headwaters near ski towns remains unspoken for, and Front Range cities are laying plans to capture those final pails.
What water that remains is far downstream, west of Grand Junction, or on the Yampa River, where Steamboat Springs and Craig are located.
Hence the visions of big straws, or pipelines that would pump the water over the mountains to growing, thirsty cities.
One such straw has been advocated for decades by David Miller, who envisions a reservoir near Crested Butte at a site called Union Park. But courts have ruled no extra water exists there, so he would have to get his water downstream of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, nearly to the town of Delta. The idea hangs by the slimmest of threads.
A 2003 study conducted by state officials found 15 potential big straw possibilities, ranging in cost from $3.7 billion to $15 billion. The most attractive alternative is a pipeline along I-70 to the Continental Divide near the Climax Mine. The study found no fatal flaws but many problems. It has spawned no proposals.
A more formal idea was announced last year, this time by the Conservancy District Conservancy District. The district operates the Colorado-Big Thompson project on behalf of Greeley, Fort Collins, and other cities as well as farmers in the South Platte River Valley.
This pipeline could draw 20 percent of the Yampa River’s annual yield from a reservoir west of Craig and pump it 250 miles to the Front Range. Presumably the buyers for this water, as for Million’s water, would be cities, particularly Denver’s south metro area. Water prices have been escalating even more rapidly than real estate, in some cases hitting $20,000 an acre-foot.
The Yampa is Colorado’s most unallocated and untrammeled river. No dams block the main stem as it flows into Dinosaur National Park. In that basin, the pumpback has spawned both cheers and catcalls.
Brian Werner, spokesman for Conservancy District, 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 said.
But the Conservancy District is also saying that plans should be shelved until Colorado, as ordered by the Legislature last winter, conducts a study to better determine how much water Colorado retains under the compact entitlements.
The most realistic estimates, said Werner, range from 300,000 to 700,000 acre feet.
Million’s proposal for what he insists can be up to 165,000 acre-feet is the most novel of the straws.
A one-time farmer and real-estate investor, Million had returned to Colorado State University to work on a doctorate in economics. Studying at the university library one evening in 2003, Million paused before a Colorado map and began studying the Green River.
The river forms south of Wyoming’s Jackson Hole, in the Wind River Mountains, entering Colorado briefly near Dinosaur National Park.
The Green River carries nearly as much water as the Colorado River when the two meet near Moab.
Million studied the map, eying the 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.
From Laramie the pipes would descend to reservoirs near Fort Collins, and from there the water would be distributed to farms and 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 Grand Lake to 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.