Fort Collins entrepreneur Aaron Million thinks that he has found a way to supply Colorado Springs, and much of the Front Range, with enough water to supply the need for the next century.
He doesn’t have a mysterious device to turn tumbleweeds into H20 — he wants to raid a reservoir in Wyoming.
Four years ago, Million was studying Colorado water issues in the Colorado State University library, when he noticed something that generations of water lawyers, water providers and politicians had apparently missed.
On the border of Wyoming and Utah, Flaming Gorge Reservoir dams the Green River. It’s an enormous impoundment, containing 3.8 million acre feet of water, 10 times as much as Pueblo Reservoir.
Below the reservoir, the Green River flows through Wyoming into Utah — with a brief, 41 mile detour through northwest Colorado.
That detour, Million realized, means that Colorado has a claim to water in Flaming Gorge, since the Green is tributary to the Colorado River and flows through the state of Colorado.
“I knew the Green River was a legal tributary of the Colorado mainstem,” Million said, “and that allows us to file for an appropriation from Flaming Gorge.”
Under the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which divided the river’s flow between the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) and the lower basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada), each basin receives half the river’s annual flow, then estimated at 15 million acre feet.
Of the water allocated to Colorado in the original compact, as much as 500,000 acre-feet remains unused.
Million reasoned that a pipeline running east along the Interstate 80 corridor, and then south along the Front Range, could deliver Colorado’s unused allotment to the Front Range, provided that institutional and political obstacles could be overcome.
“There’s still a substantial amount of water in the (Colorado River) system — and we have gotten a lot of accolades as by far the least damaging project of any proposed.”
He assembled a team that included former state water engineers from Colorado and Wyoming, the former director of Utah’s Division of Water Resources and water lawyers from two Denver firms.
Million estimates that the project would cost between $3 billion and $4 billion, including permitting, legal fees and the cost of constructing two parallel 42-inch pipelines from Flaming Gorge to Pueblo — more than 400 miles.
He believes that the pipelines could deliver as much as 225,000 acre feet annually and that the project would have multiple advantages compared to other plans that seek to provide additional water to Front Range communities.
Million said that no water would be removed from overstressed drainages, such as the Arkansas, the Yampa or the Poudre rivers. No new reservoirs would need to be built, no wilderness areas would be disturbed and no rivers would need to be dammed.
Moreover, Million said that since “Flaming Gorge is fed by snowmelt from the Wind River Range (in northwest Wyoming), it brings a different hydrological risk.”
That means drought in the central Rockies wouldn’t affect water levels. Powerful Western Slope interests, such as skiing/resort communities, wouldn’t be threatened by such a project.
Million acknowledges the difficulties that confront him, but believes that the benefits of the project are so enormous that it will inevitably be built.
“The benefits for in-stream flows, for fish recovery programs, for agriculture — the environmental benefits are huge,” he said. “And we’re going to do it privately. Because of fractures in the water community, we can be much more efficient as private developers.”
Pueblo water lawyer and Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy Board member Shawn Yoxey is skeptical.
She doubts Million’s assertion that the project could be completed within five years, as well as his belief that it wouldn’t affect interstate compacts, and that all affected states are ready to sign off on the project.
In an e-mail, Yoxey said that she is “not sure that it is truly a viable alternative to SDS (the Southern Delivery System). Remember, if something appears too good to be true … it usually is. However, it is thought-provoking nonetheless.”
Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, points out that any plan to use Colorado’s remaining compact entitlement will face many obstacles.
There are, he said, questions of hydrology — how much water is really there?
The 1922 compact assumes average flows of 15 million acre feet annually, but those estimates were derived from data obtained in historically wet years. There might be significantly less water available than the compact assumes.
Moreover, Kemper said, oil shale companies hold unused senior water rights, which they’ll need to exercise if they ever launch large-scale operations.
But, he said, by inviting Million to address the CWC, he hopes to encourage discussion about issues facing the Colorado water community.
“How much water do we have?” he asked. “How much risk are water providers prepared to assume? And how do we allocate resources in years of shortage, as well as in years of surplus?”
Eric Kuhn, executive director of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, agrees with Kemper. He said that the 15 million acre feet yearly flow is a “synthetic figure-derived from about 20 years of measurements, from very few stream gauges, in wet years — actually, they thought that the real number was closer to 17 million.”
Of greater importance, Kuhn said, is the impact of regional climate change.
“All the science seems to suggest one direction (for the Central Rockies) — a warmer climate with less stream flow,” he said. “We know that an increase in yearly average temperature of 1 degree centigrade requires a 20 percent increase in precipitation to maintain the same stream flow. But what is most likely is an increase in temperature coupled with less precipitation.”
That means, Kuhn said, that there might be far less unallocated water in the Colorado than currently assumed — perhaps as little as 150,000 acre feet — and even that may be questionable.
But Million is optimistic.
“Hydrological risk is the reason that reservoirs are built,” he said.
And, he points out, Flaming Gorge was built precisely to provide storage for the upper basin states.
“From the beginning, we looked at this primarily for its environmental benefits,” he said.
Under Colorado water law, water that is transferred from one basin to another can be used to extinction. That means, Million claims, that 215,000 acre-feet of Flaming Gorge water can, through recycling and re-use, translate into an effective yield between 600,000 and 800,000 acre feet .
By using Flaming Gorge water to “leverage conservation and land use,” Million believes that Front Range cities will not be driven to buy/lease water rights from agricultural users and continue to remove tens of thousands of acres from productive use.
The clashes between urban and agricultural interests, which in one case last year led to the shutdown of hundreds of irrigation wells along the North Platte, would be a thing of the past.
Million said that alternative schemes to tap the Colorado carry much steeper environmental costs, and by contrast, his is just a pipeline project — mostly along rights-of-way where pipelines already run.
Could Flaming Gorge water replace the water that Colorado Springs hopes to bring north from the Arkansas River via the Southern Delivery System?
While intrigued by Million’s project, Gary Bostrom and Bruce McCormick of Colorado Springs Utilities are unconvinced.
Like Kuhn and Kemper, they’re not sure how much water is actually available in the Colorado. And like Yoxey, they think that Million underestimates the political and regulatory obstacles that he confronts.
“We don’t want to be naysayers,” McCormick said, “It’s a very ambitious project. But we understand the realities of such a project. There are hurdles in terms of permitting — he’ll need federal permits, state permits, there are issues between Colorado and Wyoming, county land use issues. And we know that water pipeline projects attract much more attention than other pipeline projects.”
According to McCormick and Bostrom, the interests of Colorado Springs are better served by developing rights on the Arkansas, rather than increasing the city’s reliance upon the Colorado.
Whether the Springs signs on or passes, Million said the project will be formally launched in the near future.
“We have sufficient contractual interest today to initiate the project,” he said. “We’re trying to incorporate as much as we can of the environmental aspects — relief of the pressure on the headwaters streams, agricultural use, wildlife habitat. It would be great to have the Springs involved — and we could provide as much water, in effective yield, as they project to get from SDS. But it’s not our intent to circumvent (their project).”
Million admits that there are political barriers.
“There are some very farsighted water people working for Colorado municipalities, and there are some who are not, who are used to the status quo, who are more comfortable fighting each other than co-operating,” he said.
But he’s confident that the project will be built. And he has a message for fence-sitters.
There’s only going to be one project that will bring water from Flaming Gorge to the Front Range. And once the train has pulled out of the station, that’s it.
“Once it’s designed,” Million said, “it’s designed.”