The Big Drain: Million pipeline proposal may be on the rocks, but the thirst for Green River water is unquenched

Flaming Gorge Reservoir has capacity to hold 3.5 million acre-feet altogether. That’s a big bucket, exceeded in the Colorado River Basin by only two others: Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, and that giant sandstone bowl of splish-splash in Utah called Lake Powell.

Drain Teaser

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But is the water that could be reached by tapping into Flaming Gorge enough to sustain export of large volumes via pipeline across the Continental Divide to southeastern Wyoming, let alone 560 miles away to central Colorado, as is being proposed? Nobody really knows.

There could be legal entitlements for enough water to serve the pipeline, yes. Harry C. LaBonde, Wyoming’s deputy state engineer, insists that Wyoming has a “sizeable amount of water” yet to develop from the Green River, under terms of two key interstate compacts, reached in 1922 and 1948, which govern the Colorado River Basin.

Colorado may also have legal entitlement to additional diversions of large volumes of water from the Colorado River Basin. Estimates range from 800,000 acre-feet to zero. Nobody really knows.

Compact-entitled water allocations, however, are not the same as water actually available in Flaming Gorge. Needs of several endangered species of fish downstream in the Green and Colorado rivers trump water for development, and the rights of Utah and Wyoming to the water must also be figured in.

Malcolm Wilson, chief of the water resources group for the Upper Colorado Regional Office of the Bureau of Reclamation, located in Salt Lake City, says his agency told Aaron P. Million, the first and at this point only pipeline applicant, in 2007 that 165,000 acre-feet per year might be available for a pipeline to Colorado. But that was based on a “very preliminary rough draft,” and later calculations indicate “even less water may be available,” says Wilson.

Million’s latest plan, however, calls for diversion of 160,000 to 200,000 acre-feet. Of that, 25,000 would be Wyoming water for Wyoming residents.

Wilson’s agency is modeling Flaming Gorge demands, and it is required to consider how global warming may affect water supplies. Until that study delivers a harder number about water availability, says John Kolb, a Sweetwater County commissioner, conversations about the proposed trans-basin diversions are just speculation. “Without knowing the facts, you’re just chasing your tail,” he says.

Just the same, the coalition of Rock Springs, Green River, and Sweetwater County that Kolb directs adamantly rejects any pipeline from Flaming Gorge. So do most Wyomingites. A recent poll financed by environmental groups found 79 percent of Wyoming residents opposed. Public Opinion Strategies, a market research company that most often works for Republican candidates, found even more staunch disapproval among those who knew something more about the proposals: 87 percent.

In-state dissents

Yet the idea of a pipeline has a certain allure in Torrington, Cheyenne, and in Laramie County, each of which has chipped in $25,000 as members of the Colorado/Wyoming Coalition, a rival to Million’s plan.

“If someone is going to provide water through a pipeline near our water system, we are going to be interested,” says Tim Wilson, director of the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities.

Green River watershed

A map of the Green River watershed. The Green River flows through northwestern Colorado for 41 miles. (Map by Karl Musser — click to enlarge)

The Cheyenne urban area, with 70,000 people, has sufficient water to meet growth during the next 15 to 25 years, Wilson says. Most of the city’s water comes from snowmelt in streams west of the city, including some water from the Colorado River headwaters near the Colorado-Wyoming border, with water brought through a tunnel and then an exchange of rights.

Cheyenne’s Wilson says many unanswered questions remain about a possible new supply piped in from Flaming Gorge, including the costs and the water rights.

Laramie County has a similar position. “If, in fact, there is additional (Colorado River) Compact water, and it can be brought into Laramie County, we want to tap into that,” says Gary Kranse, planning director. Almost exclusively dependent on groundwater, the county wants more diversity of supplies as population growth continues.

Torrington, population 6,000, is also at the prospective pipeline table. City engineer Bob Juve says conservation and efficiency measures have dampened demand in Torrington 30 percent, with more savings possible. But with the city growing 1 percent annually, those savings will have been exhausted in a few decades. And the North Platte River, which flows through the town, is already spoken for. Nebraska and Wyoming in 2001 signed a legal settlement that reaffirmed the longstanding arrangement that majority of the water in the river goes to Nebraska. A current expansion of the Pathfinder reservoir west of Casper, however, will allow some future new water supplies from the river for Wyoming communities along the Platte, along with some water to sustain whooping cranes, least terns and other endangered species downstream in Nebraska.

Supporting a Flaming Gorge pipeline has not, Juve acknowledges, made him popular in Southwestern Wyoming. He’s OK with that. “I don’t mind fighting with anybody, but I first want to know what we’re fighting about,” he says. “We are not trying to be adversarial with people in Sweetwater County. Obviously, they have interests that they have not fully defined yet.”

Colorado, too, has conflicting opinions. In September, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s leading water-policy commission, authorized $72,000 to establish a framework for evaluating the feasibility of a Flaming Gorge diversion. That’s chump change, as water studies go. Jennifer Gimble, director of the board (and a former assistant attorney general for Wyoming), carefully emphasized that the study was “not an affirmation of the project itself, or any aspect of it, but an agreement on how to fairly evaluate and scope out the issues involved.”

Environmentalists in Colorado were annoyed. As they saw it, this was a seed planted that may yet be nourished with further state allocations. The project, they insist, deserves no credibility. They paid $7,000 to erect a trio of billboards that melodramatically showed a lakebed, dry and with cracked soil – presumably Flaming Gorge after further diversion.

Strong endorsements of the pipeline study came from the Arkansas River Valley. Home of Rocky Ford melons, the valley’s water—much of it diverted from the Colorado River Basin— nourishes alfalfa, used to feed cattle. Since the 1950s, however, the valley has been losing that water. The water is being sold by farmers and ditch companies to Front Range cities. Having lost 70,000 acres of production already, the valley could lose another 75,000 to 98,000 acres, or about a third of existing production, says Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

As residential development in the Front Range grows, the South Platte Valley, where Denver and Greeley are located, could have it even worse. Some project the loss of all farms to a similar process. So when there’s a proposal like a new pipeline to tap into more water from the west, “I don’t know if it’s going anyplace, but as a state we need to talk about it,” says Winner.

The Pueblo Chieftain, in the Arkansas Valley, has been fiercer yet in its advocacy. “If the enviros are so concerned about the environment, let them visit Crowley County (located east of Pueblo), where the loss of most of its water has turned huge swatches of formerly productive farmland into a giant weed patch,” said the newspaper in a September editorial. “Do they want more of that?”

Home-run swings

Colorado has a conundrum of inverse proportions: about 80 percent of the state’s water falls naturally west of the Continental Divide, mostly as snow, and 85 percent of the state’s residents and the vast majority of its productive farms lie to the east. To overcome this imbalance, various interests have been doing big projects for more than a century. You might call them home-run swings.

Denver skyline

The skyline of downtown Denver, Colorado. As early as 1909, the City of Denver has been trying to secure sources of water to sustain its growing population. (Photo by Frank Reese — click to enlarge)

The first major effort came in 1894. Work began on incising the Grand River Ditch into the flanks of the Never Summer Range, in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, to deliver late-summer water to the farms along the Poudre River near Fort Collins and Greeley. In 1936, Denver began drawing water from the Fraser Valley, around what is now Winter Park. That added water is what allowed the city to flourish after World War II. Now, the area from Grand Lake to Aspen is a Swiss cheese of 27 separate tunnels, canals and pipelines that collectively achieve what historian David Lavender described as a “giant violation of geography.”

But the easy pickings are gone. The last major trans-mountain diversion, the federally financed Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, was launched in 1962. Headwaters close to the Front Range cities are mostly tapped out. Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the state’s two largest diverters, are trying to incrementally expand their diversions at the headwaters of the Colorado, near Winter Park, Granby and Breckenridge. Little is left to take. Somewhat more distant from Denver, the muscular resort communities of Vail and Aspen have been able to push back.

Several other home-run swingers have whiffed. In the 1980s, former Canadian oilman Maurice Strong – incidentally, the organizer of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro – bought the huge Baca Ranch in the San Luis Valley, between the Great Sand Dunes National Monument and the town of Crestone. This is about 150 miles southwest of Denver. A 1971 survey estimated that two billion acre-feet, or 50 times the combined capacity of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, exists below the ranch. Strong tried to mine this Closed Basin aquifer, but was blocked legally by furious potato farmers from the valley. Next came a flamboyant native son, Gary Boyce, with knee-high boots, an ability to speak the local language, and a more innovative scheme. You can, he told the farmers, make more money exporting water than growing spuds. He, too, was rebuffed — permanently now, it would seem, or as permanent as anything can ever be. The 97,000-acre ranch was purchased in 2004 by The Nature Conservancy for $33 million.

Other proposals, including one still vaguely alive, would draw water from the Gunnison area, two or three mountain ranges away from metropolitan Denver. In recent years, still other “straws” from distant rivers—including the Colorado near Grand Junction and the Yampa near Craig—have been kicked around, but with little more seriousness than bar-napkin sketches.

Suburban water providers have instead purchased farms for their water in what is called buy-and-dry. In recent years, Aurora and others have been experimenting with new water-sharing arrangements with farmers. Cities get the water 3 out of every 15 years, for example, or gain ownership of water savings after paying for efficiencies on farms. Another major initiative has been recycling of water. Aurora last year completed a $667 million pipeline that draws water from wells along the South Platte River, just downstream from the metropolitan area’s wastewater treatment plant, and then purifies it with state-of-the-art technology. Other pipelines are also imagined, including one that would extend 150 miles downstream on the South Platte River, nearly to the Nebraska border, to pump water to Denver’s suburbs.

None of these ideas, big or small, have generated the buzz of the gleam in a graduate student’s wandering eyes during a summer night in 2002 when his eye light on the Green River just below where it emerges from Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

Aaron Million’s eureka

Runoff during 2002 was anemic, the summer hot and crinkly. Smoke from the Hayman and other wildfires obscured Denver’s skyscrapers. Water-starved bluegrass in a park was spray-painted green for a mid-summer monument dedication. Corn crops withered. People were cranky. The multi-year drought that greeted the new century had begun.

Aaron Million, a one-time farmer who had had better luck in small-scale real-estate development, was studying for a master’s degree that summer in water economics at Colorado State University. Sequestered in the library one Sunday evening, he took a break in the lobby. There, he casually studied a map. He had grown up in the university town of Boulder, but spent summer vacations on the farm of his grandparents, near Green River, Utah. His eye followed the river upstream to where it hooked through Colorado for 41 miles below Flaming Gorge.

Green River Aerial

An aerial shot of a section of the Green River below the Flaming Gorge Reservoir as it passes through Utah. (Photo by Paul Jonusaitis — click to enlarge)

It was, he said in 2006, when he announced his plans, his eureka moment. Why not deliver water from the Green River to the Front Range of Colorado? It would, he asserted, save agriculture. It would diminish pressure to divert additional water from badly dewatered creeks and rivers at the Colorado River headwaters. It would deliver water to Denver’s groundwater-dependent suburbs, even to the exurbs of Colorado Springs, at least 560 miles from Flaming Gorge.

Credit Million with a big idea— even brilliance. Flaming Gorge is at about 6,200 feet in elevation, the same as Castle Rock, one of the target communities. The highest barrier between them is 7,900 feet, near Laramie.

Also credit Million with determination, maybe cockiness. Some who have heard his pitches think him naïve or disingenuous.

Juve, the city engineer in Torrington, says he was surprised when he first heard Million’s presentation. That was several years ago. Million was predicting he would break ground in two years and begin operations within four years. “I almost laughed out loud in the middle of a public meeting, because it’s just not going to happen,” says Juve.

Million credentialed himself at the outset with an illustrious team of advisors from both Colorado and Wyoming, including former Wyoming State Engineer Jeff Fassett.

Still, his project has lurched. Federal environmental review was triggered by many laws. The agencies settled on the Army Corps of Engineers to take the lead, and Million says he was told the review could be completed in 33 months.

But in July, the Corps suspended review. The Million Resource Group, it said in a public notice, had changed the primary purpose of the project from water supply to electrical power generation. Million said he thought he could get a more rapid federal review from another agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has jurisdiction over hydroelectric production (Click here to read about the pipeline permit process.)

In his new plans, Million proposes to harness the power of falling water in the 3,000-foot drop from Tie Siding to Fort Collins. Creating a pumped-storage component would provide backup value for wind and solar generation, he says. Million estimates 70 megawatts of power production capability, conceivably expanded up to 1,000 megawatts. However, it would still use at least twice as much energy as it produces, according to an analysis for Western Resource Advocates by economist George Oamek.

But Million’s greatest vulnerability may be absence of a clear use for Flaming Gorge water. Federal analysts have to see clear evidence of use in order to consider a possible permit to divert the water. Million says he can deliver “firm, good, quality water in Colorado that can be reused to extinction” for $16,000 to $18,000 per acre-foot. By his calculation, the Prairie Waters reuse project cost $75,000 per acre-foot.

His buyers? “We have commitments. That’s all I will say about it,” says Million.

Daniel F. Luecke, a consultant allied with environmental groups, scoffs. “They are as mushy and soft as they can be,” he says of the “commitment” letters he examined. Many are from irrigators. “They couldn’t pay for the water at the rates he needs to charge if they were growing poppies like the ones they have in Afghanistan,” said Luecke, alluding to the heroin trade.

Beware of friends

But from the outset, Million’s greatest vulnerability was his seeming allies. After all, the Colorado Constitution bans speculative filing of water rights. There must be committed buyers and users. What’s to stop a city from doing the project itself? And the South Metro area – the primary target for all the home-run swings since the 1980s – is seeking to do exactly that.

Castle Rock, Colorado

Castle Rock, CO in Douglas County. From 1980 to 2010, population of Douglas County increased more than 10-fold. Castle Rock is one of a number of Colorado communities seeking new sources of water. (Photo by Allen Best — click to enlarge)

Located in the uplands between Denver and Colorado Springs, these South Metro communities have new-car smell. Flanked by forests of ponderosa pine, they are notably well-educated, unflinchingly Republican, and extremely affluent. Largest and best known is Douglas County, which includes Castle Rock, Parker, and a variety of unincorporated communities. As of 2008, it had the eighth highest median household income in the nation. From 1980 to 2010, population of Douglas County increased more than 10-fold, to 285,000 people.

All they lack is water. Only a few small creeks exist. They’re premised on wells that suck up water left during the ice ages. But all experts warn that the well drafts are unsustainable. Pumping is becoming increasingly expensive, and new wells even now are being drilled to supplement failing ones. Even with this knowledge, some communities expect to double in size. This is the core area for what a 2008 state report predicted would be a “demand gap” of 538,000 acre-feet to 630,000 acre-feet in Colorado by 2040.

The coalition of South Metro water providers is represented by Frank Jaeger, the long-tenured director of Parker Water and Sanitation District. He began visiting Wyoming communities in 2008, describing a slow, deliberative and inclusive process. He should know about slow. Jaeger has often pointed out that soon after joining Parker in 1981, he started plotting a small reservoir needed to begin weaning Parker from its well-water dependency. That reservoir, Rueter-Hess, was finally completed in September.

Jaeger told a group in Cheyenne in 2009 that he prefers Green River water because it’s clean, little adulterated by sediments and impurities. Parker has bought farms in far northeastern Colorado, near Sterling. But Jaeger says he doesn’t want to use twice- or thrice-used water from the South Platte River, because it’s so costly to clean using reverse-osmosis technology.

Despite Jaeger’s preference for virgin water, Parker and other South Metro communities are negotiating with Denver to use Denver’s recycled water using Aurora’s Prairie Waters infrastructure. If the deal goes through, that buys Parker and other communities time. But Jaeger, and other water managers, said they never quit looking for water.

“This project is in its infancy,” Jaeger said of the South Metro pipeline proposal when he testified to the Colorado Legislature’s Interim Water Resources Review Committee in September. The project figures to draw 140,000 acre-feet, enough to drop Flaming Gorge by no more than six inches, he said.

A water diversion in Wyoming that primarily benefits Colorado has been a tough sell, he conceded. “I won’t say I’ve made friends…. At least they understand the problem.” And that problem, he went on to say, is that “there’s no way of getting out of this without getting more water to the Front Range of Colorado. Without that we’re just whistling in the dark.”

Jaeger’s South Metro’s more patient, methodical approach has drawn in several Wyoming local governments into his Colorado/Wyoming Coalition, including. Torrington. “That 25- to 35-year timeline is something we can live with, and it will probably take that long to get it done,” says Jule, of a Green River pipeline.

Million concedes “surprise” that Jaeger’s group chose not to collaborate with him. “Other than that, I can saddle my own horse,” he says.

Cost and risk

Two key criticisms have been directed at both pipelines. One is purely financial. Boiling the numbers, the consultant to Western Resource Advocates estimated a start-up cost of $4,700 per acre-foot for Million’s private-enterprise venture, or $2,800 for a diversion of a comparable size built by a public entity, presumably Jaeger’s group.

Costs for both private and public ventures would drop over time as new subscribers are added, but would remain “significantly more expensive than the cost of new supplies currently considered by Front Range water suppliers and users,” the report says.

The Continental divide in Wyoming. Any potential pipeline bringing water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Front Range cities will have to cross the divide. Critics of Million's proposal say the project isn't fiscally feasible without help from state and federal governments, but Million contends otherwise. (Photo by Allen Best — click to enlarge)

Western Resource Advocates insists that even Jaeger’s group would have a hard time financing such a big project without help from state and federal governments.

Million disputes the analysis, citing an estimated pipeline cost of $2.8 to $3 billion by two major national pipeline contractors. He also contends that the private sector can get things done for 30 to 50 percent less than a public entity. Jaeger’s group did not respond directly.

Eric Kuhn remains skeptical of the pipelines. He manages the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which encompasses most of the state’s Western Slope. If the goal is to save agriculture, it’s a very impractical way of doing it, he says. He sees the pipelines as expensive to construct and operate, but also expensive to get permitted – with no assurances of getting a permit. Ultimately, city councils will see transfers of existing agriculture supplies as less risky. “I don’t see this as a panacea for anything – except maybe for the consultants who get to work on it and analyze it,” he says.

And again, the final question is whether sufficient water is available now – let alone in the future. Recent statistical downscaling of computer models by the Bureau of Reclamation suggests global warming may reduce the Colorado River Basin water flows 9 percent by mid-century. Just a Lower Basin problem? No, it’s more complicated. The 1922 compact, which assumed the presence of more water than has existed in most decades since then, puts an onus on the upper-basin states to release water downstream to meet entitlements of Arizona, Nevada and Colorado. It’s possible Colorado, Wyoming and other upper-basin states, might have to curtail uses of water rights filed since 1922. Colorado and Wyoming have started thinking carefully about how best to respond.

Risk is the key issue, says Luecke, the environmental consultant who was a key figure in building opposition to another of the Denver area’s failed home-run pitches, Two Forks Dam, an attempt to build a large reservoir on South Platte headwaters. The Environmental Protection Agency vetoed that proposal in 1991 due to concern about fisheries at the dam site and endangered species in Nebraska.

“I am not a great believer in these regional hydrological models about what will happen in the Colorado River 50 years from now. We don’t know what lies ahead, but it’s not what we had in the past,” he says.

“When you’re faced with those circumstances, you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If there’s one message that climate scientists are delivering to us, if it is of portfolio approach. You hedge your bets in a number of smaller options as opposed to buying any one particular option.”

He and other environmentalists have long advocated smaller steps that use existing resources, including more efficient use of existing municipal supplies and innovative strategies to exploit water used for agriculture. Some 85 to 90 percent of existing water is used by agriculture, and about three-quarters of that specifically for livestock, mostly cattle.

Luecke’s predictions? “Aaron Million absolutely will not get a permit, and the chances of the South Metro group (Jaeger) getting something built are vanishingly small.”

Infield bunts

Water politics in Colorado and in western Wyoming  have long been driven by this one, nagging fear: that California was getting something to which it was not entitled – and might get accustomed to it. Squatter rights, if you will, bolstered by a huge population advantage. Million still plays that card. “If the water users of Wyoming decide they don’t want to access their water, then that’s their decision – and California, Arizona and Nevada will continue to benefit,” he says.

Stacy Tellinghuisen, water and energy analyst for Western Resource Advocates, says she believes proposals for pipelines at Flaming Gorge, Lake Powell and Las Vegas are all driven by a new realization of limits. “The thinking is that if we develop this now, if there is a shortage in the future, we will still have this water,” she says.

Green River

The Green River in Colorado. The state and Wyoming are gearing for a water politics battle with neighboring states, driven by a realization of future shortages. (Photo by Allen Best — click to enlarge)

There’s some evidence to support that. After all, the Bureau of Reclamation is only now modeling Flaming Gorge water availability because Utah and Million had pushed the question. “Prior to this, people didn’t really ask the question,” says the agency’s Wilson.

And seeing the bottom of the pail does force a different, and perhaps harder, thought process than when the pail was full. Environmentalists in recent decades have created a compelling case for a more sophisticated game strategy than the home-run swings of expensive infrastructure. Instead, they argue for more extensive changes in landscaping requirements and water conservation management, which might be the equivalent of a bunt to advance a runner. Colorado cities have invested in that; and California, too, has taken on elaborate conservation management to stay within its Colorado River Compact allotment. The question is whether they have done enough.

That’s not to dishonor Don Quixote figures like Million and Jaeger. The history of the West honors visionaries. Among those visionaries were Denver’s early architects, who foresaw need for water and in 1909 dispatched a reconnaissance team to Summit County, around Breckenridge, to scout future water diversion projects from Colorado’s Western Slope. That early vision became Dillon Reservoir in 1963, the metro area’s savior in the drought of 2002. But that was Denver, not an individual. If Million or Jaeger are going to hit a home run, they’re probably going to have to form strong alliances with sturdy organizations, perhaps Denver Water. If this is indeed Colorado’s last gulp out of the Colorado River, you can be sure there will be a fight in Colorado. And, as the polls suggest, in Wyoming, too.

Allen Best is a long-time journalist based in Colorado. He can be found at http://mountaintownnews.net.

(Banner photo by Paul Jonusaitis)

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Published on November 22, 2011

{ 1 comment }

Mary Flitner November 22, 2011 at 6:50 am

Excellent article. Wyoming, pay attention -

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