PUEBLO – A Fort Collins entrepreneur is proposing a 400-mile, $4 billion pipeline from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border to the Colorado Front Range as a way to meet a gap in Colorado’s future water supply.
The pipeline would be privately financed but eventually turned over to a public water authority, supplying water for growing needs in Colorado, said Aaron Million.
“It’s a way to take water from the largest underutilized river in the West to benefit cities, agriculture and the environment on the Front Range,” Million said.
Million said his background in agriculture and concern for the environment make the premise for this water project different from other projects that have been shot down or delayed in recent years. Most importantly, it will provide a new source of water and storage for the state.
For nearly three years, he has honed the concepts and confidentially briefed federal, state and municipal water officials about the project. This week he decided to take it public with a story in Colorado Biz magazine.
Million developed the plan as a graduate student at CSU, studying agriculture and resource economics for a master’s thesis. He is now working on a doctorate in natural resource policy.
“My Ph.D. work is focused on using water as a limiting resource to push for conservation and better land use policy,” Million said. “There is a very tenuous link between water and growth. Some people say bringing in more water fuels growth. But if this were true, you wouldn’t have 1 million people move to the state after the Two Forks veto.”
Instead, Million hopes to create a public-private partnership that would relieve pressure on agriculture, do very little to disturb the environment and provide cities with an alternative source of water to fill a projected gap in the decades ahead.
Growing up, Million split his time between the Utah community of Green River, where his grandfather raised sheep and cattle, and Boulder, one of his father’s stops on a career as a geologist. His own career has been one of operating farms and ranches throughout the West, as well as hotel and office-building development.
Million started thinking about the project shortly after voters turned down Referendum A in 2003 and the Legislature rejected the so-called Big Straw project, a plan to pump water from the Utah state line to the Front Range.
“I kept looking at the oxbow in the Green River, this little sliver of water on a map that no one looked at before,” Million said.
He said his background, the dire straits of Colorado water supply at the time and his academic studies all played a part in noticing a potential project that had escaped the attention of others.
Rather than divert water directly from the river, he looked upstream to a federal reservoir built primarily to allow Upper Basin states develop their share of water under the 1922 Colorado Compact. Rather than piping directly across the state, he looked to a northerly route through another state with less drastic rises and falls in elevation.
Million’s idea is to take water from the Green River and use it in the state by diverting it from Flaming Gorge Reservoir. He envisions 250,000 to 450,000 acre-feet of water a year coming through a pair of at least 42-inch pipelines along existing federal energy corridors along Interstate 80 in Wyoming.
The Green River flows for about 40 miles through Colorado, mostly through public land, before joining with the Yampa River and flowing back into Utah. The White River joins the Green in Utah, where the Green continues onward to join the Colorado River just above Lake Powell.
The unappropriated water in the Colorado portion of the Green River will be the basis for a request of a water supply contract from the Bureau of Reclamation from Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Million also may have to file a claim in water court as well and is still investigating the possibility.
“There are some non-speculation issues, but the reality is we will have contractual obligations by the time we make an application,” Million said.
He optimistically estimates the project could be permitted within three years and constructed within two years – if all the pieces were to fall into place.
“If the environmental community doesn’t block it, it could be online in five years,” Million said.
While he realizes there are some hurdles to overcome, he said the project would be built with private financing, possibly eliminating some political battles and funding difficulties.
He’s also got some major league help. His chief counsel is William Hillhouse, of Denver’s White and Jankowski, one of the state’s top water lawyers. Also on the legal team are lawyer Jim Lochhead, a key player in current Colorado River Compact negotiations, and policy consultant Ted Trimpa, both of Brownstein Farber & Hyatt.
Consultants include former state water engineers Jeris Danielson of Colorado and Jeff Fassett of Wyoming, as well as former Utah water resources director Larry Anderson. Walid Hajj, former head of Thornton water, is his municipal policy adviser. Jim Eddy, a former NBC television executive, is his strategy consultant. Finally, States West of Cheyenne, Wyo., is handling permits on the project.
“The private reception to this project has been amazing,” Million said. “The investment community looks at this as a slam dunk. I’ve already had offers to finance it purely from private sources. It’s one of the more easily financed projects I’ve been involved with.”
Flaming Gorge Reservoir can store up to 3.8 million acre-feet of water. Built in 1962 in northeastern Utah by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Flaming Gorge Dam also generates power and provides recreation.
However, since the Green River flows mainly through canyonlands, there are few farms irrigated below it.
There are only 5,000 to 7,000 acres of irrigated farmland along the river, and few prospects for more use of the river in the wild country of eastern Utah, Million said.
Other projects have been suggested in recent years to bring in more water from the Western Slope as allowed under the Colorado Compact, but have been blocked by Western Slope concerns. Front Range communities already divert nearly 500,000 acre-feet annually, but even more is available for in-state development.
“Colorado has not been able to use its full compact obligation, because nobody’s been able to figure out how the hell to do that,” Million said.
In working on his master’s thesis, as yet unpublished, Million found himself one evening in the CSU Morgan Library looking at maps of the state and was drawn to the Green River.
“It’s the only river that flows into Colorado, and then out again,” Million said. “I kept thinking, ‘Is this an environmentally sound project?’ ”
His conclusion: Yes.
Million said his project would add water to Colorado’s supply from a watershed that stretches far north of the state with different snowfall and runoff patterns. The pipeline would be a minimal disturbance to the environment and follow the route of existing natural gas pipelines. The five pumping stations along the way would be fueled by natural gas to avoid demands on the power grid.
An environmental impact statement on Flaming Gorge released in February showed the need for some changes in releases of water from the dam, none of which would conflict with the project, Million said.
No new reservoirs would necessarily be built along the route, but there are existing reservoirs that could be incorporated, Million said.
“The project would give the flexibility to put reservoirs where they should be, not where they must go,” Million said.
Million envisions a pricing structure that takes into account prevailing prices for water in various markets, rather than a one-size-fits-all scheme.
“Each city has to look at the opportunity cost and if it meets their fiduciary responsibility and timing,” Million said. “Ultimately, what cities will look at is if this provides a firm yield and the quality of the water they need.”
The pipeline would begin to branch off into smaller lines in the Denver Metro area and could stretch as far south as Colorado Springs, Million said. It also could be part of the solution to recharging the Denver Basin aquifer.
Since transbasin water can be used to extinction, Million said the project would emphasize conservation measures and water recycling.
Besides relieving pressure on agriculture from sales to cities, Million said some of the water in the pipeline would be available for sale to agriculture, potentially helping with problems like those faced by South Platte farmers who can’t afford to buy water for augmentation.
Ag users might also be able to use return flows from cities, he said.
“I think this project would strengthen the ties between cities and the ag community,” Million said. “Rotational crop plans are a short-term Band-Aid and coming from an ag background I’m in a position to understand that better. It’s like they say, ‘We want to rent your house for two months out of the year.’ But the result is that agriculture won’t be as flexible and it could hurt estate values.”