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The Flaming Gorge Project, a 548-mile pipeline from southwest Wyoming, has the potential to bring a new water supply to the region and capture part of Colorado’s remaining compact allocation in the Upper Basin, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.
The argument that no further Upper Basin water projects be developed, which is a position some have taken, by default and in the simplest terms means California, Nevada and Arizona all benefit to the detriment of this region.
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Colorado faces a massive water supply shortfall, projected to be between 500,000 to 700,000 acre-feet over the next 20 years.
New water and new storage, one of Gov. Hickenlooper’s keystone policy objectives and a long-standing objective for Colorado, can basically be accomplished with a pipe connection.
This project would divert less than 5 percent annually out of the massive Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is 25 times larger than Horsetooth Reservoir.
The pipeline would follow a federal energy corridor and other transmission routes, minimizing even the temporary disturbance of a buried pipeline. And hydroelectric power will be generated from the several thousand-foot elevation drop from Wyoming to the South Platte.
But at what cost? What are the tradeoffs? Water projects are contentious and this one is no different. But the Flaming Gorge Project has several advantages for a new water supply.
The Green River system itself, starting just south of Jackson Hole, has a different snowpack regime, which mitigates risk compared to relying on water from a single source or watershed.
Also, global warming models predict the Green’s more northerly region to be wetter than average, while the Colorado River main-stem drainage, the historical focus of Front Range water needs, is predicted to be dryer than average.
And the Green River is as large as the Colorado River main-stem, with comparatively little consumptive use and very few diversions.
Without question, the river has major environmental and recreational benefits that require protection.
A recently completed federal Record of Decision (ROD) does just that. The ROD’s directive to re-regulate releases at Flaming Gorge dam protects recreation and will enhance fisheries and endangered species downstream. The re-regulation of the dam was hailed by the environmental community as a “collaborative win.”
So why does that matter for this region? It matters because an overall systems analysis on the Green River following implementation of the ROD indicates substantial surplus flows after meeting all the environmental needs of the river.
Those surpluses, estimated at several hundred-thousand acre feet in a river system that flows over 1.5 million acre-feet annually, could be used to bring in a new water supply for the South Platte and Arkansas basins, generate new alternative energy, produce hundreds of millions of dollars in economic benefits, and provide re-use of waters for agriculture to keep the region strong and vibrant.
So the real question is this: If a large river system can be fully protected, and at the same time some of the potential surpluses from that same system alleviate major supply issues elsewhere, isn’t that an environmentally sound and reasonable water supply approach? The question remains unanswered until a rigorous and thorough environmental impact evaluation is completed.
An “environmental impact statement” evaluates environmental impacts using scientific analysis, the same science that the environmental community has used so well to serve policy interests in obtaining environmental requirements for the Green or species protection all over this country. But some of those same environmental interests that science has served so well want none of it now. They don’t want this project to be evaluated. They don’t want any part of the new Flaming Gorge task force that the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the State of Colorado recently set up to independently review the issues for this project.
So why not consider it? The truth is we need a new water supply, we need new storage, we need to help alleviate pressure on rivers like the Poudre and the South Platte.
And we need responsible and sane regional growth solutions. It would be a solid policy goal for conservation to exclusively cure this half-a-million-acre-foot-plus water supply shortfall the state has evaluated and re-evaluated. But it can’t.
And interruptible water supplies from agriculture will never be a cure or even part of the solution. Just because it works in year-round cropping areas like the Imperial Valley doesn’t mean it will work here. So let the science determine the outcome for this water supply and hydropower project – the environmental impact study process.
I believe this we need to take this project through its paces. If it is environmentally sound, it should be permitted and built. If not, then stick a fork in it. The truth of a full scientific and environmental evaluation may be hard for some in the environmental community to swallow, but the consequences of not allowing that evaluation to occur remain:
A continued bulls-eye on the Poudre, reverse-osmosis plants on the South Platte because of poor water quality, more future dry-up of the agricultural base in this state, and continued pressure on the western high country of our nearby mountain peaks.
Million is a principal in Wyco Power and Water Inc.