We find ourselves in the middle of one of the greatest wealth transfer periods of all time. Those with wealth must decide whether they want to make transfers, and if they do, they must decide how much, to whom, when and in what structure?
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Developer Aaron Million is trying to sell state and federal officials and Front Range water utilities on his grandiose scheme to pump water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border 550 miles from the Front Range.
If they buy this pipedream, I’ve got some riverfront land in the Mojave Desert to sell them.
This project is a huge distraction for Colorado — a colossal waste of time for a state that needs to find pragmatic, cost-effective options for meeting diverse water needs. For a host of reasons, the Flaming Gorge pipeline project does not make basic sense.
This will be the most expensive water in Colorado history. The project, estimated by the Colorado Water Conservation Board to cost $7 billion to $9 billion (far higher than Million’s $3 billion estimate), would provide water two to 10 times more expensive than water from other proposed or recently developed water projects, according to an analysis by Western Resource Advocates. A project of this magnitude would require state subsidies and saddle taxpayers with an unfair burden.
Million has identified irrigators as his primary customers. But water from the pipeline would cost up to $4,700 per acre-foot per year. There’s not an agricultural operation in the state that could afford Flaming Gorge pipeline water.
Municipalities aren’t buying Million’s water, either. In fact, the high anticipated cost of Flaming Gorge pipeline water is driving some cities to buy ag lands and convert the irrigation water. Far from saving agriculture, Million’s plan is hastening its dry-up.
The project would have huge environmental costs. Million has said that if the pipeline proposal has adverse environmental impacts, he’ll be the first to “stick a fork in it.”
It’s time to stick a fork in it.
The withdrawal of 81 billion gallons of water each year from Flaming Gorge Reservoir would draw down water levels and threaten the world-class trout fisheries and endangered native fish species in the Green River. The pipeline itself would cut across and degrade sensitive wildlife habitat, such as Wyoming’s spectacular Little Mountain area, renowned for its trophy elk and native cutthroat trout populations. And it could spread invasive aquatic species — such as zebra mussels and burbot — to Wyoming and Colorado waters.
The pipeline could inflict an economic double-whammy. Communities in Utah and Wyoming that depend heavily on tourism and recreation dollars associated with Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the Green River could see their economic livelihood dry up. But the other shoe would eventually fall in Colorado, too, when water users in Colorado find that Million’s go-for-broke pipeline has used Colorado’s last remaining allocation of water under the Colorado River Compact, effectively shutting off the tap on other municipal water development projects on both sides of the Continental Divide. Instead of a regional lifeline, the pipeline could turn into an economic ball and chain.
It’s true that, because of expected growth, the Front Range of Colorado faces a projected water supply shortfall of nearly 500,000 acre-feet annually by 2050. That’s a serious water supply gap.
But the Flaming Gorge pipeline isn’t the solution. Colorado has better, cost-effective alternatives. As outlined in our recent Filling the Gap reports, a portfolio of smart strategies — conservation, voluntary sharing agreements with irrigators, reuse and small-scale storage projects — could more than meet state needs for decades to come, and with far less impact on our rivers and streams.
It’s clear that a portfolio of innovative solutions — not costly “silver bullet” schemes such as the Million pipeline — offers the best way to balance our water budget without bankrupting our state or breaking our rivers and streams.
Wasting time on pie-in-the-sky proposals only diverts our energy from the real work of developing these better alternatives.
Drew Peternell is director of the Colorado Water Project for Trout Unlimited, whose mission is to conserve, protect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.