Agribusiness  February 12, 2010

Million delivers letters of interest

More than a dozen Front Range water providers have expressed interest in obtaining water through a proposed pipeline from the Flaming Gorge/Green River watershed in southwest Wyoming – if Fort Collins developer Aaron Million can pull it off.

Last month, Million delivered to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers letters of interest from water districts, municipalities, counties, ditch companies and others who said they could use some new water supplies. The letters were submitted in response to a request by the Corps to show evidence of need for the project.

The Corps is studying a proposal by Million to pipe water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming along the Interstate 80 corridor and then bring it down to thirsty communities in southern Wyoming and along Colorado’s Front Range.

Gary Herman, president of the Groundwater Management Subdistrict of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley, was one who submitted a letter of interest on behalf of the Million Conservation Resource Group.

“We are interested in acquiring additional water supplies,” Herman wrote in a letter dated Jan. 13. “While we obviously cannot commit to acquire water from the MCRG Project absent agreement on price and all other terms, we can express an interest in exploring the acquisition of up to 50,000 acre-feet per year from the MCRG Project and in negotiating with you to explore such an arrangement.”

Tom Cech, Central’s manager, said the water would be used to replace agriculture water for shut-down irrigation wells along the South Platte River. Cech said thousands of wells have been shut down by court order since 2003 because well owners had no way to replace water they pumped out of the river for their crops.

“There are still several thousand wells that have not pumped again,” he said. “Any source of water would be helpful.”

Need exceeds project scope

Million was able to solicit letters of interest for far more than the minimum 165,000 acre-feet he’s asking the Corps of Engineers to approve, which would be delivered through a pipeline of more than 400 miles with a price tag in the neighborhood of $3 billion to $4 billion.

“There’s at least 275,000 acre-feet of interest out there,” Million said. “The interest in the project underpins the benefits of the project overall.”

An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to fill a one-acre space with one foot of water. That amount, 325,851 gallons, is roughly the equivalent of water consumed by a family of four in a year.

Million said benefits of the project include supplying municipalities with drinking water, preventing ag-land dry-up and enhancing river flows. “We were very pleased with the diversity of interest from the potential users of this project,” he said. “All these entities have different needs and interests, and I don’t think there’s ever been this amount of interest for a single project.”

Million said his project is designed to help preserve Front Range agriculture and be as environmentally friendly as possible. Growing up on a ranch along the Green River gave him a special affinity for those who work the land and respect the environment, he said.

“Environmental issues have infused this project from Day One,” he said. “Environmental protection is the cornerstone of what we’ve looked at first and foremost.”

Million, a real estate entrepreneur, has been working on the pipeline project since 2003, when he noticed on a map that the Green River loops into Colorado, giving the state a stake in any excess capacity of the river.

Million has since lined up partners and investors in the project and submitted it to the Army Corps of Engineers for review, which is currently studying his Environmental Impact Statement.

Although he has spent years and millions of dollars getting the proposal to its current status, Million said he will walk away if the Corps says it is not environmentally sound.

“We only have an interest in seeing this go forward if it meets the environmental goals, and if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t go forward,” he said.

State needs water

Eric Hecox, intrastate water management and development specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the state could certainly use new sources of water.

“The work we’ve done shows over the next 40 to 50 years we’ll face a significant need for additional water supplies,” he said.

But some are nervous about the idea of a group of private investors getting control of such a large water supply. “I think that’s a concern to a variety of people in the state,´ said Hecox, who added the Water Conservation Board has not yet taken an official position on Million’s proposal.

But he noted that, throughout Colorado’s history, groups of private investors have taken the lead in developing water supply projects and then transferred them to public ownership.

Cech said his Central District isn’t worried about who owns the water. “The bottom line is we need water as soon as possible,” he said. “If we can accomplish what (Million) says it would, it would be very beneficial to northeast Colorado.”

Rena Brand, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineer’s Denver office, said the letters submitted by Million may be a big step toward a ruling on his proposal.

“We’re now working to review and verify the information submitted,” she said. “Once we have verified and validated that information, the Corps will develop a Purpose and Need Statement. That’s kind of a first step for any EIS. It builds a framework for how we review the entire proposal.”

Brand said Million’s proposal will be looked at in comparison with other possible alternatives “to satisfy those needs” expressed in the letters. “It may be that a Flaming Gorge is not the solution,” she said. “We could end up looking at possibly hundreds of solutions.”

Brand said a draft EIS of Million’s proposal is tentatively set for public comment in 2012 with a possible final EIS ready by 2014.

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More than a dozen Front Range water providers have expressed interest in obtaining water through a proposed pipeline from the Flaming Gorge/Green River watershed in southwest Wyoming – if Fort Collins developer Aaron Million can pull it off.

Last month, Million delivered to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers letters of interest from water districts, municipalities, counties, ditch companies and others who said they could use some new water supplies. The letters were submitted in response to a request by the Corps to show evidence of need for the project.

The Corps is studying a proposal by Million…

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