Developer Aaron Million is selling his proposed 500-mile water pipeline from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border to the Front Range as a win for everyone, from thirsty Front Range communities to farmers to fish.
If you buy that, I’ve got riverfront property in the Mojave Desert to sell you.
The public isn’t hearing enough about the very real economic and environmental pitfalls of this multi-billion-dollar pipedream. The proposal is rife with problems, including:
At the request of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing permitting for the project, Million produced a list of potential project customers. Almost all are irrigators. According to a recent analysis by Western Resource Advocates, the value of irrigation water in eastern Colorado is less than $100 per acre-foot. By comparison, water from the $3 billion pipeline would cost an estimated $2,200 per acre-foot. There’s not an agricultural operation in the state that could afford Million’s water.
Pressed on this point, Million says that agricultural water will be deeply discounted. So who would pay for the most expensive water ever developed in Colorado? It won’t be farmers, and few municipalities have expressed interest in the project. The economics don’t add up, and it appears that Million is engaging in water speculation, which is illegal under Colorado law.
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 pipeline would have huge environmental costs. The withdrawal of 225,000 acre-feet of water each year from Flaming Gorge Reservoir would draw down water levels–envision a mud-caked bathtub ring and stranded boat docks— and would threaten the world-class trout fisheries and endangered native fish species in the Green River below Flaming Gorge. The water withdrawal would also adversely affect boating, angling and other recreation opportunities, which draw more than 2.5 million visitors to the Flaming Gorge area each year. 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.
Moreover, the energy consumption and carbon footprint associated with piping all that water to the Front Range could be enormous. Western Resource Advocates calculates that the Million pipeline could emit some 470,000 tons of CO2 per year—the equivalent of burning 48 million gallons of gasoline annually.
The pipeline could inflict an economic double-whammy on the region. 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.
Million is not alone in his pipeline proposal. A coalition of Colorado and Wyoming utilities, led by water providers in Denver’s south metro area, has formally announced a proposal for a very similar pipeline that would also run from Flaming Gorge to the Front Range. A study is in the works. The concerns about the economic and environmental impacts of Million’s pipeline apply equally to the utilities’ proposal.
With their enormous economic and environmental costs, big dams and pipelines are water supply solutions of the past. The West is entering a challenging new era of water scarcity and limits, one that requires a new spirit of cooperation, pragmatism and innovation. We have cost-effective and commonsense water solutions available to us, such as voluntary leasing arrangements with irrigators, aquifer recharge, water reuse and municipal conservation. These and other smart strategies could go a long way toward securing our water future while protecting our rivers and wildlife.
Wasting time on pie-in-the-sky proposals only distracts and diverts our energy from the real work of developing these alternatives.
Drew Peternell is Director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project.
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