Experts doubt a proposed Flaming Gorge pipeline will be built, but it could start a regional water war anyway

Opposition is mounting rapidly to a Colorado man’s proposal to pipe Green River water from Utah to the Denver area — and the objections aren’t coming only from the usual suspects.

Despite growing water scarcity, states that share the Colorado River have been reluctant to openly criticize their neighbors’ water development proposals. But officials in Utah and Colorado are lining up against the latest idea to deliver water from Flaming Gorge to the greater Denver metropolitan area.

The Utah Division of Water Resources was among the first to file formal objections to Fort Collins resident Aaron Million’s application to export 55,000 acre-feet of water from the Green River, to be tapped near Utah’s Browns Park in Daggett County.

Million, who has unsuccessfully pushed his pipeline idea before, must be granted the right to use the water by the Utah state engineer. But Eric Millis, the Division of Water Resources’ director, said the proposal is missing crucial details — including whether the water million wants even belongs to Colorado.

“That was one of the things that we were looking for [in the application],” Millis said. “There is nothing there to indicate support or backing or that it would be part of Colorado’s apportionment.”

Eight Utah water suppliers are formally objecting to Million’s request as well, including the Washington County Water Conservancy District, which along with the state also seeks Green River water to build the proposed Lake Powell pipeline to bring Colorado River water to St. George.

Million, an entrepreneur and doctoral student at Colorado State University, said he isn’t worried, calling Utah’s opposition a mere formality. The states that span the Colorado River’s headwaters share a “brotherhood,” Million said, and have a long history of working together to help each other take advantage of their water resources.

Million said Utah should support the Flaming Gorge pipeline because the goals of his project and state’s Lake Powell pipeline plan are largely identical.

“They’re not competitive,” he said. “They’re complementary.”

Yet several Utah residents, environmental groups and industry trade groups also object to Million’s project. But it is the opposition — or lack of overt support — in Colorado for the $800 million to $1 billion water proposal that may be the most telling.

In fact, to some in Utah, the absence of any formal government backing in Colorado makes this project different, providing a kind of green light for Utah to oppose the plan — even though doing so risks upsetting a delicate balance in Colorado River politics.

‘risky and problematic’

The 1922 Colorado River Compact governs use of the river’s water, intended to solve disputes between the upstream states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, and their downstream neighbors Arizona, Nevada and California essentially by dividing the river in half.

The compact requires the Upper Basin states to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the Lower Basin, leaving the Upper Basin free to keep what is left — although its share is supposed to be equal to what the Lower Basin states receive.

In 1948, Upper Basin states wrote a second compact governing how they share their cut of the river. Water was assigned in percentages rather than precise water amounts, with Colorado getting 52 percent of the Upper Basin’s allocation and Utah getting 23 percent.

Many experts today believe the 1922 compact overestimated how much water the Colorado River actually holds, potentially shorting the Upper Basin states. Some doubt whether any undeveloped water is left in the Colorado, which now runs dry before reaching its natural outlet in the Gulf of California.

“We have great concerns throughout the watershed about how to meet existing demand,” said Jack Schmidt, who holds the Janet Quinney Lawson endowed chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “Putting in new diversions … has to be considered risky and problematic.”

But under the compact, Upper Basin states are still legally entitled to water they haven’t used, and that has created a tense situation. The four upper states are typically reluctant to question each other’s water-use plans, Schmidt said, because they don’t want to draw criticism to their own.

“The states … want to avoid a tit for tat,” Schmidt said.

But some — including a million — believe the Upper Basin states still have water available to them and should build new water projects to put their allocations to use before the water is claimed by someone else.

Million said his Green River pipeline “is about development of the four Upper Basin states’ compact allocation, and frankly nothing more.”

Utah should understand that, a million said, because its Lake Powell pipeline — currently estimated to cost between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion — is based on the same reasoning.

‘Rob Peter to pay Paul’

Utah officials, however, don’t see similarities between the Lake Powell and Green River pipelines. Unlike Utah’s proposal, Millis said, Million’s pipeline threatens critical habitat for four endangered fish — the humpback chub, razorback sucker, Colorado pike minnow and bonytail chub.

“There are target flows that are required to be met to help the recovery of these fish,” Millis said. “Utah and the other Upper Basin states are very active in supporting this program.”

Withdrawing water at Browns Park, Millis said, could jeopardize downstream habitat.

The Lake Powell pipeline, on the other hand, would be good for the fish, he said. That plan calls for Utah to obtain water rights in Flaming Gorge and have that water released to let it flow through the critical Green River fish habitat before it ultimately arrives at Lake Powell, where the water would be pumped north and west to Washington County in southwest Utah.

Million said he is unconcerned about the state’s claims about impacts on the Green River. Current climate models, he said, suggest the river is going to get wetter as the Earth warms. He figures that makes it a good backup for the rest of the Colorado River, which is expected to experience increasingly frequent droughts.

A leading expert global warming and water supplies, with a focus on the Colorado River, confirms at least part of Million’s claim. Some climate models indeed suggest the Green River’s headwaters will get extra precipitation in the future, said Brad Udall, with the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University.

But extra rain and snow, Udall said, doesn’t always equate to more water in a river — higher temperatures increase evaporation and make plants and soils thirstier. And even if the Green River does swell with new water, the rest of the Colorado is likely to grow only more parched.

“This could be a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul situation,” Udall said of Million’s project. “On the whole, the whole river flow goes down. Were that to occur, taking more water out of a tributary that actually has water makes not very much sense to me.”

Udall noted that a provision of the 1922 river compact says that if the Upper Basin states fail to deliver the required 7.5 million acre-feet to the Lower Basin states, then existing water projects in Utah and Colorado could be required to shut down. That could jeopardize water supplies in Utah County, which draws Colorado River water through the Central Utah Project, as well as the Denver Metro area.

“The Upper Basin should not be pursuing any development right now,” Udall said. “Trying to extract more water… seems frankly, risky and dangerous.”

Who wants it?

Given a lack of evidence that Colorado officially backs the Green River project, Millis said Utah’s Department of Water Resources felt comfortable openly raising concerns about inadequate water supply. If official support did surface in Colorado, he said that would be different.

“We would be having discussions with Colorado about how we and they could develop our water in ways that are mutually agreeable,” he said. “If the state of Colorado is backing this project, we would like to have discussions with you.”

Million dismissed concerns about Colorado’s lack of support. Demand in the Denver area has tripled the price of water in the past three years, he said. And his project, he said, is part of Colorado’s official water plan.

But Rebecca Mitchell, who oversees Colorado’s water plan as the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said it does not endorse the Green River pipeline or any other project. She would not comment on whether the board backs Million’s application.

However, the Colorado River District — an advisory body created by the Colorado Legislature — openly objects to Million’s scheme.

“The Colorado River District has historically opposed any speculative project,” a spokesman for the river district said in an email. “Mr. Million has not disclosed who his end users are.”

So Utah appears to have a valid concern about “whether this is a legitimate project,” said Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, an interstate agency created by the state legislatures of the Upper Basin states.

When those states divvied up their water in 1948, Ostler said, they also agreed that when water was moved across state lines, it would count against the receiving state’s share of the river. So it is critical, he said, that Utah determine whether Colorado officials back this project, to clarify whose legal portion of the river the pipeline will draw from.

“And to my knowledge,” Ostler said, “none of that has been demonstrated.”

‘A thousand cuts’

Back in Utah, USU’s Schmidt is a skeptical million will ever get Colorado’s official backing — but even if he did, Schmidt said, it would not have a measurable impact on overall river flows.

The 55,000 acre-feet million seeks is relatively small compared to the overall amount of water in the Green River. Even the larger Lake Powell pipeline, which would involve a little more than 86,000 acre-feet, is a relatively small withdrawal, Schmidt said.

The more central issue, as Schmidt sees it, is what happens when multiple small projects are built on the same river. “It’s not so much the number,” he said, “it’s the principle that, when you’re killing the patient by a thousand cuts, you don’t cut the patient again.”

But if Utah is going to make that argument, Million counters, where’s the water for the Lake Powell pipeline coming from?

“If there’s not water for us,” he said, “there sure as heck isn’t water for them.”

And though Millis denied that Utah’s objections to the Green River proposal were tied to its Lake Powell pipeline, others see a direct link.

The Washington County Water Conservancy District, the future recipient of water from the Lake Powell pipeline and a current user of Colorado River tributes, said Million’s proposal could “impair” the county’s ability to draw water from the river.

In a letter to the Division of Water Rights, the water district also blasts the Green River project as “massive in scale and … exceedingly costly to build and maintain.”

Million, the letter continues, “has not shown any financial ability to complete the project or that the project is physically and economically viable.”

Countered Million: “I’m not concerned whatsoever. … I wish Utah luck on the Lake Powell project and hope they respect the same on our side of the fence.”

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