Flaming Gorge Pipeline: The view from Green River, Wyoming

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Here’s a long article about Aaron Million’s pipeline dream to move water from the Green River (and Flaming Gorge Reservoir) to Colorado’s Front Range, from Brandon Loomis writing for The Salt Lake Tribune. From the article:

In an audacious test of the Western axiom that water flows toward money, Fort Collins, Colo., entrepreneur Aaron Million wants to tap this Colorado River tributary just downstream from here and send it to faucets in neighborhoods that don’t yet exist. “We certainly don’t want to impact the Green River,” says Million, who spent his youthful summers shoveling mud to open and close flood-irrigation canals to his grandfather’s melon farm in Green River, Utah.

His plan worries Utah and Wyoming officials, who don’t dispute that Colorado has a legal right to the water under the Colorado River Compact. They never expected their neighbor to take its share from a river that they consider money in their water banks, but rather thought the diversion would come from the Colorado River to the south…

“That river is so quickly impacted by [changing] water conditions,” says Mark Forslund, a Heber City fly-fishing guide who has floated the Green here for a dozen years. Unlike lower stretches, he says, the upper Green is shallow, with no holes to hide fish. When flows shrink in winter, fish die. In summer, the water gets hot. These are conditions that steel the monstrous brown trout and make valiant fighters of the rainbows and native cutthroats, he says. Tinkering with flows from the Fontenelle Dam, above the [Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge], could doom them. The Corps of Engineers is reviewing Million’s proposal to take water from just 200 yards downstream of the refuge boundary. Million now says he’ll consider a diversion downstream in siltier waters below the city of Green River, Wyo. Moving it lower is better, Seedskadee Refuge Manager Carl Millegan says, but won’t fully protect the refuge. Draining the river — perhaps taking as much as half of its lowest winter flows — will hinder fish migrations from Flaming Gorge. Kokanee salmon, a major source of nutrients for the refuge’s other fish and birds, might not swim up to Fontenelle to spawn and die as they do now, he says. “I can’t see how they’d make it,” he says while standing on a cutbank and watching one of the refuge’s seven eagle nests on a tree across the ice. Wherever the pipeline starts, Millegan fears, it could require adjusting Fontenelle Dam’s releases and stemming spring floods that scour the riverbanks and help new cottonwoods sprout.

Millegan’s view north across the sagebrush finds the ice-capped granite of the Wind River Range, source for both the river and uneasiness about its future. The glaciers there, including seven of the 10 largest in the American Rockies, are shrinking. It’s just one reason scientists throughout the Colorado River Basin worry that climate changes will drop water levels well below what the states divvied up on paper with the 1922 compact. “Whether you believe in climate change or not, every year around here is a struggle” for adequate flows, Millegan says. So far this winter’s snowpack in the Winds is about half the historic average.

The glaciers have shrunk by a third or more since 1970, according to Craig Thompson, an associate professor of earth sciences and engineering at Western Wyoming Community College. He and faculty colleague Charlie Love, a geologist, have studied the glaciers since 1985. The glaciers help maintain year-round flows, Thompson says, because they release meltwater late in the summer and fall, when winter snows are gone. When they disappear, he expects, the year-round supply for Denver or any other big pipe evaporates. Corralling the river also could degrade municipal supplies here, Thompson says, because lower flows mean higher salinity in this mineral-rich valley…

All this for private gain? At current Colorado water prices, Thompson figures the Million Conservation Resource group could make $250 million a year on the water.
“It looks like a project where Million gets to turn millions into billions,” he says, “and Wyoming gets to bear the impacts.”

Million views his plan more like his great-grandfather might have, back when he built one of the river’s earlier irrigation ditches. “Water in the Western United States was developed privately, initially, by the farm and ranch and mining communities,” he says. It wasn’t until later that the federal government stepped in, he says. His pipeline is a return to the principle of private capital serving public demand. “That’s how America was built,” Million says…

Million is unfazed. He can build the pipeline with up to $3 billion in private financing, he says, if he gets 140,000 acre-feet or more. Despite the loud and broad criticism — including condemnation by the Green River and Laramie city councils in Wyoming — Million believes the project is on course. After all, he notes, Colorado has an absolute right to the water…

Million must show who will buy his water before the environmental review continues. His deadline to produce a list of users to the Corps of Engineers is today. He says he has that list ready, but critics wonder why anyone would sign on without a firm supply and rates in place. To get a permit to alter wetlands, Million also will have to prove his plan jibes with the Clean Water Act. That means the corps must determine it’s the least damaging plan that can reasonably meet the need. The corps is investigating that question, project manager Rena Brand says, and whether in fact Front Range growth is likely to require so much water.

University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon sees many obstacles in Million’s way, “not the least of which is the Rocky Mountains.” Farmers and small towns in western Colorado won’t want the Front Range to soak up all of Colorado’s rights. Further political complications come from Front Range citizens and water districts who “won’t want Aaron Million to hold all of the cards.”[…]

Glennon’s 2008 book, Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It , groups Million with a host of grand-scheming “water alchemists” who, he writes, “gaze at the Mississippi River, the Columbia River, icebergs in Alaska, and rivers in British Columbia and wistfully imagine the problem is solved.” Still, he says, if Million secures real municipal and agricultural customers, the interstate compact’s so-called “law of the river” is with him. “Sometimes,” Glennon says, “dreamers pull off their dreams.”

More Flaming Gorge Pipeline coverage here and here.

3 thoughts on “Flaming Gorge Pipeline: The view from Green River, Wyoming

  1. Short if sending money if there is anything I can do to help protect the Green River please let me know. I am a retired National Park Service Chief of Maintenance and engineer. I know my way around the federal government, EIS process and red tape game better than I like to admit. Now that I am retired I have time to help and can speak out on whatever side of an issue I chose. I am an avid fly fisherman and have been fishing below the Flaming Gorge Dam for years. I now live in Moab, Utah but use to live in Jackson Wyoming.

    • That’s a tough one. It remains to be seen if Million can raise all the dough he will need. So far most of his customers are agricultural and I don’t think they can afford to make the project economic.

      Thanks for commenting.

      John Orr

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