Aaron Million’s latest project met with skepticism in #Wyoming

The confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers in 2016. How much water reaches this point, bound for Lake Powell, has implications across the west and Colorado, and an ongoing water study might suggest how to manage water in a severe drought. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith.

From The Wyoming Business Report (MJ Clark):

Although Colorado has the right to develop its unused compact water, as does Wyoming, those involved in Wyoming water issues note that this project could result in major changes in how water is managed in the basin, since it changes how much water will be headed downstream from Flaming Gorge.

The first time was expected to divert 250,000 acre-feet of water, and to cost $3 billion. After working with the Army Corps of Engineers on the project for two years, the Corps cancelled Million’s application in July of 2011.

The second try

Million immediately tried again and proposed tapping into the Green River at two sites – one just three miles below the city of Green River, Wyoming and the other from the western edge of the Flaming Gorge reservoir. Although the amount of water he wanted was the same, this time, Million quoted the cost as between $7 billion and $9 billion because he was adding a hydropower component to the plan. Thanks to the hydropower aspect, this new project would be under the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

A Western Resource Advocates study on the second proposal predicted that not only would the water supplied by the pipeline cost up to ten times the price of water from other developments, it would also lower the level of the popular Flaming Gorge Reservoir by 10 feet – hurting fishing and tourist traffic in the Gorge, and river rafters along the Green and Colorado rivers by $58.5 million a year.

A coalition of more than 250 businesses from seven states; ten conservation groups and Sweetwater County and the City of Laramie fought the development, along with Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who wrote a letter to FERC that said in part, “”This project would cut a vast swath across southern Wyoming, with the potential for huge impacts in many significant sectors of our economy and aspects of critical resources to Wyoming and Colorado.” Mead also objected to the 25,000 acre-feet of water per year belonging to Wyoming that Million was including in his proposed ‘take.’

When the FERC dismissed Million’s application as “premature” in February of 2012, Million was unfazed and told the Denver Post that, “The FERC dismissal has zero to do with us moving forward.”

The third time

In April of 2012, Million argued his case in a guest column for the Northern Colorado Business Report (at the time a sister paper to the Wyoming Business Report), claiming that less than 5 percent of the “massive Flaming Gorge Reservoir” would be pumped to Colorado’s Front Range annually. Meanwhile, it would help northern Colorado face its own water supply shortfalls.

“If it is environmentally sound, it should be permitted and built,” Million wrote in the column, seemingly addressing the myriad environmental groups voicing fervent opposition to the pipeline. “If not, then stick a fork in it. The truth of a full scientific and environmental evaluation may be hard for some in the environmental community to swallow, but the consequences of not allowing that evaluation to occur remain.”

As the Wyoming Business Report’s Mark Wilcox wrote at the time; “Aaron Million’s confidential business plan to annually pump about 81 billion gallons out of Flaming Gorge and the Green River that feeds it has been revealed to the Associated Press, and it is no small wonder he has not taken ‘no’ for an answer. The plan would bring in an estimated net profit of between $1.4 and $2.4 billion. And that’s after construction costs of somewhere between $2.8 billion and $3.2 billion. And end users of the water would pay up to $117 million in annual operating costs based on a ‘cost plus 20 percent’ business model with estimated operating costs of between $70 million and $90 million.”

Million was granted a FERC hearing on his third proposal on April 23, 2012. Then his proposal was was rejected. “FERC’s ruling doesn’t affect us from the standpoint of continuing to move forward,” Million told the Wyoming Business Report at the time in a phone interview. However, the FERC denied him a re-hearing.

“We are not persuaded by any of Wyco’s unsupported arguments that it should be issued a preliminary permit,” the commission said in its filing…

Is the fourth time a charm?

This January, Million was back with a new approach. This time, he started by petitioning Utah for the water rights. This approach – petitioning for water to export from Utah – was so unusual that the state didn’t even have a form to fill out for it.

Rob Harris, senior staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates (whose Wyoming ties include a grandfather from Basin) notes that the problem with petitioning for water rights as an individual is that “All three states have an anti-speculation doctrine in our water rights laws. [Million] doesn’t actually stand in the shoes of any actual Colorado water users. It’s really basic stuff he’s running up against – it’s why this has floundered in the past, and will continue to flounder until he’s made contractural arrangement with people who he’s going to supply water to.”

An examination of Million’s application with the state of Utah has the all eventual users of the water identified as “TBD.”

Harris points to a previous case in which water from the Arkansas Valley was eyed for the Front Range. “The court said ‘No way! You don’t have any contracts.’ It would be one thing if it were a city doing this, but this is just a guy trying to make money.”

In addition to the change at the start of the process, Million’s fourth try has a few key differences to the last ones. First, he’s moved the point of diversion 50 miles southeast into Utah, away from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which should be some relief to the Wyoming outdoor recreation industry – but less comfort to Colorado River rafters.

Second, he’s reduced the amount of water he wants to take each year from 250,000 acre-feet to 55,000 acre-feet. “It’s less water than last time,” Harris admits, “but it’s still a heck of a lot. You could run a pretty good-sized city on 55,000 acre-feet a year.”

Third, he’s changed the name of the company he’s operating from Wyoco Power and Water Inc. to Water Horse Resources LLC.

“I think he’ll point to the tons of growth in the Front Range, and that there is a gap between known [water] supplies and what’s needed to meet the expected population growth,” Harris said. “But if you look at the really big players in water on the Front Range (Denver Water, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Northern Water Conservency District), they’re all pursuing alternative sources [not tapping into the Green River]. They are emphasising creative ways to conserve and share the local water supply.”

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