“This application is the latest episode in Aaron Million’s decade-long effort to profit off of the private sale of #GreenRiver water” — Ariel Calmes #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Recreation, in progress, on the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The Division of Water Rights last week heard from project proponent Aaron Million and from numerous entities that oppose it, before deciding to request more information from Million before a decision can be made.

Million, a Fort Collins resident, filed the Utah application through the company Water Horse Resources LLC, seeking to divert 55,000 acre-feet a year and pipe it east to Wyoming and then south to Colorado…

The idea is being opposed by federal agencies including the Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service. Other opponents include western Colorado’s Colorado River District, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District in Colorado, multiple water conservancy districts in Utah, conservationists, and notably the Utah Board of Water Resources and Division of Water Resources. That board works to conserve and develop the state’s water, and is worried that the proposal would let Colorado benefit at Utah’s expense…

Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District, questions the project’s economic feasibility.

“Water Horse’s application has not shown that it has any significant committed recipients who are willing to pay for the water that’s supposed to be diverted,” he said…

The decision on Million’s water right application will be made by Utah’s state engineer, who heads the state’s Division of Water Rights.

Million said he thought the hearing went well and he’s awaiting a letter from the state engineer detailing what additional information is needed…

He said probably one-third or one-half of the 28 or so objectors didn’t show up at the hearing.

In the case of those who testified, “every point they made we’ve already looked at inside and out and so we’ll answer the issues related to the permit and move on,” he said.

A 30-day comment period will be provided after Million responds to the request for more information.

Ariel Calmes, a staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, said in a news release after the hearing, “This application is the latest episode in Aaron Million’s decade-long effort to profit off of the private sale of Green River water. Million is proposing to divert water from Utah to the detriment of multistate water agreements, the recovery of endangered species, and millions of dollars in recreation spending.”

Green River Basin

#ColoradoRiver: The precarious plan for the #LakePowellPipeline — @HighCountryNews #COriver #aridification

Proposed Lake Powell pipeline. Map via the City of St. George.

From The High Country News (Emma Penrod):

Nearly a decade ago, Gabriel Lozada, a man with a wiry frame and waves of steel-gray hair who looks exactly like the mathematician he is, set out to answer what he thought was a relatively simple question: Could Utah’s proposed Lake Powell Pipeline — a plan to ferry Colorado River water to southern Utah — live up to the state’s rosy forecasts of growth and prosperity? Or was it more likely to tank the economy of a small but lively retirement community in the southwestern Utah desert?

Lozada, a theoretical mathematician at the University of Utah and a pro bono consultant for the Utah Rivers Council, suspected that government officials were overstating the pipeline’s benefits and ignoring its potential costs. So he began building a mathematical model of its possible impacts on southern Utah residents. While proponents argued that the project was necessary to stave off water shortages, Lozada warned that it might trigger an economic crisis.

But how could he be sure? Even today, more than a decade after it was first proposed, no one seems to know what the pipeline — with 140 miles of buried pipe and five pumping stations between Lake Powell and the town of St. George — is going to cost, much less how it will impact local water rates. Communications from within Utah’s state water agencies, obtained during this investigation, suggest officials purposefully withheld those details from the very taxpayers who might ultimately be saddled with the bill. Federal officials also seem wary of the state’s scanty financial information. In September, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission declined to take action that would have exempted the state from more rigorous financial scrutiny. Despite this, the state Division of Water Resources “remains fully committed to this project,” according to Division Director Eric Millis.

As pressure mounts over the project’s fate, Lozada has been consumed with trying to discern how the pipeline will impact the residents of Washington County, the intended recipients of its water. And in the process, he’s made enemies. His research has become mired in a back-and-forth with Jeremy Aguero, a rival economist in Las Vegas whom the Washington County Water Conservancy District hired to conduct its own cost analysis. His conclusions are very different from Lozada’s. Where Lozada predicted a 500 percent increase in water rates — amounting to about $370 more per person, per year — Aguero originally promised Washington County could fund the pipeline for just $25 per person per year, an increase of less than 27 percent.

Aguero pointed out errors in his rival’s math, which Lozada corrected; he now believes the water districts’ plan to triple its water rates — potentially increasing residents’ costs by more than $300 per year — may, just barely, pay for the pipeline. But he doesn’t believe residents will pay such prices without buying dramatically less water, negating the need for the pipeline.

And he has grown increasingly frustrated by the county’s unwillingness to reconcile the two models and publish a single accurate number. And though Lozada has released his work, Washington County has not released the details behind Aguero’s analysis. “Who knows what else is wrong with the model?” says Lozada. “They’re not transparent about it, so I can’t see what’s wrong.”

Aguero has also been reluctant to stand by his conclusions. In June 2016, when a state records committee forced him to release a PowerPoint presentation created for the water district regarding his $25-a-year model, he disowned it. The $25 figure, he said, was merely a placeholder in an interactive exercise intended to spur discussion about how the public would prefer to pay for the pipeline. The real model, he claimed, did not exist in a format that could be released. He later told local journalists the average residents’ water bill would increase by just $52. Aguero did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

It’s not just the cost that is obscure; it’s also unclear who will pay the bills. Historically, water projects of this scale were constructed with federal funds. But those dollars have largely dried up, and residents of northern Utah — who continue to outnumber their southern counterparts by a wide margin — oppose a state subsidy for the project. That would leave still-small Washington County to pay for a billion-dollar-plus pipeline essentially by itself.

County officials believe the expense will be worth the risks once they realize their vision for a more vibrant community with jobs and a quality of life that will keep their children nearby. But it’s those very descendants who could end up saddled with billions of dollars in debt should the increased cost of water cause local growth to stall.

Washington County is currently one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. In recent decades, it’s been discovered by Californians looking for a warm climate with a lower cost of living, and northern Utahns seeking affordable land with milder winters. The quiet desert town of St. George is now a bustling retirement community with a thriving tourism industry. That rapid growth has become Utah’s justification for building a pipeline to provide water, despite a nationwide drop in water use in the last decade, suggesting that a growing population won’t necessarily need more, and Lozada’s anticipation that local residents won’t pay.

Before the population explosion, state leaders envisioned the Lake Powell Pipeline as a way to use Utah’s share of the Colorado River to spur economic development in Washington County. Abundant water, they hoped, would attract exciting new economic opportunities that would inspire local youth to build lifelong careers at home in the rural West. But by now, it’s clear that the pipeline is no longer needed to achieve that vision; Washington County began transforming in the 1980s and ’90s.

Amid the growth of the budding county, the Utah Legislature agreed in 2006 to build the Lake Powell Pipeline — with certain conditions. According to the terms of the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, the state will pay for the construction of the pipeline, but only if the recipients of the water, Kane and Washington counties’ water conservancy districts, enter into a contract to purchase it. According to the state statute, the water will be sold at a price that enables the state to reclaim the costs associated with designing and building the pipeline, with interest, over 50 years.

According to David Clark, the now-retired state legislator who originally introduced the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, the law was designed to emulate the way the Bureau of Reclamation financed large water projects in the past. But since federal dollars are harder to come by today, the act assumed that the state would play the role of the federal government. The act does not, however, Clark said, authorize a state subsidy for the project.
Outside analyses, though, have since raised doubts about Washington County’s ability — or plans — to pay for the pipeline in full.

Tied to promises that new residents will foot the bill, local leaders have hatched a complicated scheme to raise funds for it. But their plan relies heavily on the county’s continued growth, presenting a nebulous moving target as the pipeline’s costs become increasingly unclear.

Water districts have the authority to levy property taxes, and so tax increases to help pay for the pipeline are already planned in Washington County, according to Ron Thompson, a proud descendant of pioneer settlers and the general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District. The cost of fees associated with new development in the county will roughly double, and the price of purchasing water from the district — a water wholesaler that sells to the surrounding cities — is expected to triple.

Many of these changes have already begun to take effect. Water rates alone will increase enough to generate about $2 billion in revenues, Thompson said, and that by itself could cover the projected $1.1 billion-to-$1.8 billion cost of construction.

Critics like Lozada say that Thompson’s figures don’t take into account numerous complicating factors, such as the fact that the water district is also on the hook for the state’s development and permitting expenses, which have already cost Utah tens of millions of dollars and will likely cost even more, given a recent federal ruling that will subject the pipeline to additional government scrutiny. Nor does it take into account interest rates, or the possibility that local growth and demand for water could slow if costs soar.

If growth slows, the water district’s projected revenues will fall, potentially trapping the county in a negative feedback loop that could make it impossible for it to repay the debt. Then Utah’s taxpayers will be left holding the bag.

But local officials dismiss fears that growth will stall. The price of the average house in Washington County has increased 12 percent in the last year, Thompson said, and people are still moving in. If the average home price has gone up $25,000 in one year, he doesn’t see how adding $8,000 in development fees over the next decade is likely to slow growth.

Jon Pike, the mayor of St. George, is similarly unconcerned that the pipeline would cause growth to stagnate. He believes that, even if water rates increase, current residents will be willing to pay. “The measure I look to is, who are the people electing? And they are electing people who are pro-Lake Powell Pipeline,” Pike said. “Anti-pipeline people are not getting elected.”

Critics of the project fear the public is making decisions based on false promises. As steep as the current price increases may seem, even Lozada’s figures assume the state’s estimated construction cost of just under $1.4 billion is accurate. But email communications from within the Utah Division of Water Resources, obtained by High Country News through state records requests, indicate that it is not.

MWH Global, an international water and natural resources consulting firm that has since merged with Stantec, originally put the cost of the pipeline at around $1.3 billion in 2009. But in late 2015, the consulting firm drew up a new estimate that concluded construction costs had escalated by several hundred million dollars during the intervening years.

Though the original 2015 estimates have not been released, a revised version of the December 2015 report predicted that the project would cost about $1.5 billion, and possibly as much as $1.9 billion. That potential escalation has not been communicated to the public. Instead, public officials often insist that there are currently no cost estimates available for the project.

Email exchanges between the project leadership team at the Division of Water Resources and the Washington County Water Conservancy District show that local water managers repeatedly pressured the state and its contractors at Stantec to revise their projections of how much each element of the pipeline would cost. One extended argument, for example, involved the cost of bringing in soil to bury the 140 miles of pipe — Thompson, the leader of the Water Conservancy District, was certain he could find cheaper dirt than what Stantec anticipated paying.

After several months of discussion, the contractors begrudgingly agreed to reduce the estimate to a range of $1.1 billion to $1.8 billion — despite the fact that all parties also quietly added some $140 million in extra features to the project during the same timeframe, according to a memo circulated in early 2016.

Officials with the Washington County Water Conservancy District were particularly persistent in their requests that the state and its contractors reduce the amount they planned to hold in reserve in case of unforeseen costs, which initially accounted for nearly 4 percent of the overall estimate. Despite the lead contractors’ repeated warnings that the large contingency fund would be necessary “based on our experience performing other large water resource programs throughout the U.S.,” state officials ultimately sided with the water district and reduced the contingency fund by 75 percent.

Slashing that fund decreased the reported price of the pipeline by tens of millions of dollars and reduced the overall amount Washington County has to prove it can raise. But it also increases the chance that the actual cost will exceed what the county is able to pay — potentially leaving taxpayers statewide on the hook should some aspect of the pipeline prove more expensive than planned.

Emails exchanged between state engineers and Stantec staff also show the parties used “significant input and feedback” from the water district to create a carefully crafted picture of Washington County’s costs should the pipeline not be built. Initial drafts suggested constructing the pipeline could cost more than the conservation and “mitigation” efforts that would be required in its absence. Subsequent analyses greatly increased the cost of “mitigation” in the event the pipeline was not built.

But as internal emails show, even state employees questioned the accuracy of some components of the new revisions, such as the anticipated cost of using special soil-coating compounds as ground cover if the county didn’t have enough water to support growing thirsty lawns.
The capriciousness of the pipeline project has begun to alienate some of its most important allies. Thompson, who sent numerous emails to the state and its contractors demanding revisions to the cost estimates, said he felt the state was biased toward overstating the cost of the project. But he still believes that, with careful management, the Washington County Water Conservancy District can complete the pipeline under budget. Mayor Pike, on the other hand, said he has long suspected that it will cost more than state and county officials have let on. Even if the state’s figures are in the ballpark, Pike said, inflation and other delay-related costs continue to pile up.

Washington County officials originally hoped to break ground in 2020, but that timeline was removed from the water district’s website after an abrupt series of decisions by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission introduced months of unanticipated delays — and increased the rigor of the analysis the project will undergo at the federal level. Construction costs have also dramatically increased in the state of Utah in recent years — the cost of hiring laborers alone jumped 6 percent between 2015 and 2017, according to state data.

Washington County may be able to raise $2 billion dollars by tripling its water rates. But officials’ ongoing game of cost-estimate hot-potato suggests that even $2 billion may not be enough.

Because of so many lingering questions about Washington County’s ability — or intent — to repay the state for the pipeline’s ultimate cost, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert created an Executive Water Finance Board in 2017 to vet the project. The board’s work has only just begun, and its members are reluctant to weigh in on the pipeline’s feasibility. But their current projections suggest that the state’s entire tax base may be insufficient to fund it — risking an $80 million annual shortfall that could spur significant tax increases throughout Utah.

Despite the funding quagmire, proponents of the Lake Powell Pipeline continue to believe that it’s worth the risk. For all their expressed desire to secure economic prosperity for their children, there is reason to believe it’s not just the fate of Washington County that is at stake. Unlike the states in the Lower Colorado River Basin, Upper Basin states like Utah aren’t entitled to a finite amount of water under the Colorado River Compact. Rather, Utah is entitled to a proportion of the water that is left over after the Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — take their share. But given the ongoing aridification of the Colorado River region, it’s not actually clear how much entitlement Utah has left.

“The amount of water available in the state of Utah is not known,” said Jack Schmidt, who holds the Janet Quinney Lawson endowed chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “And when reference is made to unused allocated water, one cannot assume that water is actually available to be developed.”

The possibility that water deliveries from the Lake Powell Pipeline could be cut off or curtailed by shortages on the Colorado presents yet another issue inside the financing conundrum: Washington County is expected to repay the state of Utah by purchasing pipeline water. If there is no water available for sale, Utah does not get paid.

But that reality hasn’t tempered the desire of Washington County officials to see their little community grow. Development benefits everyone, said Pike, the mayor of St. George. Pike hopes his community will attract a tech boom of its own with the promise of plentiful water. “Some people say they want the good old days,” Thompson agreed, “but that’s not what I want.”

But as state and local officials wrangle over the specifics of who might eventually foot the bill, there’s still a chance that Washington County residents could avoid paying it. Under Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, it’s the state — not the county — that will end up doing so, should Washington County’s efforts to pay fall short.

Is that unfair? Washington County Water District Manager Thompson doesn’t think so. Growth in Salt Lake City was once made possible by large, expensive water projects funded by a nationwide tax base. If Utah writ large has to raise taxes to pay off multimillion-dollar budget deficits, then so be it, he says. In his mind, it’s Washington County’s turn.

Emma Penrod (@EmaPen) is a journalist based in rural Utah who covers science, technology, business and environmental health, with an emphasis on water. Email HCN at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

Is There Water Left To Be Developed In The Colorado River Basin? — KUNC

Green River Basin

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Aaron Million styles himself as a western maverick. At a Fort Collins, Colorado coffee shop he’s dressed in a cowboy hat, denim, plaid, pulled together by a shiny belt buckle. During our conversation he quotes both Chuck Norris and the 1995 movie Braveheart. More than twice he referenced a six-shooter.

Million’s name is synonymous with a water pipeline he’s been pushing for almost a decade. On a wire cafe table, he unfurls a map and points out the features of his latest proposal.

With his finger Million traces the route of his new iteration, billed as a renewable energy project. It would start in Utah on the Green River, then snake across Wyoming before dropping down into Colorado’s populated Front Range, generating electricity as the water moves from one side of the Continental Divide to the other. Million says it would cost about a billion dollars to build.

“It’s a bigger project, but they get done every day,” he says. “I mean we built the Transcontinental Railroad last I remember.”

In 2012 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission quashed a different water pipeline proposal from Million. He wanted to construct a 500-mile pipeline from Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge reservoir to Colorado’s Front Range. FERC regulators at the time said the proposal was incomplete.

“Keep in mind we’ve been in the saddle for a while,” Million says. “And you know we got knocked off pretty hard. I know people thought I was dragged to death, but I’m pretty tough, raised in the Utah desert.”

Both pipelines, old and new, take advantage of an historical fluke. The 1922 Colorado River Compact — which divvies up its water — was written when the river was flowing at a record high. But for the past 18 years, high temperatures, drought and overuse have sapped the river’s flow.

Aaron Million says that’s more of an Arizona, California and Nevada problem.

“People say there’s no water left in the system,” Million says. “Well, when California has drained, and Nevada and Arizona have drained the river and then cry foul because Lake Powell and Mead are low, again I’ll reiterate: Had they not their drained and over taken their share they’d be full by four or five times. Those are the facts. You can run the numbers.

Million says the river’s Upper Basin, which includes the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, haven’t fully developed their share, while those in the Lower Basin have gone above and beyond what they’re entitled to. His pipeline is just one more plan among many to fully develop the river’s water, he says.

@Northern_Water turns dirt on Southern Water Supply Project

Southern Water Supply Project

From The Longmont Times-Call (Sam Lounsberry):

Work on the pipeline, known as phase two of the Southern Water Supply Project, is being overseen by Northern Water, which manages Carter Lake as part of the Colorado Big-Thompson Project.

Once complete, the pipeline will improve water quality and delivery reliability compared to the open, above-ground Boulder Feeder Canal that currently brings water from Carter Lake to Boulder Reservoir.

The new pipeline will pump 50 cubic feet per second of Colorado-Big Thompson and Windy Gap Project water, with Boulder receiving the bulk of the water among participants at the Boulder Reservoir Water Treatment plant, the pipeline’s terminus.

Boulder will receive 32 cubic feet per second and bear $32 million of the cost, according to city spokeswoman Gretchen King, while Left Hand Water District — which serves a 130-square-mile area between Longmont and Boulder — will receive 12 cubic feet per second and pay about $8 million for its share of the project…

Left Hand will have another $2 million of cost from the district’s addition of a hydroelectric generator at the intersection of the new Southern Water Supply pipeline and the entrance to the district’s Dodd Water Treatment Plant. The generator will produce enough power to satisfy about a third of the plant’s electricity need, according to district Manager Christopher Smith…

Berthoud and Longs Peak Water District — which serves Boulder and Weld County residents in an area north of Longmont — will each receive 3 cubic feet per second, but on Thursday officials from the town and district could not to provide their share of the costs of the remaining $4 million for the project.

Smith noted the pipeline, which has an estimated completion date of March 2020, will not only further protect water quality, but also will allow year-round water delivery to Left Hand Water District’s Dodd Water Treatment Plant…

“During some portions of the year the pipeline will act as the primary source of raw water for the participants in the project,” the Northern Water release states.

Currently, the Boulder Feeder Canal is offline from Oct. 31 to April 1 annually, Smith said. When the canal is down, so, too, is the Dodd Water Treatment Plant…

When the pipeline is complete, the Dodd Plant will be open year-round.

The first 12 miles of new pipeline, from Carter Lake to St. Vrain Road in Longmont, will parallel the existing Southern Water Supply Project pipeline, which was runs to Broomfield and was completed in 1999.

From St. Vrain Road, the new pipeline will continue south to the Boulder Reservoir Treatment Plant.

Some folks in SW #Kansas are pushing the “Great Canal of Kansas”

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

From the Kansas News Service. (Ben Kuebrich) via the Hillsboro Free Press:

Great Canal of Kansas

Clayton Scott also uses the latest water technology on his farm in Big Bow. Yet he said that just using water carefully won’t be enough.

He thinks any pumping limits severe enough to preserve the aquifer would dramatically cut back the region’s harvest. That would push up local grain prices, and without cheap grain, livestock feed yards would close, and meatpacking plants would follow.

At its core, the western Kansas economy is built on irrigation.

A 2015 study calculated that losses in irrigation could cost some 240,000 Kansans their jobs and wipe out $18.3 billion of yearly economic activity, or about 10 percent of the state economy.

Scott and others in the region have their eyes on a more drastic solution to the water problem. Kansas could invest in a 360-mile series of canals and pumping stations to bring in water from the Missouri River.

He knows it sounds extreme, but Arizona has already built a similarly sized aqueduct. The Central Arizona Project diverts water from the Colorado River and there’s been extensive research into building a similar canal across Kansas.

“Arizona looked at their situation and decided, ‘We have no other choice,’ ” Scott said. “They estimate almost a trillion dollars of benefit to the economy of Arizona.”

Arizona’s aqueduct has always been controversial. The federally funded canal remains at the center of multi-state disputes of water usage.

Experts say that a generation later, the legal and regulatory hurdles of building a long-distance canal through Kansas only look more daunting.

Water from the Colorado River is channeled through Arizona, much the way some people think it should be diverted from the Missouri River across Kansas.

Pricey pipeline

Still, Kansas and surrounding states have been considering aqueducts for a long time. A 1982 study came up with a plan to bring water from the Missouri River to a reservoir near Utica, Kansas, but nothing ever came of it. At the time, though, losing the Ogallala seemed like a distant prospect.

In 2011, while western Kansas was in a drought and farmers struggled to pump enough water to keep their crops alive, the Missouri River was flooding. Scott says that sparked renewed interest in a canal.

“It’s a long-term solution,” Scott said. “We can harvest the high flows of water off of the eastern rivers and bring them out here into the western High Plains, offset the droughts … and bring things into more of a balance.”

In 2015, the Kansas Water Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers re-assessed that 1982 study. The agencies estimated that, depending on the capacity of the canal, it would now cost between $5 billion and $20 billion to build.

Because the water would have to be pumped uphill as it goes west, it could take more than $500 million a year in energy costs alone, for the largest-capacity canal. With interest costs from construction, the yearly tab could exceed $1.5 billion.

At the time, the head of the water office said, “this thing we studied is unlikely to happen.” The costs would simply run too steep.

A canal project would have other barriers. Although the Missouri river sometimes floods, it also experiences lows, and levels would have to be maintained to permit barge traffic. There would also be challenges displacing people in the path of the aqueduct. While a highway can be redirected to avoid a town, a canal’s path is more constrained by topography.

At the same time, environmental issues could come both from taking water from the Missouri and in the path of any aqueduct. Upstream and downstream states on the waterway already tangle over how to manage the water. An effort to siphon away water would further complicate the situation.

Scott knows the project would be massive, and massively controversial, but that’s why he’s talking about it now—before the Ogallala runs dry.

An uncertain future

At a conference in April, Kansas Secretary of Agricul­ture Jackie McClaskey said public support for an aqueduct is unlikely unless farmers show first that there’s no other way to water their crops.

“Until we can show people that we are utilizing every drop of water in the best way possible, no one outside of this region is going to invest in a water transfer project,” McClaskey said.

Clayton Scott says he isn’t looking for the rest of Kansas to bail out the farmers out west.

Scott imagines the canal would be a federal project, similar to Arizona’s aqueduct. Water users would repay the costs of construction and maintenance through a water use fee.

He also contends that an aqueduct could help a broader region.

Scott says an aqueduct could extend out to Colo­rado’s Front Range to supply booming cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs that draw water off of the dwindling Colorado River. If they drank from Kansas’ aqueduct instead, that would leave more water to trickle down the Colorado, which extends out into water-starved southern California.

A canal, advocates contend, could supply water at a fraction of the price that southern California farmers pay now and help alleviate shortages in that region.

Scott’s interest in water transfer is common in southwest Kansas but far from universal. For example, Roth isn’t convinced.

“It’s impractical and it’s one heck of a distraction,” Roth said. “Right now we need to concentrate on local conservation with what we do have, what we can do right now.”

Ray Luhman, Northwest Water district manager, thinks the state should consider all options, including channeling water across the state.

“The conversation needs to be had,” Luhman said. “But to, let’s say, mortgage your future on a project maybe 20 to 30 years from completion? We also need to look to something in the interim.”

Ben Kuebrich reports for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and HPPR covering health, education and politics.

Aaron Million’s proposed project and the #ColoradoRiver #COriver

The blues. On the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

“It’s a plumbing project,” Million said. “We’re just looking at a small piece of the surpluses to bring new water supplies over.”

But others say it isn’t so simple; it’s not clear that there actually is extra water. More than 30 protests have been filed with the Utah Division of Water Rights. Many of these come from organizations that think Million’s team is skirting some major issues.

“What you’re doing is putting everyone at great risk,” said Andy Mueller, executive director of the Colorado River District, which is tasked with safeguarding Colorado’s water supply. Much of that comes from the Colorado River Basin.

That’s a big, complex system that feeds 40 million people across seven states and part of Mexico. The Green River is part of that; it connects to the Colorado River in Utah. So when you pull water from the Green, it affects a delicate balance that has been in the works for nearly a century.

The Colorado River Compact

In 1922, seven states signed the Colorado River Compact, a legally binding agreement. The four upper basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — agreed to let a set amount of water flow downriver into the lower basin, comprised of Arizona, Nevada and California.

But it’s really dry in these states and climate change means there’s even less water in the river. So when new players like Million try to jump in the game, it adds some real tension.

In the worst-case scenario — a serious, long-term drought — the lower basin states can cash in on that agreement, the so-called compact call.

As Zane Kessler with the Colorado River District explained, we’ve never been through that before, but he thinks a proposal this big would push us closer to the edge.

“We don’t know what’s on the other side of that cliff, because we’ve never been through it,” Kessler said. “We do know that it could cause chaos on a number of different levels, and that’s the biggest concern for a lot of us.”

But Million isn’t too concerned about a compact call. He’s said basically it’s an empty threat, and he points blame for any shortages at the lower basin states, saying they use more than their share. Plus, he said, this water is needed right here in Colorado.

“We shouldn’t let the water go to the lower basin when we are faced with the impacts we are on the upper basin,” Million said.

The River District thinks he’s over-simplifying, because it’s actually not totally clear how much water Colorado has left to claim. Mueller explained that recent studies have shown the state is probably already using its full share.

“We think that we are at a point where we no longer have water to develop in the state of Colorado in the Colorado river system,” Mueller said.

He said the key to managing water in this complex system is working together; it’s what has worked so far.

“The entire river system is short of water, and we’re all watching this very careful balance,” he said. “That’s the biggest concern, I think, is that [Million is] going around this developed consensus in our state.”

The consensus surrounds all kinds of water users, concerning everything from how to conserve water in cities to how to protect fish. Bart Miller is with Western Resource Advocates, which opposes Million’s project on environmental grounds.

“The Green River is really a stronghold, has been a stronghold, for some of these endangered fish, and so it’s a place that I think a lot of folks are concerned about the impacts of a large quantity of water being taken out,” he said.

Plus, Miller said, it’s not clear how exactly the diverted water will be used and that breaks the anti-speculation rules in water law.

Million has said the water would be used for hydropower, irrigating agricultural lands and for municipal uses, like drinking water. But he hasn’t said specifically who would use it in those ways…

“There aren’t any identified users of the water,” he said. “And in both Utah and Colorado, speculation — developing water just so you can have it — is highly discouraged.”

That could set the foundation of a legal fight. For now, it’s up to the Utah Division of Water Rights to decide if the project moves forward.

#ColoradoRiver District voices opposition to Aaron Million’s latest transmountain diversion plan

Green River

From the Rio Blanco Water Conservation District via the Rio Blanco Herald Times:

Earlier this month the Colorado River District released a statement protesting the application for water rights filed by Water Horse Resources LLC, owned by Aaron Million.

The application for Utah water rights requests 55,000 acre feet of water from the Green River with two pump stations located five miles from the Colorado state line in Dagget County, Utah, on Bureau of Land Management land. The water would then run through a hydroelectric facility before being piped nearly 500 miles northeast into Wyoming and then south down the Colorado Front Range.

The river district’s letter of opposition cites a variety of reasons why the application should be denied, including the speculative nature of the application saying, “A fundamental precept of water use in Colorado (and, we believe, in Utah as well) is a strict prohibition on speculative claims of water. No specific beneficial use or need has been identified for the project other than a general reference to future water demands in Colorado.”

The district also raises concerns about the legal and practical nature of enforcing and accounting for a water right issued by the State of Utah but with great impact on Colorado water users. The letter states, “The proposed water right would exacerbate the supply problems currently faced in the Colorado River Basin, and would increase the need and cost of any Upper Basin demand management program.”

Another concern raised by both the river district and numerous environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity who have spoken against the application is the lack of environmental analysis.

In years prior Million has unsuccessfully attempted to obtain water rights that would allow him to pipe water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Front Range. The Colorado River District opposed that application as well.

“This new application suffers from many of the same problems as his previous proposals but presents a number of new problems and interstate legal issues as well,” said Peter Fleming, General Counsel for the Colorado River District.

In a statement released last week Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller said, “Development of this resource in this manner would not only harm existing Western Slope water users but would impact the ability of the River District and the State of Colorado to plan for and develop future water resources as well.”

Thirty-two letters of protest have been filed against the project including letters from the Utah Board of Water Resources and Division of Water Resources who raise similar concerns to those mentioned by the Colorado River District.

In a press release issued last week Million stated, “Utah is initiating an identical project…The Lake Powell pipeline. Point of diversion in Arizona, water and hydroelectric power into Utah. We are watching that closely as they are still sorting out federal permitting responsibilities. The Upper Colorado River Compact is clear and allows the use of water from Utah or Wyoming into Colorado. Or vice versa. For the last 96 years the Upper Basin, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico has over-delivered its’ Compact share. The issues on the Colorado are almost strictly a Lower Basin over-use issue, which includes California, Arizona and Nevada. Had the Lower Basin not drained the Lower Colorado River and over-utilized their water allocation, Lake Powell and Mead would be full by five times plus.”

The project, nicknamed Grasshopper by Water Horse, is estimated to cost $890 million. Tom Wood, Project Management team member stated, “The Green has numerous advantages. A huge river system, excellent water quality, and Flaming Gorge Reservoir that will double the State of Colorado’s storage availability. Additionally, all the global warming models are indicating the Green River will be wetter than average in the future, coupled with a later snowmelt than the Colorado River main stem. The Green River headwaters is located several hundred miles north of the Colorado River headwaters. This year is a classic reason that two hydrologically diverse basins, meaning the Colorado River and Green River, and their respective water supplies, should be managed collectively. The Upper Green is currently running 140 percent of average snowpack, the Colorado River main-stem is half that or less, at maybe 60 to 65 percent. It diversifies water supply management risk, which ties directly to alleviating ecosystem and environmental impacts.”

Rio Blanco Water Conservation District Manager Alden Vanden Brink is concerned about the project. “Focusing on the water resource needs in Northwest Colorado I intimately understand how water projects that are speculative in nature, as Mr. Million’s project is, include, intrastate concerns and potentially put water resour ces in Western Colorado at risk to Compact curtailment are certainly something that we need to pay close attention to,” he said.