FLAMING GORGE — A plan by a Colorado businessman to pipe Green River and Flaming Gorge water from southwest Wyoming to Colorado's bustling metropolitan corridor faces opposition from a tri-state area that includes Utah over fears it will impact present and future water rights.
"If this project moves forward, we're afraid that whatever water rights we have left (on the Green River) will be a paper water right without any wet water," said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee.
The so-called "Million" pipeline is now being proposed as a hydropower project and will be reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, rather than the Army Corps of Engineers.
Aaron Million's project as envisioned under his company, Million Conservation Resource Group, would entail construction of a 578-mile pipeline that would trace I-80 through Wyoming before dropping down into Colorado east of Fort Collins and ending near Pueblo. Million says construction costs range from $2.8 billion to $3.2 billion, although his critics put it much higher.
The proposal has already raised stiff opposition by Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, an environmental conservation group, plus multiple Wyoming and Utah counties that assert such use of upper Colorado Basin water resources cannot be sustained.
"Water is key in the West, and it is certainly key in our area," McKee said. "It is not the appropriate place for that water to be developed from."
Million says he welcomes reviews and questions about the project, which is now being modeled after the Lake Powell Pipeline — another hydropower project winding through environmental reviews that proposes conveying water from Lake Powell's Glen Canyon Dam to Sand Hollow Reservoir in Washington County.
"Over a year ago we started to take a very close look at the Lake Powell pipeline," Million said. "It was clear we needed a much more in-depth analysis of the hydropower component — which is potentially a huge piece of the project and potentially the main focus."
As planned, Million said the project would generate 70 megawatts of hydropower from in-line storage and another 500 to 1,000 megawatts from pumped storage — an energy source he says could shore up intermittent renewables such as wind and solar that are in demand to become a larger player in Colorado's energy portfolio.
Million said he is framing the water-use requirements around a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation preliminary analysis that shows even when future Utah and Wyoming water depletions are factored in from the Green River, Flaming Gorge has an available surplus of 165,000 acre feet a year. Another 75,000 acre feet would be diverted per year from the Green River above Flaming Gorge.
Critics say such diversions would at the very least degrade water quality, destroy important fishery habitat and potentially interfere with water rights downstream.
In that context, the scenario of what water rights have priority becomes a convoluted and contentious question that could take years to sort out.
In the interim, Western Resource Advocates and other critics have not slowed in their opposition to the pipeline, which they say will deliver water that is too pricey and environmental impacts too detrimental, whatever its characterization or form.
"The impacts will remain the impacts even in the guise of a power project," said Peter Roessmann, spokesman for the group.
"The problems of the pipeline do not go away. There are still impacts to Wyoming, still impacts to folks in Utah and still energy costs."
Utah's Uintah County joins another line of critics, who aside from other accusations, describe the proposal as an "if we build, it they will come" project because of questions about the financing and customer base.
Million says the viability of the project is backed by multiple water supply studies that show sharp contrasts between Colorado's available water supply and demands in the decades to come. That is backed by letters of interest he says he has received that represent an annual need for 400,000 acre feet of water — nearly twice what the project would deliver.
A recent telebriefing hosted by the Boulder environmental group, however, suggests that any thirsty Colorado households and other potential users could be in for a long fight if they want the pipeline to become a reality.
Roessmann said several thousand people participated in the briefing, phoning in with questions about impacts to endangered fish, water rights and downstream impacts. Million agrees there needs to be a full vetting of the proposal.
"There have been environmental issues that inform this project since Day One," Million said. "The (Bureau of Reclamation) says there are surpluses in the system, and if there are, let's look at the reality."