VERNAL — A plan to take billions of gallons of water each year from Flaming Gorge and send it to Colorado continues to meet with stiff opposition.
Trout Unlimited, a national anglers' advocacy group that has been highly critical of the project, held its first public screening Thursday of a video that highlights the beauty of the Green River and Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
The short film also points out the environmental and economic harm opponents say will occur if Colorado businessman Aaron Million's proposal is approved.
Million wants to build a 501-mile pipeline from the reservoir and the river to serve cities on Colorado's Front Range. The Wyoming/Colorado Regional Watershed Supply Project — better known as the "Million pipeline" — would cost an estimated $7 billion to construct and would carry up to 81 billion gallons of water each year to cities like Fort Collins, Denver and Colorado Springs.
The project began as his master's thesis at Colorado State University, according to Million, who believes his proposal will have no significant impact on the Green River.
"There is a very apparent surplus of water above and beyond all the basic needs of the (Green River) system," he said, adding that he's instructed his team specifically to "find the fatal flaw" in his proposal.
"I've said before, if there's a problem with this project, I'd be the first to put a stake in it," Million said.
Those involved in the Trout Unlimited film project, however, point to several problems with the plan.
"You know the Million pipeline is a proposal that is elegant in both its simplicity and its insanity," Wyoming Wildlife Federation Executive Director Walt Gasson says in the film.
"The notion of shipping water from a desert river in one of the most arid regions of the United States across a 500-plus-mile stretch to water lawns in Colorado seems beyond the pale for me," Gasson adds.
The Green River is home to four endangered fish species and an estimated 15,000 trout per mile below Flaming Gorge Dam. A world-class blue-ribbon fishery, it winds through three states before emptying into the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park.
Opponents of the pipeline say the water it will take out of Flaming Gorge will, in turn, lower the level of the Green River. That would cause water temperatures in the river to rise, endangering the fish and damaging the tourism economy in the area.
The river also provides water for agricultural and industrial uses. Those also would suffer if the pipeline were built, said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee.
"Water is key to the West," McKee said. "The water is very precious (for) recreation, agriculture, energy, and we need it."
The commissioner disagreed with Million's assertion that there is a surplus of water in the Green River system.
"He's a developer, and obviously from a developer's point of view there's plenty of water ... to do everything you want to do," McKee said. "But the reality is, and I think most of us would agree, that the water and the water rights are limited."
McKee acknowledged that Colorado does have a right to the water Million has his eyes on, but said the location where Million is seeking to exercise that right — at the headwaters of the Green River — poses a problem for people in Utah and Wyoming.
"Colorado may be able to go ahead and develop their water rights, but they need to do it further downstream so that it does not affect our ability to be able to utilize our water rights," he said.
The Uintah County Commission is one of a growing number of government bodies in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming that have voiced opposition to Million's plan. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead has said he's against the proposal. However, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has not established his position and is still studying the plan, according to his office.
"This is a very prolonged process and there are several junctures where Utah can intervene," said Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom.
"It's still too early in the process to talk about it," Isom added, noting that "Utah will defend its water rights."
Million has submitted an application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for review because his proposal involves the construction and operation of several hyrdoelectric facilities. In October, FERC notified Million that the application was deficient and requested that he submit additional information.
If FERC issues Million a preliminary permit, it would allow him to apply to build the hydroelectric facilities. FERC specified in its notice to Million that it only has jurisdiction over the proposed hydroelectric elements of the project. It said construction of other substantial portions of the pipeline would require permits from other federal agencies.
Million's project is intriguing in Colorado, where water managers face the challenge of supplying water to sprawling development on the Front Range. Colorado water officials recently agreed to spend $72,000 to explore the pipeline proposal and another $100,000 after that if the initial study proves promising.
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