A Colorado businessman is promoting a project under which 165,000 acre-feet of water would be pumped yearly from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and piped to the Denver area.
The idea of Aaron Million, Fort Collins, has received largely favorable reactions from several federal and state officials.
Flaming Gorge Reservoir, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, sprawls across the Utah-Wyoming border, backed up behind the dam near Dutch John, Daggett County. Flaming George National Recreation Area encompasses more than 207,000 acres, about equally divided between the two states.
Currently, the dam holds back more than 3 million acre-feet of water from the Green River system, according to the bureau.
News reports from Colorado peg the project's cost at $4 billion, much of it for a 400-mile pipeline. Exact locations of the project's features have not been announced, with discussions continuing about the details.
At one point, project supporters said they were interested in more than 400,000 acre-feet from the reservoir, but the number has dropped. One official said the latest estimate is for 165,000 acre-feet.
"There's a significant need for water on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs," said Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, based in Salt Lake City.
Proposals to use Colorado's water allotment from the area have been around for years, he said. "There were lots of problems with all of them, very substantial problems, whether they be political problems or environmental problems." Depleting the Colorado River in the western slope is among the difficulties of these plans.
"Mr. Million has begun planning for a project that would apparently avoid much of that," he said. He "has come up with a proposal to take water out of the Green River essentially, out of Flaming Gorge. This seems to avoid a lot of environmental issues," Ostler said.
"It has its own set of issues that people are just beginning to look at, in terms of how the Upper Basin shares the water, where they take it, and what that means."
Million has been working with the Bureau of Reclamation to obtain a contract to use water stored in the reservoir. "And of course the water would be charged to the state of Colorado," which has an allotment under interstate compact.
The pipeline's water might be withdrawn from a site outside the state of Colorado, but Ostler said that is allowed under the Law of the River. If the pipeline runs through Wyoming, that state might be able to use some of the water, he said, and "that water would be charged to Wyoming."
"Right now this project is just in the feasibility stage," Ostler added.
It would be privately funded, which would make it unusual or unique among large Western water projects.
"It raises lots of political questions with regards to the people who would buy the water," he said. "And there are just a lot of angles and twists that need to be looked at."
The project's latest proposal, about 165,000 acre-feet, might be the most Flaming Gorge could provide, "given all the other uses the reservoir has to support," he added.
Other concerns are whether drawing down the reservoir would impact the operation of the dam, including power generation. But Ostler does not believe the project would have dire environmental impacts such as killing endangered fish of the Green River.
One of the reservoir's purposes is to "provide storage so people could use the water." It also needs to supply water for endangered fish and generate power, he added.
Jerry Olds, Utah's state engineer, said the project is only a proposal so far and that its backers have not yet filed applications for water.
What would Utah's reaction be if the project does move forward? "It depends on the approach that they decide to take," he said.
If the water were diverted in Utah, the project would need a Utah water right and the state would go through a review. If it's taken out elsewhere, the state's permission may not be needed.
"Each state is entitled to use their (water) apportionment under the Colorado River Compact," he said.
The project potentially could affect Utah's water interests, however. As Colorado developed part of its entitlement, "it would impact us," he said.
"But, again, I think we would try and work" with Colorado officials. The states of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado are committed to the recovery of endangered fish, he said.
"It will be a very expensive project," Olds said. "I think there's some uncertainty at this point just as to the size of the project, the amount of water, and I think they're trying to work with those issues."
Dennis J. Strong, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said he has met a couple of times with Million and his supporters. "I think they're going about it appropriately," contacting people to discuss the ideas, he said.
The plan is to be discussed at the meeting of the Upper Colorado River Commission in June, according to Strong.
Meanwhile, Utah officials have asked the Bureau of Reclamation to examine potential impacts of the project.
"We're concerned with what happens under a full-development scenario, that's when Wyoming and Utah are using their full Colorado River allotment."
Flaming Gorge reservoir's level would drop, but the reservoir was built to allow managers to handle a fluctuating water supply. What Utah is concerned about, he said, is meeting the rights of the state's water users.