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Posted: September 27, 2011

Flaming Gorge in Colorado’s sights

State steps up to study new water supply

Bart Taylor

Two numbers frame the decision last week by the Colorado Water Conservation Board to fund further study on a project to pipe thousands of acre-feet of water every year from Wyoming's Flaming Gorge reservoir to users along Colorado's Front Range.

The CWCB forecasts that a 20 percent water supply shortfall - the so-called "supply gap" - will materialize for the state's municipal and industrial users within a couple decades; and additional CWCB research completed last year indicated that Colorado may be entitled to as much as 400,000 acre-feet of additional supply from the Colorado River, water that's not currently being stored or used here.

The unanimous decision to take a hard look at Flaming Gorge underscores the reality that Colorado has no choice but to determine whether the project, the brainchild of Fort Collins businessman Aaron Million, is the best approach to fully develop the state's Colorado River Compact allocation and address this supply gap. It would have been irresponsible for the CWCB, steward of the state's water resources, not to further explore Flaming Gorge. The Board deserves credit for making the right call.

Since Million brought attention to Colorado's right to file for water permits on the Green River, and proposed tapping Flaming Gorge for the state's benefit, the project has become a lightning rod in the regional competition for water in the West. Opponents of the project are primary concerned that the Colorado River is tapped-out - over-appropriated and not nearly able to sustain the diversion of thousands of additional acre-feet of water from the main-stem of the river or its primary tributaries like the Green River.

This may be the case - but it may not be, either. No one is really sure. The CWCB has been busy trying to find out. Phase one of the "Colorado River Availability Study," released last year, identified a "range" of undeveloped water remaining in the River basin for the state's use. Officials won't commit to a number - but on the upper-end of the range, scenarios forecast as much as 400,000 acre-feet available per year.

It's therefore possible that Colorado is currently getting the short end of its Colorado River Compact allocation of roughly 3.8 million acre-feet of water per year, and that lower-basin states like Arizona and California are the beneficiary - and have been for decades - of Colorado's largesse, of its inability to measure and store a more precise amount.

With state and local governments under pressure to reduce debt, the multibillion dollar price tag of a 500-mile pipeline has also raised eyebrows. But water projects in the West were once conceived and built as public-private partnerships, a model Million has proposed and one that planners may well revisit with regard to water infrastructure. In fact it's difficult to envision any public works project of considerable size becoming a reality without embracing a new financial model. And at this juncture, it would likely be easy to find municipalities in Colorado who would be willing to trade long-term water security for a private-sector partnership.

Flaming Gorge is an intriguing if controversial project. Immediately this massive impoundment would double Colorado's storage capacity if brought online as an infrastructure asset - addressing an acute need. The Green River rises in Wyoming near Jackson Hole, providing in effect a redundant drainage to the Colorado main stem, which originates above Granby. And for those who value the contributions of agriculture in our state, and fear the impacts of its diminution as water rights are sold to urban interests, Flaming Gorge could effectively slow the transfer of ag water and allow the industry to reinvent itself without a proverbial gun to its head.

Will a Flaming Gorge pipeline ever be built? It may not - it requires further study. But in agreeing to fund more research, the CWCB's unanimous vote served the vital economic interests of the state.

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Bart Taylor is the publisher of ColoradoBiz magazine. E-mail him at btaylor@cobizmag.com.

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Readers Respond

Stephen, thanks for the comments. The project would reduce flows in the Green by 20%, where? Below the dam? Release flows wouldn't change. The level of the reservoir might; but initial research suggests very little in normal years of precipitation. I'd suggest we let the studies run their course. FG may not the be the answer. But CO should determine whether FG is in it's best economic interest. By Publisher on 2011 09 28
Concerning further depletion of an already tapped out Colorado River from this project, this is what we know for sure. The proposed Million pipeline would decrease flows in the Green River by 20-25%, and thereby cripple the annual $10 billion recreation-based economy that communities along the Colorado and its tributaries depend on for survival. In particular, the world class fishery in Flaming Gorge reservoir and the Green River below it would be devastated by lower water levels that raise water temps to a level unsuitable for trout and other cold-water fish. Bottom line: the economic future of so many local economies in Colorado and other basin states is intertwined with a Colorado River that flows strong and beckons families and outdoor enthusiasts to the communities close to its banks. By Stephen Koenigsberg on 2011 09 28

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