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Posted: January 24, 2013

Flaming Gorge lives

...and with it, big questions about how Colorado will manage its water future

Bart Taylor

Yesterday, the Basin Roundtable Project Exploration Committee – the Flaming Gorge task force – released the results of its year-long evaluation of a proposed 500-mile pipeline to deliver water from western Wyoming to Colorado’s Front Range. The Colorado Water Conservation Board funded the study to take a close look at Flaming Gorge, an idea that’s stuck around to confound its critics, seemingly growing more interesting to planners as time’s gone by. Colorado’s entitled to more water from Colorado River. The state needs the water. CWCB, in a controversial decision, convened a statewide panel of Basin representatives to study the idea.

Last month I speculated  that the task force would render a neutral finding on the project, a result I thought would also infuriate its opponents. After a brief look, the report does both – it’s neutral, and for critics, will be maddening. Without a clear rejection of the idea, especially one with a few warts, it will be difficult for opponents to put a positive spin on the release.

There’s little question this committee would have summarily flushed Flaming Gorge if given an opportunity. Early on, the project was clumsily steered through the water community by its chief advocates, Aaron Million and Frank Jaeger, Parker’s ex-water chief. Each now “sponsor” separate proposals, although the concepts are nearly identical. The environmental community loathes the plan; it’s a “legacy” pipeline that moves huge amounts of water over long-distances. Wyoming is up in arms. In short, it has become a headache for many in the water community.

It may also be the best option for Colorado to develop its remaining Colorado River Compact allocation, fill a supply “gap” that’s materializing much faster than anticipated by state planners, take the pressure off the state’s agricultural sector, and ease the strain on the main stem of the Colorado River.

As a result, Flaming Gorge apparently lives.

Whether Colorado’s water community can agree on how to proceed is another matter. The system seems ill-equipped to deal with projects of this magnitude. There’s not really a process in place to facilitate discussions. Half (or so) of the committee seem to believe the Water Conservation Board should be involved. The other half believe a role to be outside its jurisdiction. There’s confusion as to who should be the table, and different views on whether political advocacy even matters.

There is, apparently, agreement that Colorado needs the water, that the state would benefit from better process to evaluate and commit to projects, and that Flaming Gorge should be reviewed by a second panel. But what the panel would seek to accomplish is questionable. The report hinted a second committee won’t make a recommendation either:

It is important to note that stakeholders would not be asked whether they support a Flaming Gorge project or if they think one should be built—this question would make several stakeholders uncomfortable and potentially inhibit productive discussion.

What then, would a second Flaming Gorge decide?

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

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