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Posted: February 29, 2012

Front Range business a no-show in water pipeline imbroglio

Flaming Gorge: Are they for it, or agin’ it?

Bart Taylor

Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, denied developer Aaron Million a permit to pipe water from Wyoming's Flaming Gorge reservoir to Colorado's Front-Range. Million and Frank Jaeger, Parker's respected water official and South Metro Water Supply Authority board member, are advocating separate plans to tap the Green River at Flaming Gorge, as Colorado is entitled.

They've argued the pipeline is the best way for the state to develop its full Colorado River Compact allocation and meet growing demand.

Opponents argue there’s no water left in the Colorado River system to develop, and were quick to hail FERC's decision and lambast the project and its sponsors.

“The Flaming Gorge Pipeline is a Zombie”, declared Stacey Tillinghuisen of Western Resource Advocates in the Denver Post, “staggering around looking for anything to keep it alive.”

Molly Mugglestone of Protect the Flows was equally as blunt. “If the federal government keeps refusing to waste time and money on entertaining this pipe dream, why does the State of Colorado continue to do so?”, referring to funds recently allocated by the State of Colorado to study the project. Protect the Flows is a coalition comprised of western-slope businesses that rely directly on the Colorado River.

FERC’s ruling steers clear of the debate over water availability, suggesting the application was incomplete relating to their primary jurisdiction – power. Million proposes several hydropower stations along the 500-mile line, and had sought a permit for water from the nation’s energy regulatory body as a result. As skeptical as Tillinghusien and others are of this approach, FERC left the door open for another application in the future.

There's been little or no reaction from Front-Range business, the main beneficiary of the pipeline, though more than a dozen communities have committed to buy water if the pipeline is built. Jaeger's group supports the Colorado Water Authority's proposal, unaffiliated with Million's and not affected by the FERC ruling. In a statement, South Metro remained committed to Flaming Gorge as one option to develop new supplies of “renewable surface water” for the region.

Million and Jaeger, famously at odds, are seemingly left to defend Flaming Gorge on their own. Jaeger, in the Post, doubted that the tool-kit proposed by opponents, including conservation, would be sufficient to address the state’s substantial long-term water needs. He’s consistently asserted that Colorado must think big to tackle the issue. So far, businesses here seem unconvinced.

By contrast, the coalition of voices opposed to the pipeline is fully engaged. For them, any additional water diverted from the Colorado River is a clear and present danger. A diversion as large as proposed at Flaming Gorge – hundreds of thousands of acre-feet every year – more than qualifies, even if Colorado may be entitled to the water.

Data may be tilting in favor of Million and Jaeger. One prominent study has show Colorado may be using less water than interstate agreements allow. More research is on the way. The Bureau of Reclamation will release a Basin-wide supply and demand study this summer. If it’s shown Colorado is entitled to more and is able to maneuver to use or store more water, Flaming Gorge will remain very much in play.

It might serve Colorado's Front-Range business community to determine if its proponents are right.

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

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