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Dissonance at Flaming Gorge

Bart Taylor //December 12, 2012//

Dissonance at Flaming Gorge

Bart Taylor //December 12, 2012//

In January, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) will release the findings of its  Flaming Gorge pipeline task force, convened early this year to study a project that’s divided the water community throughout the Colorado River Basin. Supported by users in Colorado with an acute need for water, the pipeline is opposed by motivated, well-funded interests who seemed to have the upper hand in a long-running debate over the project’s feasibility and wisdom.

But based on updates published by meeting facilitators, it’s a good bet the task force will recommend further study and deliberations, a result certain to anger its opponents. Even a neutral result that stops short of killing the idea outright would be a bitter disappointment for those hoping Flaming Gorge will be flushed by Colorado water officials.

The pipeline would tap Flaming Gorge reservoir in western Wyoming and move water east along the I-80 corridor, then south, for use and storage along Colorado’s thirsty Front Range. Flaming Gorge backs up Wyoming’s Green River, the Colorado River’s primary tributary. Opponents argue there’s no surplus water to divert, that the entire Colorado River system – including the Green – is tapped out, overdeveloped. The Bureau of Reclamation supply and demand study has demonstrated that demand in the seven-state river basin has indeed outstripped supply in most years.

Yet Colorado and the other Upper Basin states seem poised to tip over the current allocation regime along the river, and do so legally, pursuant to the Colorado River Compact. Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the Upper Basin, haven’t developed their full river entitlement. For decades, California, Arizona and Nevada have used their share plus the Upper Basin’s unused portion. Given the economic value that flows downstream with every lost gallon of undeveloped water, this appears certain to change. Today, the headwater states need the water.

Can Flaming Gorge help Colorado develop its full entitlement? Certainly this question motivated CWCB to fund more research. Under the objective lens of the task force – with a timely assist from nature – the project’s attributes may be holding up.

As its proponents have argued, tapping the Green River in Wyoming provides a back up of sorts to the main stem of the Colorado River. The Green rises in north central Wyoming, near Jackson. If you’re a skier, you know a northerly storm track has dumped more than nine feet of snow at the Jackson Hole resort so far this winter.

When Colorado’s Rockies are dry, as they are now, Wyoming’s might hold more snow – essentially taking the pressure off the Colorado River headwaters, a scenario apparently not lost on the task force. In effect, Colorado would be able to tap a different source within the Colorado River system to realize its allocation. In years like those we’re currently experiencing, this could be significant.

Drought may also be accelerating supply shortfalls that were initially forecast to develop in Colorado in 2030 and beyond. Gary Barber, Chairman of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable and a task force participant, issued a stark warning in mid-November to John Stulp, Colorado’s Director of Interbasin Compact Negotiations and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s water ‘czar’.

“The very real potential exists for a water supply gap in agriculture next year, 2013, if the snow pack along the Continental Divide is average or less,” he said. “A municipal supply gap could exist as early as the year 2020.”

Flaming Gorge proponents have long held that this was the right project to take the pressure off  Colorado’s agriculture sector. It would be ‘new’ water into the system – a new source. Currently most ‘new’ supplies sustaining Colorado’s economic growth, from energy to urban development, are coming from the state’s ag sector. Ag transfers are watering Colorado’s boom. But for how long? Much is being written today about the future of agriculture here and throughout the West. How long can state planners here lean on ag?

As Barber notes, “The alternative to moving forward on new supplies will be the loss of irrigated agriculture in the Arkansas Basin.”

Of course, few if any of the arguments for Flaming Gorge will convince opponents of its viability. After all, it’s an infrastructure option in a time of diminishing support for large water infrastructure projects. It’s expensive.

Wyoming isn’t a fan, although water law may obviate their objection in the end. And there’s the current state of the basin. We know with certainty that demand now exceeds supply. Flaming Gorge opponents argue there is no more water to develop.

Finally, there’s the possibility that if Colorado develops more water from the river, drought, over-use and Lower Basin obligations will dry up new users that have grown accustomed to it.  Curtailment, as it’s called, would present very large headaches for water officials here.

It’s a good possibility we might get an even closer look at Flaming Gorge in the near future if task force deliberations are an indication of how they’ll report on the year-long process. We should know in early January. The blowback from opponents will certainly not go unnoticed.