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Flaming Gorge in Colorado’s sights

Bart Taylor //September 27, 2011//

Flaming Gorge in Colorado’s sights

Bart Taylor //September 27, 2011//

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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