DENVER — It has been called speculative, foolhardy and overly expensive, but Aaron Million’s plan to pump water from the Utah-Wyoming border to Colorado’s Front Range just won’t dry up.
Million, a Fort Collins-based entrepreneur, has pushed different versions of the pipeline for more than a decade, and the number of killed ideas and revisions has earned the project the nickname, the “Zombie Pipeline.”
Now seeking water rights from the Green River in Utah for a new version of his plan, Million thinks he has fashioned a winning proposal to feed Colorado’s thirsty, growing population.
While Million’s proposal has drawn criticism from environmental groups and government agencies, some Front Range water suppliers have expressed interest in water from the pipeline.
The Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, based in Greeley and serving Weld, Adams and Morgan counties, has re-affirmed its interest in the project, which it first expressed in 2009.
And the state of Colorado has taken a neutral stance.
Million, under the banner of a new business, Water Horse Resources LLC, is now proposing a project that would divert 55,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Green River in eastern Utah, below Flaming Gorge Reservoir near Brown’s Park and above Dinosaur National Monument. (See application and map, and click to zoom in on map).
An acre foot of water is roughly equivalent to a foot of water covering an entire football field, and enough to satisfy two small families’ yearly demands.
With 55,000 acre feet, the project, if it ever comes to fruition, could serve 110,000 families each year. It could also satisfy more than 10,000 acres of flood-irrigated farmland.
The water, up to 76 cubic feet per second, would travel in a pipeline that heads northeast out of Utah, cuts across a corner of Colorado, traverses 500 miles through Wyoming and over a low point in the Continental Divide, and then drops back into Colorado.
Because the pipeline would ultimately descend about 3,800 vertical feet, the water could power turbines that would generate about 70 megawatt hours of power per year.
For the project’s second phase, Million hopes to build pumped-storage facilities, which could fill with water during the day when energy is in low demand and release water through a turbine when demand is high, generating an additional 500 to 1,000 Mwh of power annually.
Front Range interest
The project’s opponents have pointed out problems for endangered fish, recreation and water availability. To bolster their claims many have pointed out that Million has yet to reveal a buyer for his water, and say that’s evidence that there is no interest in Green River water in Colorado.
But Million claims to have a buyer on the Front Range interested in purchasing the entire water supply, and other Front Range water providers have expressed their willingness to consider water from the pipeline.
For his water rights application, Million presented 17 letters of interest to Utah’s state engineer. Most of these letters were from a different pipeline application in 2010, but there was one from January from the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, or CCWCD.
The CCWCD serves about 550 farmers, but because the district is short of water, it is able to make only about half of its deliveries.
In November, voters passed a $48.7 million bond issue for the district to buy new supplies, and the CCWCD said it would consider water from a Flaming Gorge pipeline.
“I think it’s false that there is no interest for additional water supplies,” said Randy Ray, the district’s executive director, in a recent interview. “Our board is supportive of any methods to bring water to our area. We will evaluate just about everything.”
According to Million’s testimony before the State of Utah’s Division of Water Rights on Nov. 11 the CCWCD has joined his project’s advisory board. And on a presentation slide presented by Million at the hearing with the title of “strategic team,” the CCWCD was listed under “operations.”
“They have a huge demand-supply imbalance on the South Platte in Colorado they are looking at,” Million said of the CCWCD.
Birth of a concept
One night in 2003, Million stumbled across an old map in the library at Colorado State University, where he was a graduate student in resource economics.
He focused on the northwest corner of the state where the Green River comes down from Wyoming into Utah and then comes in and out of Colorado in a sweeping oxbow before traveling down to meet the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park.
Free from the clutter of roads, this 1920s map made the thick, blue squiggle so obvious that it suddenly gave Million an idea to bring that water to the Front Range.
“I thought that surely someone had thought about that,” Million said.
The project became his master’s thesis and, later, a proposal for a real project. The original concept looked at importing nearly 250,000 acre-feet of water from a point of diversion in Wyoming.
He filed applications for different versions of his concept under the companies Million Conservation Resource Group Inc. and Wyco Power and Water Inc. Both applications were dismissed by government agencies for a lack of information earlier this decade.
The new plan scales back the amount of water to be drawn from the river and includes an emphasis on hydropower along with water delivery.
The company has not released a detailed cost estimate to the public, but Million says estimates range from $860 million to $1.1 billion. He also says private consultants have put the project’s ultimate value at more than $30 billion.
With these new pieces in place, Million believes this project has a better chance, but he’s facing opposition on many fronts, permit challenges and a daunting environmental-impact study.
Interest in the water?
Million’s latest filing for water rights in Utah, in January, drew 28 protest letters, from environmental groups, concerned citizens and water districts, as well as from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Interior.
A Nov. 7 hearing on the proposal in Utah led to a headline in the Salt Lake City Tribune that said, “Environmentalists, feds, and Utahns agree: Don’t send Green River water to Colorado.”
Many of the presentations against the water project cast doubt on whether there was even any water in the Colorado River system left to take.
“If you’re going to develop more water, you are going to threaten current uses,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, which opposes the project. “This might be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Still, the most common concern was that Million had not released a signed contract that showed someone would buy the project’s water.
At the project’s water-rights hearing at the Utah state engineer’s office in November, several groups pointed to fields on Million’s application where the purpose and place of use were left as “TBD,” or to be determined.
“That just smacks of speculation,” said Ariel Calmes, a staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, which is also opposing the project.
“This is a water grab,” Calmes said. “It’s not a reasonably thought-out plan to get water resources to benefit a specific community.”
But while Million and his team have struggled against public backlash and weathered claims that there was no interest in Green River water, other water entities in Colorado have quietly picked up his idea.
In 2006, just as Million was getting his initial idea off the ground, the South Metro Water Supply Authority — a group of water suppliers south of Denver — launched studies for an almost identical project, and another group near Colorado Springs released a study into a Flaming Gorge pipeline in 2013.
The governor’s water advisers also took note of Million’s plan, and Colorado’s 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative included a Flaming Gorge pipeline as one of four possibilities for new water supplies for the state.
That same report found that the South Platte Basin, which includes all of northeastern Colorado, would need as much as 330,000 acre-feet more water to meet demand projections by 2050.
While the state has not come out firmly in support of Million’s project, the Colorado Water Conservation Board said in a July 7 letter that it did not oppose the Utah application. The letter indicated that the Colorado state engineer would need to weigh in on the proposal if the Utah water rights were secured.
Million is quick to swat away arguments that his project is speculative, noting that water demand in Colorado has only grown since he first conceived of the pipeline. He also claims an entity with “large ranching and municipal interests” has already agreed to take all the water at a specific price.
He also said he is in preliminary conversations about a power-purchase agreement for the renewable energy that the pipeline would generate.
Due to continuing negotiations and a nondisclosure agreement, Million said he would not reveal either of the two interested parties at this time.
But scrutiny of Million’s latest plan is increasing.
On the water horse
On Dec. 10, the Utah state engineer’s office requested additional information from Million to evaluate his application.
The request asked Million to prove that water was available in the Colorado River system and that water taken from his pipeline would come from Colorado, not Utah’s, share of the river.
The requests also sought further proof of feasibility, but did not request additional proof of demand or a contract for the purchase of the pipeline’s water.
Water Horse Resources has until Feb. 8 to supply the new information.
Million is confident that his project, this time around, will move forward. He says the protests and the noise from the public don’t get to him anymore.
“You saddle the horse,” he said, “You do what you think is right and you move on with it.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Greeley Tribune on coverage of regional water issues. The Tribune published a version of this story on Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018.