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Is There More Water to Be Moved From the Colorado Basin?

Photo: Wyoming's Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River, by Carfull...Holding onto Summer via Flickr

By John Fleck

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Water and Power in April 2010, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Jennifer Pitt warned of the dynamic among the states of the Upper Colorado River Basin:

There appears to be a race among the states to develop the next big use of water, because for water users who don’t get their straw into the system first, their risk of curtailment increases.

The state of Colorado took a large and controversial step forward in that race last week when its Water Conservation Board authorized a study of a pipeline that could bring water more than 350 miles from Flaming Gorge on the Green River in Wyoming to Colorado’s growing Front Range cities.

But as Bruce Finley reported in the Denver Post, the move had a tentative feel:

Conservation board director Jennifer Gimbel issued a statement emphasizing "this vote was not an affirmation of the project itself, or any aspect of it, but the approval of a process to encourage roundtable discussion of issues surrounding any project."

Colorado’s dilemma is the same one found all across the states of the Colorado River Basin. The water is in one place, while the people are in another. Thus you have what amounts to artificial rivers all up and down the Colorado, siphoning and draining and pumping the water away from the Colorado as the basin states try to maximize usage of their legally allotted shares of the river.

The problem in the Upper Basin is that no one quite knows what their share of the river will be in the long run. As Pitt noted in her April 2010 testimony, there is no agreement on who would lose out if, in the future, there is a shortage on the Colorado, creating what she called the “race to develop” based on the belief that communities that have already developed supplies will have a better shot at hanging on than those who show up later.

A very crude Colorado Water Conservation Board study done last year put a price tag of $9 billion on the “Flaming Gorge Concept”, as the ill-defined project has come to be known. (There are both private-sector and government versions of the “concept” making the rounds.) Environmentalists and west slope residents already are raising strong voices of opposition. Combined with the staggering price tag, it makes the whole thing questionable. But even if Colorado overcomes those hurdles, it remains to be seen if the water would really be there.

That concern most notably comes from Eric Kuhn, general manager of a west slope water agency, the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

In a 2007 analysis (see Matt Jenkins’ 2009 High Country News profile for more), Kuhn concluded there was significant risk that extra water needed to fill the Flaming Gorge pipeline and other similar water expert schemes might not be there in the long run, because of both climate uncertainties about how much water the river will have and legal uncertainties about who will be hit by shortages:

Without answering major unresolved legal and scientific questions … can we seriously consider these kinds of projects? Would the citizens of Colorado ever vote to raise their taxes or allocate existing state revenues to subsidize one of these multi-billion dollar projects without answering these basic questions? Could project proponents ever finance one of these projects through revenue-based bonds without answering these basic questions?

Speaking at a conference in Boulder last June, Kuhn noted that this year’s bountiful Colorado River snowpack, enough to push Lake Powell’s surface elevation up 40 feet this year, makes such conversations deceptively easy right now. “Hopefully we’ll see a lot more years like this year,” he said, “but who knows?”


Last modified Wed, 28 Sep, 2011 at 10:57