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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

Pumped Up: Transbasin Diversions

By Josh Zaffos

In October 2009, the Steamboat Springs City Council approved its largest annexation in decades. Known as Steamboat 700, the development along the city’s western edge will bring in about 2,000 new homes with 4,700 residents, plus another 380,000 square feet of commercial space. The new neighborhood represents a remarkable 45 percent increase in the population of Steamboat Springs, but the growth spurt is something of an aberration in northwestern Colorado.

As the Front Range has transformed from open farmland into sprawling suburbs, residential expansion around Steamboat and along the Yampa and White rivers has been relatively tame. The region’s gradual growth partially explains why the Yampa and White are an exception in a state where most rivers have reached, or are near to reaching, maximum allocation.

The mighty streamflows in the Yampa River—topped in-state only by the Colorado—aren’t just attractive to outdoor enthusiasts and freshwater ecologists; they have long been coveted as untapped water resources in Colorado and the West. Two recent proposals for substantial transmountain diversions are now following decades-old attempts to dam and divert water from both the Yampa and Green rivers.

Private entrepreneur Aaron Million is pursuing the construction of a pipeline to take up to 250,000 acre feet of water annually from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in Wyoming—upstream of the river’s brief run through Colorado—to meet projected Front Range water needs. And the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District has put forth an alternate idea: tap the Yampa and pump as much as 300,000 acre feet annually across the Rockies. Either project would equal an enormous expansion in Colorado water delivery, and northwestern water interests remain wary.

“The river is one of the great amenities of the [Yampa] valley, and people here are protective of our water,” says Paul Strong, a former Steamboat Springs City Council president who now serves as secretary of the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, “so any threat is a great concern.”

Although the projects are receiving much attention, few water managers across the region or the state have openly embraced either pumpback proposal—so far.
Water for growth
The Yampa Basin is miles away, both geographically and demographically, from the Front Range. River recreation and agriculture are the dominant land and water uses, according to the regional roundtable. The two largest cities, Steamboat Springs and Craig, have fewer than 20,000 residents combined. Even with a world-class ski resort and growth in and around Steamboat, municipal and industrial water use remains relatively insignificant.

“Domestic uses of water in the Yampa are really a drop in the bucket,” says Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and roundtable member.

Despite Colorado Water Conservation Board forecasts that the region will grow more rapidly than any other river basin statewide, potentially tripling in population over the next 40 years, the resulting municipal water demands are still rather modest. Says Jeff Devere, a roundtable member representing the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, “Many see these astonishing numbers for growth—5 percent—but when you’ve only got 6,000 people [as in Rio Blanco County], it doesn’t amount to much.”

The CWCB projects the Yampa and White basins’ municipal and industrial water demands will increase by between 12,600 and 27,600 acre feet by 2050, depending on the rate the population grows. That demand could be met through existing water supplies and water rights tied to previously identified projects, according to the CWCB. Still, additional infrastructure would be required, and depending on who you talk to, the region is not necessarily prepared.

The remaining flows that leave the state unused are beckoning Front Range water managers, who face a very different set of trends. Water in the South Platte and Arkansas basins is already over-appropriated, and the CWCB estimates that the basins will together need as much as 868,000 acre feet of additional water in 2050.

“We used to think we were a valley too far,” Birch says. “Now, we’re looking at proposals where people are talking about pumping water hundreds of miles and, apparently, they think that could be cost-effective compared to what other alternatives they might have for water supply.”
Opportunity knocks
To some, the intense spring runoff in the Yampa Basin represents a lost opportunity. The river pulses as high as 20,000 cubic feet per second for several weeks each year, but the excess flows quickly travel out of state.

“There’s a lot of water there, and the basin has very little storage,” says Carl Brouwer, project manager for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Brouwer estimates that more than 1 million acre feet of good-quality water leaves Colorado each year through the Yampa.

How much water Colorado users can legally divert isn’t entirely clear. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 and the associated 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin Compact split water use among the seven states of the entire Colorado River Basin. Colorado doesn’t fully use its share of Colorado River water, which is approximately 3 million to 3.88 million acre feet each year, but no one knows exactly how close the state is to using up its allocation. The Yampa River, like all of the other West Slope drainages that eventually reach the Colorado, is subject to the compact, with one unique specification: it must deliver an average annual minimum of 500,000 acre feet downstream through the Green River.

In the meantime, both the Flaming Gorge and Yampa pumpback proposals signify ambitious diversions of Colorado River Basin water that would likely claim whatever last remaining water the state is allowed.

Aaron Million’s 550-mile-long pipeline would siphon water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in Wyoming—and possibly directly from the Green itself—and carry up to 250,000 acre feet a year to the Front Range. The pump-and-pipe project would ship water along Interstate 80, across Wyoming and the Continental Divide, before turning south to fill reservoirs that could serve Front Range communities and farmers. Million says the piped-in flows could also augment rivers stressed by other diversions, seemingly making the project a municipal, agricultural and environmental silver bullet.

Known as the Regional Watershed Supply Project, Million has estimated its costs at $2 billion to $3 billion. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended work on an environmental impact statement evaluating the project while it assesses a list of potential customers. At the Corps’ request, Million turned over the list on January 20, 2010, which includes the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, City of Brighton, and Douglas County, among others. The Corps will scrutinize the interested parties’ stated water needs and other factors, says Rena Brand, regulatory specialist with the Corps. “Then we will determine whether to continue with the study.”

Reluctance to work with the private entrepreneur has led water managers from the Parker Water and Sanitation District and the South Metro Water Supply Authority to consider developing their own version of the project, which could move forward if the Corps deems Million’s client base insufficient.

In December 2006, just weeks after Million went public with his proposal, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District unveiled the Multi-Basin Water Supply Project, otherwise referred to as the Yampa River pumpback. A study commissioned by the NCWCD suggests diverting up to 300,000 acre feet of water from the Yampa near Maybell, Colo., then pumping it back across—or under—the mountains. Like Million’s project, the Yampa pumpback would cost billions of dollars, but it would also alleviate pressure to dry up hundreds of thousands of irrigated acres in the South Platte Basin, says Brouwer.

Since introducing the idea, the NCWCD hasn’t pursued its development. Members of the South Platte and Yampa/White/Green basin roundtables met once in 2007 to tour the Yampa Basin and talk details, but the idea has not moved forward. Brouwer views the possibility of its fruition as a regional undertaking. “It’s a very long-term project, and a project that the state would have to get behind, at minimum,” Brouwer says.

Million and the NCWCD have both claimed that there is no competition to tap the Yampa or Green first, however, only one of the two large projects would likely be developed as advertised due to compact constraints. And whether either is built could depend on proponents’ shrewd appeasement of water users in northwestern Colorado as well as mitigation of environmental damages.
Not so fast
Of foremost concern among members of the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable is that Million’s project might transport water contracted from the Bureau of Reclamation with a priority date from the late 1950s when the reservoir was built. That date is senior to many claims within the Yampa Basin. If there were ever a Colorado River Compact call from the states, such as California, along the Lower Colorado River, Yampa area water users could be forced to curtail their water use, even as Million kept pumping.

And because 250,000 acre feet of water would be shifted out of the Colorado Basin to instead flow east toward the Missouri River, that day could come sooner than previously expected. “It would greatly accelerate the day when the Lower Colorado Basin [states] would make a call,” says Tom Sharp, an attorney, board member of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and member of the roundtable.

Sharp says Million pledged to surrender the senior priority date when he met with roundtable members a few years ago, but such a decision could be out of his hands and a matter of western water law.

In 2007, Reclamation conducted a Flaming Gorge water availability study to determine the potential amount of water that could be contracted to Million without compromising the reservoir’s other uses. The “rough analysis” did not account for the effects of climate change or a potential settlement with the Ute Indians and still concluded that only 185,000 acre feet would be available in the short term. After 2060, assuming Wyoming would have fully developed its share of the Green River resource, that number would fall to 120,000 acre feet, less than half of what Million proposes to transport. Whatever the contracted amount, the state of Colorado would have to agree that the water is part of Colorado’s Colorado River apportionment, says Michael Loring, regional economist for Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Region. On top of that, the contract with Reclamation would be subject to renewal every 40 years.  

Million also filed a water right application in 2007 with the state of Wyoming, identifying several diversion points directly on the Green River there. According to Wyoming’s deputy state engineer, Harry LaBonde, if Million were granted the right to divert water to Colorado, Colorado would again have to agree to count it against its compact apportionment. And the Wyoming state engineer would most likely tack on a special permit condition giving Wyoming users precedence. Says LaBonde, “We would not allow a Colorado permit to impact existing or future water rights in Wyoming.”  

The Yampa pumpback could have more overt consequences for local water use in the Yampa Valley, since it would divert directly from the basin. Roundtable members worry about compromised water quality and reduced spring flood flows as a result of such a significant diversion, which would in turn impact agriculture, river recreation and endangered fish recovery.

“They cannot upset our recovery plan assurances,” Sharp says, referring to protections from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Programmatic Biological Opinion to help endangered fish and, at the same time, allow the Yampa Basin to develop an additional 50,000 acre feet of water to meet future demands. Someone would have to file for new water rights for the pumpback, which would be junior to all existing claims.

On the plus side, either project could include reservoirs and infrastructure to deliver and store water within the Yampa Basin. Brouwer says transmountain projects historically build compensatory storage first, which could help local farmers and developers move forward with plans for growth. Those potential benefits aren’t lost on water users in the Yampa Basin, but Sharp and other local stakeholders say their own future development shouldn’t be hamstrung.

“Our first concern, from a municipal perspective, is to make sure there is enough water for our own needs,” says Strong, the secretary of the roundtable.

Sharp adds, “We don’t want to find ourselves as the sacrificial lamb.”
Complicating factors
In the final days of 2008, Shell Oil filed for a conditional water right that would account for 8 percent of the Yampa River’s peak springtime flows. The water would be used to fill a 45,000 acre-foot reservoir as part of the company’s plans for oil shale production. The considerable development, still under review, is one of those unmapped demands that didn’t factor into the CWCB’s initial needs assessment.

NCWCD officials have suggested that Shell’s plans wouldn’t interfere with a major transmountain diversion out of the Yampa, but basin roundtable members believe that if the oil shale industry takes off, it could use up much of the basin’s—and state’s—unclaimed water, making talks of pipelines moot.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is weighing Wild and Scenic River designations for stretches of the Yampa River and its lower tributaries. The federal protection often carries a water right to preserve flows in the river. Agency recommendations are expected sometime in 2010. Both local and Front Range water managers say Wild and Scenic designation could preclude any large diversion from the river system, but conservation and recreational groups support the idea.

“Just because there aren’t major projects on the Yampa doesn’t mean it’s not providing services,” says Becky Long, water caucus coordinator for the Colorado Environmental Coalition. Preserving the river’s free-flowing character shouldn’t get lost in the rush to develop its resources, Long says, especially considering the Yampa’s potential to support fish recovery and avoid curtailment of Colorado’s junior water rights. If downstream states ever do make a compact call, the Yampa’s flows could be “a cushion,” Long says, to meet the call without turning off existing taps in the state.

Until the results of various studies assessing water availability on the Colorado River and water demands into the future, which are being conducted by the CWCB and basin roundtables, are finalized, Dan Birch says plans for either a Green River or Yampa River pipeline are “a little premature.” Between development taking off around Steamboat, the fish recovery program, and Shell preparing to produce oil shale, there might not be much water to be claimed in northwestern Colorado, Birch says.
While the pumpback proposals face formidable challenges, Birch believes the ideas are causing water interests in the Yampa Basin and along the Front Range to abandon their traditionally more provincial views and to think collaboratively about the future. Whether a solution can tap complementary, instead of competitive, intentions among water interests is still further down the pipe.

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