From the Editor

Million in one

(*With apologies to Brad Clark.)

Sometimes, you never know when you’ll get another chance. Like a few weeks back, when the stars miraculously aligned, work/kid schedules conspired, spouseman gave his blessing and the 12-year-old Suby persevered to find me, a mere 8-hour car ride later, at the put-in for Gates of Lodore.
It had been 13 years since I last made the pilgrimage to Dinosaur National Monument, in the extreme northwest corner of our state, near the Utah border. It was close to 1 a.m. by the time I nestled into my sleeping bag in the back of the car, which seemed the safest option given the mountain lion warnings posted on the bathroom door.

Besides, I had better things to worry about. Like, whether or not I would remember the run, and more importantly, remember my roll. Sure, I like to think I had come a long way since that trip more than a decade ago, piloted at high water in a now-vintage Wavesport Kinetic. But, motherly mortality and age had caught up with me since, and I wondered it I could hang, quite literally, with some of the best whitewater the Green River could dish out.

Alas, as morning dawned and those famed rock walls of hell – or so John Wesley Powell thought – beckoned, and fear subsided. The piles of gear and beer became smaller, as they soon found a new hypalon home. In what must have been record time (even the ranger was still sleeping), we were on the water by mid-morning, refreshments cracked and that old familiar river rhythm setting in.

I leaned back in my boat, taking in the views of the towering cliffs and ponderosa forest. Not bad for a Thursday.

Slowly, Thursday melded into Friday as recognition of days, time and schedules was lost within those canyon walls. And if the saying is true — no, not the one about if it’s day 3 and you don’t know who the asshole is, it’s you. The other one, about a good river trip being one where you lose all sense of time and the outside world, then this ranked among the top five. And when I finally emerged from the river time warp four days later, combat roll intact, I was glad to have taken my “last chance.”

Unfortunately, I had scarcely shaken the sand from my Chacos back in the real world when I learned how true this really was.

Seems Fort Collins businessman Aaron Million (his real name) is retooling his plan for a 578-mile pipeline that would siphon 250,000-acre-feet of water from the Green River and Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir, across the Continental Divide to Colorado’s Front Range. According to Million, Colorado is entitled to its share of Flaming Gorge’s water, since the Green takes a quick loop through Colorado before hooking up with the Colorado near Moab. The so-called “Regional Watershed Supply Project” would follow I-80 through Wyoming before dropping into Colorado along I-25 and ending near Pueblo.

Funny thing is, the “Million Pipeline,” as it is more commonly known, is actually a huge misnomer. Its price is estimated to come in at a hefty $3 billion, although critics put it closer to $9 billion.

But critics, of which there are many – including Wyoming and Utah municipalities with water rights on the Green (including Uintah County), Trout Unlimited, the Sierra Club, American Whitewater and the Colorado-based Western Resource Advocates – are quick to poke holes in Million’s pipedream. First and foremost are murky calculations over how much water is really available to Colorado residents. A 2007 study by the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees Flaming Gorge, pegged the basin’s annual water availability at 165,000 acre feet through 2049, after which time reserves would drop to 120,000 acre feet. However, many factors, including climate change and interstate water agreements, could mean far less and result in a convoluted and drawn out legal struggle.

Furthermore, Million is tight-lipped about investors for his privately-funded project and as of yet, has no takers. Which is no surprise. An analysis by Western Resource Advocates found that water from the project would cost an estimated $2,200 per acre-foot, compared to the current going rate of $100 per acre-foot. While Million claims agricultural water will be deeply discounted, it still begs the question of who will pay. It appears Million is speculating on water development, which happens to be illegal in these drought-ridden parts.

Legal and fiscal issues aside, the pipeline presents other less tangible but important impacts. At the very least, it would degrade water quality, threaten endangered fish and harm wildlife habitat. And worst case, like the Dolores, Glen Canyon and countless other Western river runs before it, the Green as we know it could be reduced to a mud-caked trickle.

Perhaps sensing the changing tide of sentiment, as well as an uphill battle (the Army Corps of Engineers recently cancelled its review of his application) Million painted his proposal green. The Billion Pipeline is now being proposed as a hydropower project, and as such, will be up for a less-intensive review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In a recent announcement, Million said the project could generate as much as 1,000 megawatts of electricity on its way down the Divide (although the cost of piping water up and over the Divide was not addressed.) In a further P.R. ploy, Million said he welcomes questions about the project, which is being modeled after the Lake Powell Pipeline — a proposed hydropower project that would divert water from Lake Powell to St. George, Utah.

True, the West needs to start getting more crafty about ways to conserve and deliver water to its booming population, especially given the drier road ahead. But perhaps it’s time we look past the archaic 1950s model of “dam and conquer” and usher in a new era of innovation and cooperation.

Approaches like water-leasing, water reuse, conservation and reprioritization can go a long way toward saving resources, not to mention our valuable and irreplaceable landscapes. Because, all it takes is one Million Pipeline to destroy a river that’s one in a million.
– Missy Votel