Fri July 1, 2011

Flaming Gorge Pipeline Gets Scrutiny

As a headwaters state, Colorado provides much of the water that allows cities and farms in the desert southwest to bloom.  But the state’s own population is projected to soar, and now water managers are starting to discuss ways to pipe water back into the state.  One of highest profile and most controversial ideas right now is a proposal to build a 550 mile pipeline between the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in southwestern Wyoming and the Colorado Front Range.

KUNC’s Kirk Siegler reported this week about a long-proposed pump-back between the Front Range and the Yampa River in northwest Colorado.  Now he joins KUNC's Erin O'Toole to discuss plans for an even bigger project. 

ERIN O’TOOLE:   First off, the Flaming Gorge is roughly twice as far away as the Yampa – why is such an ambitious project like this even on the table?

KIRK SIEGLER:    Well, I think it boils down to the simple scarcity of water. This is a growing region, and, as the old adage goes: 80% of the state’s population lives here along the Front Range, but, trouble is, only 20% of the water is actually here. Backers of the project think that Colorado is legally entitled to some of the water (or more of the water) in that Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Piping it east along the relatively flat, if not partially downhill Interstate-80  (550 miles to Colorado) is a lot easier, they say, than piping water from a reservoir off the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado, where you would have to go up and over two mountain ranges.

ERIN O’TOOLE:  What has the reaction been to this?

KIRK SIEGLER:  Well, it’s not surprising. In Wyoming this is not a popular idea. Here in Colorado, there are also a lot of critics of this plan. This was clear this week when I visited a meeting of the newly formed Flaming Gorge Task Force, held up in Summit County.

VOICE AT MEETING: “folks if you go ahead and grab whatever snacks you need, we’ll go ahead and get started…”

KIRK SIEGLER:This task force was formed at the urging of some eastern Colorado water agencies who want the feasibility of such a pipeline scrutinized. But there were many people in the room who I talked to who were worried that its very creation might create this perception in the public’s minds that the state is somehow signing off on the proposal, which it has not formally done. One of these skeptics was a conservationist from Carbondale named Ken Neubecker, who sits on a western slope water board

KEN NEUBECKER: “I think the idea is dumber than a box of rocks.”

ERIN O’TOOLE:  Well, given his fairly strong feelings, why did Neubecker even agree to be part of the task force?  

KIRK SIEGLER: Well, he and other skeptics of the plan figured after a three (actually four) hour meeting, they would be better off at the table then not at it. 

KEN NEUBECKER: There’s a lot here we have to look at, because projects like this don’t die, it’s not going to go away until we take a good look and figure out why it needs to go away.

KIRK SIEGLER: So whether it’s the Flaming Gorge project, or another—think of it like a straw, bringing water from far-flung locales back here. There seems to be some pragmatism at play here among conservationists and water managers and farmers.

ERIN O’TOOLE:   You bring up farmers—what about the farmers at this meeting, what do they think about a project like the Flaming Gorge?

KIRK SIEGLER:  I think it depends on which farmer you ask and where that farmer actually farms.  Farmers in some areas will be worried about the possibility of losing water if a project like this goes through.  But there are many farmers and ranchers who are also worried about the so-called dry up of agriculture.

ERIN O’TOOLE:  Right, where farmers sell off their water rights to cities and towns.

KIRK SIEGLER:  Yeah, because it’s more lucrative in some cases to sell those water rights than it is to actually farm on the land. This has been going on for some time, especially in northeastern Colorado, which also just happens to be in the top 10 AG-producing regions in the United States.  I spoke with a farmer at the meeting named Jim Yahn, who also runs a couple of irrigation districts out in the Sterling area. He told me that in recent years, numerous water agencies mainly from the south metro area (who, by the way, are in favor of a Flaming Gorge pipeline) have been coming out into that corner of the state and buying up water rights from willing farmers. 

JIM YAHN:We have other speculators looking around, buying up farms, for the hope that maybe some of this water could be transferred to the Front Range for municipal needs, so when you start drying this up, it starts drying up our economy as well.

ERIN O’TOOLE:  So is Jim Yahn then in favor of the Flaming Gorge project?

KIRK SIEGLER:  He’s in favor of looking at it for sure, as are a lot of people in his position.  He told that whether it’s Flaming Gorge or another large project, something will have to be on the table in the near future.  But here’s the thing: he told me that, at the same time, a project like this can’t go forward without considering the needs of other basins. That is, the ecological needs of rivers and the delicate situation when you take out more water and what that means for the fish—and also, what a project like this will mean for the recreational concerns.

ERIN O’TOOLE:  So what’s next?

KIRK SIEGLER:  Well the two main entities that have proposed this pipeline weren’t actually at this Task Force meeting, and so some of the project remains in regulatory limbo.  But after about a three-four hour discussion, somewhat painstaking at times, about whether the task force should even proceed itself, the panel members did decide to continue to scrutinize the proposal with a few caveats.  Getting every water person from each corner of the state to agree on anything is like herding cats at times, forgive the pun.  But you are seeing more and more panels like this, with opponents and supporters of water projects at least getting to the same table.