Tom Ross

Tom Ross

Tom Ross: Pump back plan puts pressure on Yampa

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Unless you are a river rat or just love hanging out in the High Lonesome, you may never have set eyes on the Green River where it flows briefly through Colorado.

The Green, the longest tributary of the Colorado River, flows almost the breadth of Wyoming before crossing into Utah, where its flows are collected and stored in Flaming Gorge Reservoir behind the giant hydroelectric dam of the same name near Dutch John, Utah.

After the river flows out of the base of the dam it courses into Moffat County on its way to the Gates of Lodore and its confluence with the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument.

I’m guessing that a minority of Steamboat residents has seen this stretch of the Green River that flows through a very sparsely populated area. But changes that could come to the Green someday have serious implications for the residents of the Yampa, White, Eagle and Roaring Fork river valleys as well as other major Colorado rivers in the southern Rockies.

Last week’s news that the Colorado Water Conservation Board has approved spending $72,000 to study Aaron Million’s plan to take 81 billion gallons of water out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir and transfer it to Colorado’s Front Range is a heads up. It’s time to pay attention to the Regional Watershed Supply Project.

That’s the official name of Million’s proposal, which together with Front Range water officials wants to capture an estimated 25 percent of the Green River’s entire annual flow and transfer it 570 miles through southern Wyoming via pipeline to Pueblo.

To put that distance in perspective, an automobile trip from Denver to Omaha, Neb., would cover about 530 miles.

When former colleague Mike Lawrence and I collaborated with the rest of our staff on a 2006 series on the future of the Yampa River, Million’s plan already had surfaced. And in 2006, there was another pump back proposal that might have routed a similar pipeline over Rabbit Ears Pass.

Happily, the Rabbit Ears Pass alternative route has disappeared. But now, Million’s plan is back with a new emphasis on hydroelectric power. As many as five hydroelectric developments would be built along the route of the pipeline.

So, if the Green River only flows through Moffat County for about 35 miles or so, why should people in Routt County concern themselves with the pipeline proposal?

The decision to fund the first part of the study of the plan comes at a time when energy development is making more demands on Western Slope water. We’re seeing the beginnings of what could be a boom-let of oil wells here. And if those wells use fracturing techniques to pry the hydrocarbons out of the Niobrara shale, they’ll require large amount of precious water.

Anyone who moved to Northwest Colorado in spring 2011 is probably convinced that we have more water than we know what to do with. Area streams and rivers have been flowing well above their historic average all season. This apparent excess of water is temporary.

Heather Hansen, of Red Lodge Clearing House Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, zoomed in on the essential point in a recent essay published in High Country News.

Hansen pointed out that the Green River plays a major role in the obligation Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico have to deliver 7.5 million acre feet of water annually to the lower basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

The 250,000 acre-feet the Million proposal would subtract from the Green only puts more pressure on the Yampa, White, Eagle, Roaring Fork and Gunnison rivers to meet those obligations in a future that includes a growing Front Range of Colorado.

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