Steamboat Springs Transferring Yampa River water more than 200 miles from Maybell to a reservoir east of Fort Collins is not just a pipe dream.
"The answer continues to be that, based on present water values and present technologies, this is a project that would be technically and economically feasible," Carl Brouwer said Wednesday, acknowledging that the proposed Yampa River Multi-Basin Project is purely conceptual and would face numerous challenges before becoming a reality. Brouwer is an engineer with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
"I'm not that old, but we'll see if I'm still around when or if it ever gets built," Brouwer said.
The study of a potential pipeline to divert water from the Yampa River to the Front Range began this summer. Officials with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District - which includes eight counties on the Front Range and in Northeastern Colorado that are home to some of the fastest-growing areas in the nation - hired international engineering and consulting firm Black & Veatch to explore the possibility of transferring water from the Yampa River.
Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the preliminary study showed available water in the Yampa. District officials then asked Black & Veatch to prepare a report outlining the mechanics of a transfer - and to determine whether such a transfer is even possible.
That report is expected next week.
Brouwer said Wednesday that the report will not only say such a transfer is possible, but it also will detail routes and costs of three possible pipelines. All three routes extend from a reservoir near the small Moffat County town of Maybell to reservoirs near the town of Ault, 30 miles east of Fort Collins. Each proposed route would require more than 50 miles of tunneling pipe through the Rocky Mountains.
Brouwer said the three routes considered by Black & Veatch are a northern route close to the Wyoming border, a central route through the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, and a southern route that would cross the Yampa River near Craig, cross the river again south of Steamboat Springs, and then begin tunneling through the mountains near where southbound U.S. Highway 40 ascends Rabbit Ears Pass.
"All three routes are within a percent or two of each other in cost," Brouwer said. "If this ever happens, and that's certainly a big if, they'll have to go through a very extensive routing analysis."
Brouwer said Black & Veatch's report will not recommend a route. The central route, at least, would be subject to - if not prohibited by - very stringent U.S. Forest Service wilderness preservation laws.
Reservoirs at both ends of the transfer could hold about 380,000 acre-feet of water, Wilkinson said. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough to meet the needs of a family of five for a year.
Pro and con
Steamboat Springs water attorney Tom Sharp shared the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District's intentions with the Steamboat Springs City Council in September. Sharp, who represents the Yampa and White River Basins on the Colorado Water Conservancy Board and is on the board of directors for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, emphasized to the council that any legal allocation of water, or "water right," downstream of Steamboat would lessen the amount of water available for future use in the Upper Yampa Valley.
Sharp also told the council that he has spent decades working to keep Yampa River water in the valley, and that many local residents - including landowners, ranchers and recreational river users - share that point of view.
"Any such proposal will run into significant opposition," Sharp said about the possible transfer. "Obviously, they'll have great issues to overcome."
Sharp estimated that construction of such a project at about $5 billion.
Wilkinson said that when the water reaches the Front Range, it could be sold "in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000" per acre-foot.
Brouwer said the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District would be one of many entities involved in a transfer of Yampa River water.
"It is highly, highly unlikely that this will be a district project," Brouwer said. "The district will be a part of it, but it may be done with many, many entities. This is in its infancy. Determining what kind of entity should be involved in moving this forward will be the next major step."
Brouwer said Yampa River water could have a widespread impact on the Front Range.
"There are plans to dry up a few hundred thousand acres in Northern Colorado," he said, referring to water needs in the Denver area. "That's productive farm ground, and we're hoping to show an alternative. But we're not naÃive in thinking that any transbasin project has lots and lots of hurdles to overcome. My personal hope is that the Yampa Basin would come out better. We feel pretty strongly about seeing if this would be a possible solution to a lot of Colorado's water concerns."