Mike Lawrence: Water market heating up

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Mike Lawrence

Call Mike Lawrence at 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com.

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Robin Fuller, top, teaches Kasen and Gavin Fuller to fish along the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs on Tuesday.

The first time I saw bottled water for sale, the concept struck my childhood mind as strange.

There were water fountains all around school. There was an endless ocean a few miles down the road.

Who would try to sell this stuff? Or, more importantly, who would pay money and buy it? (These days, I apply those same questions to oxygen bars.)

But welcome to life in the West, where we're talking about a lot more than bottles of Aquafina.

Last week, the Yampa/White Basin Roundtable met at the Holiday Inn in Craig. The group is one of nine roundtables formed in 2005 to guide water policy in Colorado's eight major river basins and the Denver metro area. In addition to sandwiches and about 40 members of the public, the meeting featured two presentations about pumping water to the Front Range.

One of those outlined a highly publicized proposal by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which includes much of the northern Front Range, to pump Yampa River water from the Maybell area across the Continental Divide, likely to Barr Lake near Denver International Airport. That proposal is in its infancy.

The other presentation showed a project that seems much farther along.

"This isn't a proposal - this is a project in process," Aaron P. Million told the roundtable. "We are moving forward."

Million is the confident man behind what he calls the Regional Watershed Supply Project. The project would pump 165,000 to 250,000 acre-feet of water per year out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which straddles Wyoming and Utah and stores Green River water. That water would be pumped along Wyoming's Interstate 80 corridor, then south to Fort Collins and all the way to Barr Lake, where existing or soon-to-be-built pipelines could take it as far south as Pueblo.

The privately funded project would cost $2 billion to $3 billion, said Million.

He said it could be completed within five years, a timetable he admitted is "warp speed."

But the market for water is there - now.

One acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons of water, the amount a family of four uses in an average year.

Carl Brouwer, project manager for the northern water district, said $10,000 to $20,000 per acre-foot is "not an uncommon value" for water on the Front Range. Brouwer said prices as high as $35,000 per acre-foot are feasible.

Stagecoach Reservoir holds about 3,300 acre-feet of water. Using the $10,000 price, Stagecoach Reservoir is worth about $33 million.

Flaming Gorge holds 3.8 million acre-feet of water. At the same price, and with the lowest transfer estimates, Million's project would pump nearly $1.7 billion worth of water to the Front Range per year.

"The financing piece was the easiest part of this project," Million said Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, he declined to give details of the private funding for the project, which - unlike the Maybell proposal - would utilize existing energy corridors for pipelines and require no new reservoirs.

Million said "there have been several offers" from the international banking community to help with financing.

Also, not surprisingly, there are all kinds of questions and issues to be resolved with either water transfer. Water rights and allocations, environmental impacts, endangered fish, future water needs, population growth and energy development, state involvement, and local opposition from various river basins are only some of the questions surrounding one or both of the proposed transfers.

"I think both of them are problematic," Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said Monday.

Local water and real estate attorney Tom Sharp, who has served as a director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District since 1977 and chairs the Yampa/White roundtable, often cites possible scenarios of future water shortages and droughts including the impact of Green River uses on the Yampa.

Some might call Sharp a doomsday pessimist. I call him a realist.

"We need to protect the future of the Yampa River," Sharp said last week.

Million said those who question his project do not realize that extensive studies have shown "absolutely no snake bites" or fatal flaws.

"They have no idea how far down the road we are," Million said. "At the end of the day, this project is getting built. I think it's a better solution for Colorado."

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