The Yampa River near Maybell in June. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which includes eight counties on the Front Range and in northeastern Colorado, has received preliminary findings from a study examining the feasibility of transferring Yampa River water across the Continental Divide.

Photo by Tyler Arroyo

The Yampa River near Maybell in June. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which includes eight counties on the Front Range and in northeastern Colorado, has received preliminary findings from a study examining the feasibility of transferring Yampa River water across the Continental Divide.

Pipe dreams

Front Range thirsty for Yampa water


Dripping details


575,000 acre-feet

Annual yield

300,000 acre-feet

Cost to build the pipeline to Denver

$3.82 billion, or about $13,000 per acre-foot

Maximum diversion rate from Yampa River

2,000 cfs

Pipe size

9 feet in diameter to carry 500 cfs, or 6.5 feet for 250 cfs

Tunnel size

10 feet in diameter

Average pipeline per route

215 miles

Average tunneling per route

57 miles

Pipeline time line

2006-2018: Project planning

2019-2022: Reservoir construction

2017-2022: Pipeline construction

2018-2021: Pumps, hydrologic power construction

2023: Start system



— Carl Brouwer knows it could have gone worse.

Brouwer, an engineer for the Front Range's Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, recently traveled to Glenwood Springs to meet with officials monitoring the Colorado River. Brouwer's job was to present details of a proposed trans-mountain diversion that would pump Yampa River water, part of the Colorado River system, across the Continental Divide to a lake near Denver International Airport.

In some circles, people will tell you coming to the Western Slope and asking for water is like walking into a bar and asking for a brawl. Sayings such as "whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting" linger on this side of the Rockies.

But Brouwer said his presentation of a project that could one day include more than 200 miles of pipeline, extensive tunneling, a diversion of one-fifth of the Yampa's water near the Moffat County town of Maybell, and a cost of nearly $4 billion went relatively well.

"I didn't get tarred and feathered, and nobody said anything bad about my mother, so I think it went OK," Brouwer said Friday.

He'll have another tough audience in April.

That's when Brouwer is scheduled to meet with the Yampa/White River Basin Roundtable, a group of local water experts and government officials commissioned to assess water needs in northwestern Colorado and plan future use of the region's rivers.

The group had its first public discussion of the proposed water transfer at a meeting Wednesday night in Meeker.

Brouwer was not invited to that meeting. Roundtable Chairman Tom Sharp, a Steamboat Springs attorney who serves on several local and state water boards, said he wanted to discuss the transfer as a roundtable before seeking Front Range input in April.

The group gave the transfer very mixed reviews.

Run over

With the passage of House Bill 1177 in 2005, the state Legislature created Colorado's nine water roundtables to address present and future water challenges in each of the state's eight major river basins and the Denver metro area.

But someone who is not a member of the Yampa/White roundtable voiced the strongest opposition to the proposed transfer Wednesday.

"Just in case someone else doesn't say it, I want to say it: 'Hell no, we are not in support of this project,'" said Steamboat Springs City Council member Ken Brenner.

Brenner made his comment after not hearing the staunch opposition that he said many of the roundtable's constituents would have for a transfer of Yampa water.

West Steamboat landowner Mary Brown, who like Brenner is a former City Council president, said the roundtable should be open to exploring different options for water use.

"We all need to realize that today, 88 percent of Colorado lives on the Front Range, and they need water," said Brown, who represents agriculture interests on the roundtable and is currently president and chief lobbyist for the Denver-based advocacy firm InterMountain Corporate Affairs.

"If all we want to do is say 'leave the Yampa River alone,' we're going to get run over by a very large truck," Brown said. "We have the opportunity, as a roundtable, to enter into a more comprehensive negotiation."

A Meeker rancher said water negotiations have not worked in the past.

"Every time we send water across the mountains, we're cutting our own throats - regardless of how it's negotiated," said rancher Doug Wellman of the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District. "I don't want development in west Colorado that benefits east Colorado, because they step all over us each time we turn around."

Underestimated costs

Sharp traveled to Glenwood Springs to hear Brouwer's presentation, then reported to the Yampa/White roundtable in Meeker.

"Obviously, this is a reconnaissance-level study - but they make a lot of assumptions," Sharp said of the northern district. "And I think some of their assumptions about pricing are off-base. : I expect as they finalize some of their numbers, they will find their operation and maintenance costs are higher."

Brouwer and the northern water district, which includes eight counties on the Front Range and in northeastern Colorado, are projecting annual operation and maintenance costs of about $45 million, should the pipeline be completed, which likely would not occur until about 2023.

The $45 million equates to about $150 per acre-foot of water transferred to the Front Range annually. According to the "Multi-Basin Water Supply Investigation," the transfer's feasibility study prepared for the northern district by international engineering and consulting firm Black & Veatch, a pipeline from a reservoir north of Maybell to the Front Range would yield about 300,000 acre-feet of water annually. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough to meet the needs of a family of five for a year.

The three pipeline routes considered by Black & Veatch are a northern route close to the Wyoming border; a central route tunneling under the Zirkel Wilderness Area north of Buffalo Pass; and a southern route that would cross the Yampa River near Craig and again south of Steamboat Springs, then begin tunneling east near where southbound U.S. Highway 40 ascends Rabbit Ears Pass.

Roundtable members questioned how such a large transfer would affect commercial rafting operations downstream on the Yampa River, in areas such as Dinosaur National Monument.

"It looked to me like they had not given much attention to that at all," Sharp said. "None of their data deals with (recreation)."

Brouwer acknowledged the gap in the northern district's research.

"We have not studied what the rafting flows are," Brouwer said. "The Yampa has about 1.5 million acre-feet going into Dinosaur every year. We would be taking an average of 300,000 acre-feet a year, primarily during high spring run-off."

Filling the gap

Local water recreation guide Kent Vertrees, a manager for Steamboat Powdercats, is working with Geoff Blakeslee of the Nature Conservancy to find out exactly how much water is needed for recreation and environmental needs on the Yampa, White and Green rivers.

Roundtable members praised Vertrees' presentation of a plan for the forthcoming study. The roundtable agreed to submit the plan to the state Department of Natural Resources for further consideration, before seeking funding later in the year.

"What we really need to do is get a good handle on how much water is being consumed and where," said Glenwood Springs water engineer John Sikora. "You guys will be at the forefront (in the state) with this assessment."

"The idea is to develop a GIS map of our stream reaches," Vertrees said. "This water-needs assessment is going to be a tool : for future projects."

The assessment could provide valuable data about the recreational impacts of the northern district's proposed transfer, which one water official said Wednesday will be on the table - in some form or another - for years to come.

Northern district officials "are protecting their own interests, and you can't dispute that, but at the same time we have to make sure we're protecting our own interests," said Dan Birch, who represents the Yampa/White group on the state's Interbasin Compact Committee, which oversees the roundtables. "I don't think this proposal is going to go away, by any stretch of the imagination."


another_local 10 years, 4 months ago

Yup. Ken has it right.

The front range needs to quadruple the price of water. 326,000 gallons per household of five per year! What a wasteful number. That should be enough for five households! It is also an inflated number. Most studies indicate a number 1/3 to 1/2 that amount per household. People on wells get by very nicely on less than 1/4 that amount if they are careful.

Before indoor bathrooms the average for the United States was something like 5 gallons per person per day (family of five would be less than 10,000 per year. I am not advocating that we return to outhouses, but somewhere between 10,000 gallons and 300,000 gallons should be a number we can live with and not spend billions taking water from its natural course and disrupting everything from the habitat of endangered species (bony-tail chub, humpback chub, Colorado squawfish, and razorback sucker) that depend on water flows to spawn to the local recreation economy.

The front range is a borderline desert environment. People down there need to get it through their heads that Midwestern style lawns, golf courses and high household water use are a waste of resources and unacceptable in a desert environment. They need to concentrate on water use practices and, if they are out of water, on CAPPING growth by limiting the number of taps.

Let Grand Junction grow instead of Aurora.

No matter what the front range does about water it should be the people that live there that pay for EVERY LAST CENT of the expense involved including offsetting financial impacts elsewhere.


bolter 10 years, 4 months ago

This and every other water project starts with the assumption that growth is good. Growth is so good that we (the people who already live here) are going to spend $4B plus $45M a year to lure 300,000 more families of five (1.5M people) to the front range (roughly $13,500 per family). Until the growth issue is addressed, all the water in the entire state of Colorado will be targeted for diversion to the Front Range. But even all that water can only support a certain number of people. Whatever that number is, should Colorado just keep on growing until it has no more water?


id04sp 10 years, 4 months ago

The estimate per household is based on all purposes, including supporting utilities, roads, commercial development and all other resulting uses of water. Like, you build a hospital to service the increased population and it needs water. Car washes. Dry cleaners. Restaurants. All that stuff.


economist 10 years, 4 months ago

If you want to see the future of the Yampa Watershed, google Owens Valley, which is in California. Oh, I forgot, locals hate to learn anything from outside the state. Guess you're really doomed, then. You could watch the movie Chinatown or read Cadillac Desert as an alternative.


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