Tom Ross

Tom Ross

Tom Ross: Pump back plan puts pressure on Yampa


Tom Ross

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

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.


sodacreekpizza 5 years, 6 months ago

Aside from the merits of the pump back idea (which I think stinks) the issues you bring up, Tom, are interesting; especially the Compact. There are conflicting expectations in the compact, the lower basin states may state they are entitled to 7.5 million acre feet, but weren't the shares defined similarly for all the states named in the compact? Aren't those shares the basis for the principle of "downstream storage" claimed by some upper basin states which says that to the extent that the upper basis states allow some of "their" water to flow past their borders, that amount of water in lake powell still belongs to them and in the future they can withhold more than their "share as an offset? Or is there something in the Compact that states the upper basin must forgo thier share as defined in the Compact to provide 7.5 million A.F. to the lower basin?

All in all, the shares defined in the compact for the states exceed the average flows of the river due to a fundamental mistake make at the beginning with regard to the estimate of the annual flows. (estimate was based on only two years of data and the two years were high water years). Up until this point, the upper basin states have never used their full share, allowing it to flow downstream which has in turn allowed the lower basis states, especially California, to use more than their shares. As the upper basis develops and uses more of their share this will bring the issue of the fundamental shortfall of the average flows to a head at some point.


Scott Wedel 5 years, 6 months ago

Actually, California has established more water rights for the water they use than Nevada or Arizona. If they ever start allocating based upon water rights then Vegas has huge problems.

I am pretty sure once water flows past your property or state line then you lose all claims on that water. So while Colorado does not collect all the water it is entitled to collect then it has no claim on water once it has left the state.

Any sort of big straw project is going to be political dynamite. Front Range is already aggressively collecting near the divide and is now widely seen as adversely affecting the health of the White and Colorado River. And so the big advantage of these big straw projects is to collect water near the stateline where taking it no longer affects Colorado rivers. Well, not very neighborly and pretty slimy to design a project that dumps all of the environmental effects onto neighboring states.


sodacreekpizza 5 years, 6 months ago

Scott, I am pretty sure "water rights" as generally discussed are a State issue.. i.e. Colorado water law or Arizona water law. The state regulations in each state about passing property lines do not have anything to with the Compact.

You are right about the politics though.


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