Wyoming nervous as demand grows on Colorado River
Associated Press Writer
GREEN RIVER, Wyo. (AP) – Wyoming has an unusual problem among the states in the Colorado River system: lots of water and, other than supporting some fine trout fishing, no way to put a significant amount of it to use.
Yet increasing demand for water in the upper Colorado River basin, combined with new government predictions that climate change could reduce future water supplies, are ratcheting up concerns in Wyoming about how to preserve the state’s share for the day when it’s needed.
People in southwestern Wyoming are particularly concerned about two proposals to tap the Green River, and the Flaming Gorge Reservoir it feeds, to help supply Colorado’s populous Front Range.
The Green River, a major tributary to the Colorado River, flows from the craggy heights of Wyoming’s Wind River Range into Flaming Gorge Reservoir and on into Utah before it takes a brief turn into western Colorado.
Les Tanner makes his living on the recreation and tourism at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, where he has owned the Buckboard Marina since 1969.
“It’s a good fishery; boating is good. It’s just an all-around good recreational lake,” Tanner said while working on his dock on a recent spring day. “If they stop the flow of good water coming into this lake, all we’re going to have is a stagnant pond.”
Wyoming has been using about 525,000 acre feet from the Green each year – about 73 percent of what has been the state’s typical annual Colorado River Compact allocation of 833,000 acre feet. An acre foot is the amount of water that covers an acre to a depth of 1 foot.
The Colorado River Compact of 1922 essentially divides the basin’s water, giving 7.5 million acre feet annually to the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and an equal amount to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California.
The upper basin states apportion their share among themselves. Colorado gets nearly 52 percent, New Mexico just over 11 percent, Utah 23 percent and Wyoming 14 percent.
If there’s not enough water in the system for both the upper and lower basins to get their full 7.5-million acre foot share, the upper basin states still must deliver the full amount on average to the lower basin. The upper states then divide what’s left according to their percentage formula.
Wyoming, a state of roughly 540,000 people, doesn’t expect to use its full share of Colorado River water over the next 30 years even under the most ambitious growth scenarios. However, Phil Ogle of the Wyoming Water Development Office said his office is working on a new study of whether drier conditions could reduce the water supply in the Green River Basin.
Harry LaBonde, deputy Wyoming state engineer, said Wyoming’s surplus draws attention from parched states downstream.
“There’s no doubt that if you are using the water, you’re more secure,” LaBonde said. “But the whole reason that Wyoming has entered into the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River Compact is to preserve its ability to use a certain allocation of water.”
Aaron Million, a Fort Collins, Colo., businessman, has applied for permits to build a private, multibillion-dollar pipeline from the Green River in Wyoming to Colorado. He has identified several Colorado agricultural interests that say they want more water and says the pipeline would also serve some customers in eastern Wyoming along the way.
Million’s application spurred a coalition of Colorado municipalities to propose a 500-mile pipeline project of its own. The coalition is years behind Million’s project in seeking federal and state approval.
Local governments in southwestern Wyoming have mobilized to fight both pipeline projects. The cities of Green River and Rock Springs and the counties of Sweetwater, Uinta, Sublette and Carbon oppose any draw from the Green, said Green River Mayor Hank Castillon.
Castillon’s city recently invested millions in a kayaking course and walkways along the river that courses through town. Castillon fears that taking water from the river or the lake would hurt tourism, recreation and limit the town’s future economic development.
The main question, Castillon said, is whether the State of Colorado has the right to draw any more water out of the Colorado River system.
Colorado’s official answer to whether it has the right to more water seems to be “maybe.”
Ray Alvarado, spokesman for the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Denver, said his state is currently using between 2.3 million to 2.6 million acre feet of water under its share of the Colorado River.
How much more Colorado is entitled to isn’t known, Alvarado said. But he said it’s possible the answer could be none.
A new draft study by the Colorado Water Conservation Board concludes Colorado can draw between zero and 1 million acre feet more per year over the next 30 to 60 years, depending on climate change and other states’ consumption, Alvarado said.
Colorado, meanwhile, estimates its population will rise from 5 million to 7.1 million people by 2030.
Both Million and the municipalities say Colorado’s unused share of Colorado River water is adequate to meet the demands of their pipeline proposals, which would count against Colorado’s share.
Million has applications pending with the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office to divert some 250,000 acre feet of water a year from locations near the town of Green River and from Flaming Gorge Reservoir. He said he plans to modify his application to take all the water below the town to minimize environmental effects.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Flaming Gorge Reservoir, estimated a few years ago that the reservoir could supply a pipeline drawing 165,000 acre feet a year over 40 years combined with other projected water uses. After 2050, as development in Wyoming increases, the bureau study projected the reservoir could sustain an annual diversion rate of 120,000 acre feet.
Bureau officials say they’re revising their report and say it may well conclude even less water is available for any pipeline project.
Yet Million said he remains optimistic.
“We fully anticipate the surpluses in the system will be there that will allow the project to move forward with full protection of Flaming Gorge and the river below,” Million said. “And if they’re not, the project shouldn’t and will not go forward.”
The states of Wyoming and Colorado will participate in a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental review of Million’s project. The agency says it plans to have a final report on the project by 2014.
Wyoming’s surplus water situation has worried state lawmakers for years.
“At some point are they simply going to say, ‘You didn’t use it, and when you didn’t use it, you lost it,”‘ said Republican Rep. Kermit Brown of Laramie.
Yet Alexandra Davis, assistant director for water at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources said she doesn’t believe development in Colorado places Wyoming’s water is at risk because allocations are based on percentages of available water.
“Colorado doesn’t get to say, ‘Well we developed ours, therefore, Wyoming, you don’t get yours,”‘ Davis said.
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