This January, Aaron Million filed a claim for water on the Green River, with plans to divert it to Colorado’s Front Range. The proposal, and the many objections filed in response to it, have raised questions about just how much water is available from the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Million is a graduate student at Colorado State University. His proposal with the Utah Division of Water Rights would pipe water 500 miles from the Green River in Utah to the Front Range. The diversion would be 55,000 acre feet — about half the capacity of Ruedi Reservoir.
Million said it’s a simple project that brings water where there is demand.
“It’s a plumbing project," Million said. "We’re just looking at a small piece of the surpluses to bring new water supplies over.”
But others say it isn’t so simple; it’s not clear that there actually is extra water. More than 30 protests have been filed with the Utah Division of Water Rights. Many of these come from organizations that think Million’s team is skirting some major issues.
“What you’re doing is putting everyone at great risk," said Andy Mueller, executive director of the Colorado River District, which is tasked with safeguarding Colorado’s water supply. Much of that comes from the Colorado River Basin.
That’s a big, complex system that feeds 40 million people across seven states and part of Mexico. The Green River is part of that; it connects to the Colorado River in Utah. So when you pull water from the Green, it affects a delicate balance that has been in the works for nearly a century.
The Colorado River Compact
In 1922, seven states signed the Colorado River Compact, a legally binding agreement. The four upper basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — agreed to let a set amount of water flow downriver into the lower basin, comprised of Arizona, Nevada and California.
But it’s really dry in these states and climate change means there’s even less water in the river. So when new players like Million try to jump in the game, it adds some real tension.
In the worst-case scenario — a serious, long-term drought — the lower basin states can cash in on that agreement, the so-called compact call.
As Zane Kessler with the Colorado River District explained, we’ve never been through that before, but he thinks a proposal this big would push us closer to the edge.
“We don't know what's on the other side of that cliff, because we've never been through it," Kessler said. "We do know that it could cause chaos on a number of different levels, and that's the biggest concern for a lot of us."
But Million isn’t too concerned about a compact call. He’s said basically it’s an empty threat, and he points blame for any shortages at the lower basin states, saying they use more than their share. Plus, he said, this water is needed right here in Colorado.
“We shouldn’t let the water go to the lower basin when we are faced with the impacts we are on the upper basin,” Million said.
The River District thinks he’s over-simplifying, because it’s actually not totally clear how much water Colorado has left to claim. Mueller explained that recent studies have shown the state is probably already using its full share.
"We think that we are at a point where we no longer have water to develop in the state of Colorado in the Colorado river system," Mueller said.
He said the key to managing water in this complex system is working together; it’s what has worked so far.
"The entire river system is short of water, and we're all watching this very careful balance," he said. "That’s the biggest concern, I think, is that [Million is] going around this developed consensus in our state."
The consensus surrounds all kinds of water users, concerning everything from how to conserve water in cities to how to protect fish. Bart Miller is with Western Resource Advocates, which opposes Million’s project on environmental grounds.
“The Green River is really a stronghold, has been a stronghold, for some of these endangered fish, and so it’s a place that I think a lot of folks are concerned about the impacts of a large quantity of water being taken out,” he said.
Plus, Miller said, it’s not clear how exactly the diverted water will be used and that breaks the anti-speculation rules in water law.
Million has said the water would be used for hydropower, irrigating agricultural lands and for municipal uses, like drinking water. But he hasn’t said specifically who would use it in those ways.
“I can’t disclose that information currently," Million said.
Miller thinks that’s a clear problem.
“There aren’t any identified users of the water," he said. "And in both Utah and Colorado, speculation -- developing water just so you can have it -- is highly discouraged.”
That could set the foundation of a legal fight. For now, it’s up to the Utah Division of Water Rights to decide if the project moves forward.