There are other personal connections, too: Million is proposing to build a reservoir at the southern end of his pipeline on land owned by his friend Robert C. Norris, a prominent Colorado rancher and descendent of a Texaco founder.

Million says he's paying for most of the multimillion-dollar engineering and environmental reviews leading up to construction himself. As for bankrolling the $2 billion to $3 billion buildout, he says he's had multiple private offers, but he's reluctant to detail them. "That information will be disclosed at the appropriate time," he says.

Million likes to frame himself as a rabble-rouser beset upon by powerful, nefarious interests, like the main characters in some of his favorite cloak-and-dagger movies. "Sometimes I feel like Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor," he says, "hiding behind the bushes or in the trees."

Aaron Million's pipe dream starts with the Green River.
Aaron Million's pipe dream starts with the Green River.
Aaron Million's pipeline will avoid the high peaks of the Rockies.
Aaron Million's pipeline will avoid the high peaks of the Rockies.

But in person, the protective swagger melts away. Some of his most ardent opponents have conceded that, under other circumstances, he'd probably be good company. His boardroom of choice is Mugs Coffee Lounge, a homey Fort Collins cafe, preferably at a corner table, with a calculator in hand and his two business partners at his side.

Million grew up in Boulder, where his father, Isadore, had opened the celebrated coffee shop Penny Lane after retiring from the mining business. But as a boy, Million spent his summers in Green River, Utah, a conservative community that shares its name with the river that runs past it. He worked on a farm owned by his grandfather, a no-nonsense pillar in the community. "It was my first love," Million says of the time he spent putting up bales of hay with his two brothers, laying water pipeline and listening in wonder as his grandmother's friend, Lula Parker Betenson, spun tales of how her brother, Butch Cassidy, would drop loot at her house before disappearing into the night.

Eventually, Million earned a bachelor's degree in farm and ranch management from Colorado State University, which led to a career as an agricultural manager in Denver and then Montrose. Then came financial success through a series of lucrative real-estate deals such as building a Holiday Inn in Montrose. The windfall gave Million the freedom to return to CSU while raising a family in Fort Collins.

The pipeline concept came to Million in 2003, while he was working on his master's degree in resource economics. One summer night, while studying a map of Colorado, his eyes were drawn to the northwest corner of the state, where a 41-mile stretch of the Green River, the waterway he knew so well, looped into the state from Utah before flowing back over Colorado's western border. "It was like a lightning bolt," he says. "I knew immediately the potential."

The idea to feed the Front Range with the Green River seemed so simple, he figured someone else must have considered it — but subsequent research indicated no serious attempts. So he took it upon himself to do so, first as his master's thesis (one he has yet to publish and declines to share), then as a for-profit endeavor.

As the concept evolved, Million and his colleagues had another epiphany: Instead of tapping the Green River where it swung into Colorado, they could do it in Wyoming. That way, the pipeline would avoid the daunting peaks of the Rockies and follow Interstate 80, which gently crests the Continental Divide at about 7,000 feet, then turn south into Colorado. By taking water from Wyoming's half of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, a 3.8 million-acre-foot reservoir built in 1964, the project could make use of pre-existing water infrastructure and possibly minimize environmental impact.

But there may have been another benefit to getting the water in Wyoming, says Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. By taking the water out in another state, Million may have been trying to sidestep Colorado's stringent water law, which stipulates that all water diversions must first have uses or users lined up.

The Army Corps request for him to name his users may have made that point moot, but if Million had been able to get the rights to the water without having any customers, he could have named whatever price he wanted for it down the line when Colorado water users, faced with no other alternative, came calling.

Million won't discuss his plans as they relate to users and prices, and his chief counsel, Bill Hillhouse, says he doesn't believe Million would try to build the pipeline without committed customers. But he does grant that "with each point that the project becomes firmer and with each hurdle you cross, the value of the water could increase."

When Million's idea first hit the papers, in 2006, it came with the backing of Frank Jaeger, head of the Parker Water and Sanitation District and a legend in Colorado water. "I would recommend it, loudly and strongly," Jaeger proclaimed at the time. "This is the salvation for the state of Colorado."

In particular, the pipeline seemed to be the salvation for Jaeger's pet project, the half-complete Rueter-Hess Reservoir, because that undertaking has yet to line up enough water to fill it. The reservoir, in a valley just southwest of Parker, literally has Jaeger's name all over it: When the mammoth berm that will enclose the basin is complete in 2011, it will be called the Frank Jaeger Dam.

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