By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Surveying the sweeping construction zone — the 70,000-acre-foot basin will dwarf Cherry Creek Reservoir — Jim Nikkel, Parker Water's assistant director, says it's no surprise the dam's named after his boss: "He's Mr. Water."
Jaeger, who didn't respond to repeated interview requests, first proposed the dam twenty-plus years ago, when people thought the idea was crazy. Because of the legal and environmental hurdles involved, large reservoirs just weren't built anymore.
But no one had counted on Jaeger's will — or the state's rapidly receding water supplies. Colorado's population is expected to double by 2050, requiring up to a million additional acre-feet of water per year. Douglas County towns, in particular, face a bigger share of the problem because they rely on wells drilled deep into the Denver Basin aquifers below them. For a long time, it was believed that this resource would provide a hundred years' worth of water. But recently, experts discovered that the aquifers have been dropping at an alarming rate, dwindling away long before originally expected.
So, when Parker began construction of a 16,200-acre-foot version of the reservoir in 2005, Douglas County communities like Castle Rock, Castle Pines North and Stonegate asked to get in on the action. That quadrupled the project's original size and put Parker in the enviable position of being able to charge its neighbors for water storage.
That is, if they ever fill the reservoir.
The problem is that the three main Colorado rivers east of the Rockies — the South Platte, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande — and their tributaries are over-appropriated, meaning there's often more demand than there is water to meet it. While there are river basins in Colorado on the other side of the Rockies that aren't yet over-appropriated, the reluctance by many of those on the Western Slope to let "one more drop" of their water be taken over the mountains has stymied most Front Range water users' attempts to tap into them.
As a backup, Parker and other communities have purchased farms in eastern Colorado in order to secure their water rights. But if these communities requisition this water for municipal use, much of the state's remaining farmland would dry up.
In short, says Alex Davis, assistant director for water at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, "it's a crisis."
One being felt particularly hard in Parker. Skyrocketing water rates and questions about the reservoir's cost have triggered a December 15 recall election of three of the district's five boardmembers.
Into this quagmire stepped Million, who's said he would sell the Green River water he'd bring into the state at different price points to make it affordable for both municipal and agricultural uses. He's also promised to reserve some for environmental purposes, as well as offer incentives to encourage conservation.
These assertions were bold — if short on specifics — for a neophyte, but Million had assembled an auspicious consulting team that includes Jeff Fassett, a former Wyoming state engineer; Fassett's former Colorado counterpart, Jeris Danielson; one-time Thornton water head Walid Hajj; and Steve Freudenthal, former Wyoming attorney general and the brother of Wyoming's governor.
What they proposed was just the sort of bold move that appealed to Parker's Mr. Water. Jaeger was so taken with the idea, in fact, that not long after he first lauded Million's proposal in the press, he apparently decided to tackle the whole thing himself.
Folks at Parker Water still think Wyoming's Green River could be the salvation for its largely empty reservoir — though they've written off the man who came up with the idea. Looking out over the dry basin, Nikkel says he believes there's a "50 to 60 percent chance" he'll eventually see water here from the Flaming Gorge region.
As for the chances it will be provided by Million?
Sweetwater County, in the southwestern corner of Wyoming, is well named. It's an area that cares seriously about its water.
This stretch of blue has long worked hand in hand with the extraction industry, fueling the processes that remove natural gas, oil, coal and an industrial mineral called trona from the rugged terrain. And when it's time for a break, the people here turn to the water as well: fishing and hunting in the cottonwood stands along the banks, boating on the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and horsing around in the new, $3 million kayaking park.
The last thing they want to do is let a Colorado pipeline suck up their lifeblood.
"Aaron Million has managed to accomplish something that nobody else has been able to do," says Bill Sniffin, a longtime Wyoming newspaper columnist. "He's gotten everyone there working together. The tree huggers, the tree cutters, the miners, the ranchers, the downtown businessmen, the desert rats and the boaters and the preservationists, they're all united against him."
The opposition was loud and clear last April, at the first public hearing hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"The report was that of the 300 members of the public who showed up, 298 were mad fishermen," says Fassett, the former Wyoming state engineer who's consulting for Million. "Their initial reaction was pretty violent, as in, 'You are taking our molecules.'"