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Later Wyoming public meetings on the matter were more sedate, but the message was the same: Don't steal our water. "All you are going to see in this part of the county is opposition," says Hank Castillion, Green River's mayor.
Wyoming residents and politicians have compiled a laundry list of additional complaints. They're concerned about the risks for endangered fish species in the waterway and the effect on the wildlife along its banks. They worry that the celebrated fisheries on and below the reservoir will be hurt, dealing a blow to the county's recreation and tourism industries. And they're afraid that if Million diverts some of his water upriver from Green River, the water flowing through town might be too low for the community's businesses and amenities and suffer from increased contaminants.
Last summer, the cities of Green River and Rock Springs joined forces with Sweetwater County to form the "Communities Protecting the Green River" coalition to fight the project. They're already talking about a lawsuit, and their opposition has the support of Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal. While the governor's office did not provide a comment for this story, Freudenthal has told reporters in the past that he thinks Million is "just a rich guy who just wants to move water."
Preliminary analyses of Million's proposal have done little to ease concerns. An informal 2007 Bureau of Reclamation water availability study compiled on Million's behalf suggests that the project could withdraw, at most, 185,000 acre-feet from the reservoir — considerably less than Million hopes to score — before dropping surface levels enough to impact power production at the reservoir's dam and threaten environmental conditions.
And that analysis didn't take into account future strains on the reservoir, such as climate change and recent federal settlements with Native American tribes that allocated some of Flaming Gorge's water to them, says Malcolm Wilson, chief of the Water Resource Group for the Bureau of Reclamation in Salt Lake City.
Fassett, Million's engineering consultant, questions some of the assumptions made in the bureau's study. And while he concedes that Million's team can't force the agency to sell them more reservoir water than they're willing to contract for, he says, "That's why we are looking at a second point of diversion on the Green River itself, so we can get a bigger number." To ease Green River residents' concerns, Million says he's changed his plan so that the point of diversion on the river would be downstream of the city.
The entrepreneur also notes that his opponents up north ignore a key point: While he wants to divert water in Wyoming, legally it's not Wyoming's water. Interstate agreements allow Colorado to take part of its water allotment of the Colorado River basin, which stretches from the Rockies to the Gulf of California and includes tributaries such as the Green River, from waterways in other states.
Still, Million says he'll pull the plug on the proposal if he has to. "We've brought in the best of the best to make sure there weren't any fatal flaws," he says. "The marching orders have been pretty much the same since day one: Kill the project, find the snake bite." So far, he says, his team hasn't found anything damning.
Some Wyoming residents are warming to the idea of a water pipeline to Colorado — as long as it's the alternative pipeline now being proposed by Jaeger. "Parker is looking at forming an agreement with the community to take the water only when the water is available," says Mayor Castillion of Jaeger's proposal. "That does appeal to us."
But the coalition still has to contend with Million, who was so incensed when he heard about Jaeger's plan that he stormed into a meeting of Douglas County water suppliers last January and accused Parker's esteemed water head of breaking his word. As the quarrel escalated, it was suggested that the two settle the matter with a fistfight. No blows were exchanged, but the conflict continues.
"Guys who pull running irons out of a saddlebag end up hanging from a tree, and rightly so," Million says, reverting to ranching terms for cattle rustlers.
But the region's other big water users, including Denver Water, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Southeastern Water Conservancy District and the cities of Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo, have also raised questions about Million's pipeline and have asked the Bureau of Reclamation to hold off on granting him a Flaming Gorge contract.
Million says it's all about power. "Water is literally controlled by five or six people along the Front Range," he says. "These water buffaloes are used to being able to dip their horns in whenever they want. It's unfortunate that they are so territorial over a new buffalo and potentially a new water resource for Colorado."
But Castillion and others say they prefer Jaeger's pipeline because of the hard-nosed, for-profit nature of Million's approach. While many publicly owned water projects along the Front Range started out privately owned and developed, such as the agricultural ditch systems that would become Denver Water, these days the idea of providing water to the people for a profit — a system that isn't regulated like energy utilities — strikes many as anathema.