"Most people in the United States do not want a Suez," says John Orr, author of the Coyote Gulch water blog. "We don't want a for-profit water market in this country."

"We all fear being held hostage." adds Nikkel. "He'll claim contractually that he'll never raise prices. But that's like I go into King Soopers and they tell me they'll never raise the price of milk."

Million dismisses his competition as a non-issue. "I've swatted bigger horseflies off my horse," he says. The Colorado Wyoming Coalition has yet to finalize a formal cooperative agreement, and Nikkel acknowledges the public partnership may not be able to afford the undertaking without significant federal assistance.

Aaron Million's management team includes two close colleagues, Jim Eddy (left) and Tim Walsh (right).
Aaron Million's management team includes two close colleagues, Jim Eddy (left) and Tim Walsh (right).
Jim Nikkel of the Parker Water and Sanitation District.
Jim Nikkel of the Parker Water and Sanitation District.

Meanwhile, says Million, "we are literally five years ahead. We are in the federal permitting process, we have filed on the river and we have a first-in-line request with the Bureau of Reclamation."

In September 2008, Million's company, the Million Conservation Resource Group, applied for a pivotal federal permit that the project will need under the U.S. Clean Water Act.

But that doesn't mean that Million will be ready to break ground anytime soon, says Rena Brand, project manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the Clean Water Act. "The corps of engineers recognized from the beginning that [the pipeline] would have significant impacts on the environment," she says. "That prompted us to evaluate it under the highest level of review, which is preparing an environmental impact statement."

Brand says that a draft EIS determining whether or not to grant the permit won't be released until 2012. A final decision will come out two years later, though Million thinks it will happen sooner. Either way, the entire process will cost between $15 million and $25 million, which Million is funding.

In addition, the Corps of Engineers won't sign off on the pipeline until they've heard from every other entity with a stake in the project — and considering the scope of it, there are a lot of folks with a stake.

To take water from both the reservoir and the river, the project will require a contract from the Bureau of Reclamation and a permit from the Wyoming state engineer, both of which are working closely with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Engineers in both states will also need to sign off on any storage reservoirs to be built or expanded, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has already voiced concerns, will evaluate whether the venture would violate the Endangered Species Act.

The pipeline itself requires a permit to cross federal land and the blessing of every other public and private land owner along the route's 578-mile stretch. All in all, the Corps of Engineers has offered cooperating-agency status on the project to 26 federal, state and local entities — including the Wyoming communities that formed the anti-pipeline coalition — and invited input from 32 Native American tribes.

"That's kind of a lot," says Brand, noting that a typical water-supply EIS involves three to five cooperating agencies.

Now the Corps has issued Million an ultimatum: He has to provide them with a list of his potential water users by the end of January.

Million insists it won't be a problem getting the list ready, though he adds that his team is evaluating whether to challenge the Corps' ability to ask for it. "It might be beyond their responsibilities in evaluating a regional project to ask for a specific end user," he says.

Some critics say that Million is reluctant to reveal his users because there aren't enough left for him to work with.

"We've talked to everyone along the pipeline route in Wyoming and we've had conversations with many potential users in the north-south route in Colorado, and all those people have expressed interest in being partners with us," says Nikkel of the Colorado Wyoming Coalition. "No one has told us they have an interest in his project."

Yee-haw!" hoots Million as his SUV jerks and bucks across the ornery Wyoming backcountry flanking the Green River. It didn't take long for him and his colleagues to find what looks to them like the perfect place to pump water from the river. Best of all, the location's downstream of the city of Green River, which the entrepreneur hopes will serve as an olive branch.

Now they're off to the Flaming Gorge Reservoir just south of here, to check out a potential spot for his other point of diversion. If the site looks good, Million could be one step closer to making his dream a reality.

Million's in fine spirits; there's little evidence of the toll the six-year odyssey has taken on him. "He's been constantly worrying about things," says his mother, Bonnie. But there's a toughness to her son, a stubbornness to see it through.

"He thinks he's John Wayne," she says.

When Million and his team reach the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, they head down a maze of muddy dirt roads to an out-of-the-way inlet on the reservoir's seemingly endless expanse of blue. It's a spot that could work well for a pump station.

"Okay, well, that's it, then," concludes Million with satisfaction.

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