There's a water war on the Colorado-Wyoming border, and Aaron Million is quick on the draw

The threat of violence has always bubbled just beneath the surface of water issues in Colorado. The state's hardscrabble founders clashed over it, sparring over which mining claims got access to scarce mountain streams. Later battles moved to the settlements along the Front Range. In 1874, two farming coalitions came together in a schoolhouse in the town of Eaton to hash out control of the Cache la Poudre River. Tempers flared, and one farmer called out, "Every man to his tent, to his rifle and to his cartridges!"

Now, 135 years later, the region's precious water supplies continue to bring people together and drive them apart. And there's still the threat of violence.

Along the Green River in Wyoming, cities and towns are massing to fight a proposal that would pump up to 250,000 acre-feet of water per year from their river to thirsty cities and towns in Colorado. One meeting on the topic was so contentious that attendees have referred to it as a "Guantánamo Bay waterboarding."

The focus of the uproar is a relatively unknown Fort Collins entrepreneur named Aaron Million, who came up with the plan to bring the much-needed water to Colorado. And these days, he has as many enemies on this side of the border as he does in Wyoming. Some of Colorado's most powerful water suppliers oppose the project, while one is trying to build a similar pipeline himself. One ensuing squabble nearly came to blows.

Things were more peaceful for Million on a recent chilly morning alongside a desolate stretch of the Green River in Wyoming, just upstream from where the waterway blooms into the Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Standing at the river bank, his breath curling like smoke around the brim of his white cowboy hat, he can almost picture his pipeline.

A successful real-estate investor who'd never dabbled before in large-scale water projects, Million likes to think of himself as a modern-day Butch Cassidy. He spent part of his childhood along this very river in Utah, listening to stories of the outlaw and his Wild Bunch gang. But if he can pull off his scheme, the payoff will dwarf the scores of his favorite desperado.

Standing here in the wilderness, Million says that one day, he'd like to become governor of Colorado. That goal could be less of a long shot thanks to the power — and fortune — he'd amass if he gains control of 80 billion gallons of water a year, enough to satisfy the annual needs of half a million Front Range households.

But first he's got to nail down the details.

Siphoning off that much water would require one of the largest U.S. pipelines ever conceived: one or two pipes, each several feet in diameter, running more than 550 miles and stretching up and over the Continental Divide. The project calls for sixteen natural-gas pump stations, two new reservoirs and untold miles of new roads. Million's consultants estimate it would consume 350,000 tons of steel — more than what is used in 400,000 cars.

Before that, though, Million and the small entourage of business partners and consultants who've joined him today will need to figure out where to start the pipeline — which, according to the current plan, will involve taking water from one or two points on the Green River. They're hunting for one spot along this riverbank, and they will be looking for another one on the reservoir downstream.

After that, Million will have to get access to all the land the pipeline will cross and win approval from a consortium of government, state and local agencies. He'll also have to raise money; he estimates the Regional Watershed Supply Project, as it's called, will cost between $2 billion and $3 billion to build and untold millions to operate. Million claims he can put the entire thing together with private funding.

In the meantime, there's a high-noon deadline: The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with green-lighting a key permit Million needs to proceed, has stipulated that he has until the end of January to provide a list of users who will benefit from the pipeline — users that Million has yet to identify.

"He has three or four [confirmed users], but he needs more to respond to the Corps of Engineers," says Jeff Fassett, an engineering consultant working for Million. "He has a long list of potentials and a short list of 'for sures,' and those don't add up to the total uses he needs for the project. He's trying to get people to firm up and show some sort of written, documented interest in order for the project...to continue. That's been a problem from day one."

But those are challenges for another day. Right now, as he and his colleagues hunt for the perfect spot to lay the snouts of his pipe, Million is distracted for a moment by the distant sound of early-morning hunters firing their weapons. The gunfire echoes off canyon walls; a few minutes later, it rings out again.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner