$9 Billion Flaming Gorge Pipeline Would Further Drain the Colorado River System

Trading away the rivers, natural wealth and resiliency of an entire region to fuel the unsustainable sprawl and bluegrass lawns of a few cities is not just foolish, it's morally wrong.
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This post was co-authored by Alexandra Cousteau.

The Aral Sea straddles the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Two powerful rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, feed this inland sea -- one of the four largest lakes in the world -- and it, in turn, feeds the people and the economy of an entire region. Well... at least it used to.

Under Soviet central planning, the two rivers were deemed more economically valuable if diverted to feed the cotton and rice fields planned for the region by the state. Blueprints were drawn up, dams and pipelines were constructed, and in less than 30 years, one of the great environmental disasters of central planning was etching its mark in salted fields, broken communities, and a sea that is no more. Take a look at these National Geographic images -- they are shocking reminders of the short-sitedness of trading away the resiliency of an entire region by tapping the very source of the system and draining it to another basin for the sake of short-term growth.

Now, Colorado water officials are proposing to do the same thing in the Southwest United States.

A few months ago, the governor-appointed Colorado Water Conservation Board voted to create a special task force for a proposed pipeline to pull 81 billion gallons of water every year out of the Green River in Southwest Wyoming just before it joins the Colorado River. This week, that task force has its first official meeting.

The proposed pipeline would pump 250,000 acre-feet of water (up to one-fourth of the river's flow) 560 miles across Wyoming, up and over the Continental Divide and down to the suburban sprawl of Colorado's Front Range cities from Pueblo to Colorado Springs to Denver and Fort Collins. At a proposed cost of $9 billion, the Flaming Gorge Pipeline as it is called, would not only create the single most expensive source of water in Colorado, it would further tax the already broken Colorado River system. Already on the brink, the Colorado River is so drained by the demands of California's fields and overwhelming urban growth all across the Southwest U.S. that it no longer runs to the sea. It hasn't done so in almost 13 years now. In fact, the river no longer runs across two entire Mexican states that are now home to its salted and bone-dry riverbed.

If built, the Flaming Gorge Pipeline would irrevocably damage the Green River and further imperil the Colorado River downstream. Endangered fish in the Colorado River basin depend on flows in these rivers. Teetering on the brink of extinction, the Humpback chub, the Colorado pikeminnow, the Razorback sucker, and the Bonytail are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But it doesn't just stop with those on the list; the pipeline will also harm wildlife habitat and the recreational economy along these rivers. The Green River below Flaming Gorge Reservoir is a gold-medal trout fishery, attracting fisherman from around the world. The area sports a healthy tourist economy based on rafting and hunting, both of which the pipeline threatens. Communities depend on healthy flows in the river for their financial success. In fact, a group of more than 250 local business leaders has formed to speak out on the issue. Calling itself "Protect the Flows," the group is working to keep water in these rivers so that communities can thrive.

At some point in time, we have to learn from history and say "enough is enough." Trading away the rivers and natural wealth and resiliency of an entire region to fuel the unsustainable sprawl and bluegrass lawns of a few cities is not just foolish, it's morally wrong. We've joined with businesses, communities, West Slope Colorado citizens, and dozens of conservation organizations to oppose the Flaming Gorge Pipeline.

We believe that if the State of Colorado wants to continue to be obsessed with encouraging population growth, it must focus on more sustainable options that benefit the entire region by encouraging smart growth and long-term collaborative management of natural resources. The state has already studied potential water supply alternatives including more aggressive water conservation programs, water reuse and recycling, better growth management, and cooperative relationships with Colorado farmers -- these alternatives can and should meet Colorado's future water supply needs.

We agree with the Colorado Grand Junction Sentinel newspaper when it called the Flaming Gorge Pipeline a "flaming fiasco." Colorado should stop discussing this foolish proposal and seek alternatives that benefit all Colorado River basin people.

Gary Wockner is the coordinator for the Save the Colorado campaign. Alexandra Cousteau is granddaughter of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and founder of Blue Legacy.

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