Flaming Gorge pipeline foes win a skirmish in long war
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Opponents of the long-discussed Flaming Gorge Pipeline received some positive news this week, but know the battle to keep Green River water in place is likely going to be a long war.

Officials from Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law and policy organization, reported that the Colorado Water Conservation Board voted Tuesday end funding for the Flaming Gorge Task Force."

The Flaming Gorge Pipeline, as designed by Aaron Million with Fort Collins-based Wyco Power and Water, would pump 81 million gallons of water annually more than 500 miles across Wyoming to the Front Range area of Colorado.

"The Flaming Gorge Pipeline has been called the 'zombie pipeline' from years of lumbering around trying to latch onto anything that might keep it alive. [This] sends a strong message that it's time to move on to other water demand solutions. No amount of discussion is going to make the pipeline less expensive or more realistic, and we applaud the CWCB for recognizing the need to move forward," said Drew Beckwith, water policy manager at Western Resource Advocates, in a prepared release.

Western Resource Advocates reported that the decision also reflects a poll that shows 4 out of 5 Colorado voters would rather see water conservation efforts than water diversions.

Charlie Card, northeastern Utah coordinator for Trout Unlimited, says the news from Colorado is good, but he has heard similar news before and knows not to let his guard down when it comes to water in the West.

"Million said about a year ago that in two years he would be ready to submit another proposal and there is another group out of Parker, Colorado, that has asked the Bureau of Reclamation specifically to give them the actual number of acre-feet of water that is available," Card said. "The report from Colorado is nice, but the threat is far from over."

Numerous recreational and financial impacts from proposed pipelines pumping water out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which sits on the Utah/Wyoming border, or the Green River above it have been revealed by Trout Unlimited and other concerned groups.

Among them:

• Wide fluctuations of water levels at Flaming Gorge would create ideal conditions for noxious weeds along the shore, affecting waterfowl, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, sage grouse and other species. Open shorelines may become inaccessible for recreation.

• Diminished flows on the Green River below the dam will affect species of concern like the northern river otter, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, osprey, Lewis' woodpecker, southern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo.

• A reduction of flows into the reservoir will inhibit recommended flow levels out of the dam. The recommendations were agreed upon by multiple agencies to benefit endangered fish (razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub and bonytail) in the Green River.

• The main sport fish of Flaming Gorge — kokanee salmon, lake trout and smallmouth bass — are already facing a number of challenges in a delicately balanced ecosystem that has been rocked by the recent appearance of illegally introduced burbot. Lower and fluctuating water levels will only add to the challenges.

• Access to the lake via existing boat ramps would likely not be possible if water as proposed in the Million project were removed from the reservoir. That impacts all businesses that rely on the reservoir including those on the shores of Flaming Gorge and including other towns and cities like Dutch John, Manila, Green River, Wyo., and Rock Springs.

Similar facts are presented on the ourdamwater.org/ website of Sportsmen for the Green.

Card says public sentiment about water projects may have contributed to the decision by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, but it was likely a recent Bureau of Land Management study on supply and demand that forced the decision.

"The study confirmed what everybody thought; that the water is already over allocated and that current inflows into the Green River have been showing a steady decline," Card said. "The focus needs to be a different frame of mind and it needs to include conservation — how we use water and how we reuse it to extinction."

brettp@sltrib.com