This 'Big Straw' takes the cake
Idea targets Mississippi River to meet Colorado's water demand
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2009-02-12
The idea has caused people to smirk, but it's starting to gain traction.
Gary Hausler -- a local coal mine engineer, turned rancher and developer -- is taking on one of Colorado's biggest looming water questions: How to quench the increasing thirst of the state, without sending Gunnison Basin water to the rescue.
The answer, according to Hausler, is siphoning water from the grand Mississippi River -- several states away in Kentucky -- and pumping it to Colorado's Front Range.
While his idea didn't originally pass many straight face tests, that has begun to change.
Gunnison water expert John McClow, longtime attorney for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD), believes the idea has merit.
"It's a long range plan that has a lot of moving parts and many obstacles to overcome, but Colorado needs to find some long-range solutions to our water supply," he said. "The state demographer is predicting a large increase in population and our water resources are finite."
Around 70 percent of the state's farms and ranches would need to be dried up to meet population demands by 2050 -- according to a Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) staff analysis -- unless new water is introduced to the state, McClow said.
Rep. Kathleen Curry, from Gunnison, agrees the idea is legitimate.
"I think it's gaining ground," she said. "I'm willing to look at it as a long-term solution, because I really think it would relieve pressure on our side of the divide."
She said that people are realizing the water issues on Colorado's eastern slope are not solvable unless new water is introduced.
Hausler conceived the Mississippi diversion idea about eight years ago while at Union Park, northeast of Almont, he said. He was pondering a trans-mountain diversion that was proposed to take water from that area to the Front Range.
Wanting to find an alternative to that plan, the Mississippi River became the obvious answer to him -- given its mammoth size.
Since then, he said he has given his "30-second" pitch of the idea to anyone he could "buttonhole."
"The normal reaction was people laughed in my face," he said. However, in the last half-year, he said people have begun to listen. He credits this to the water situation in the western United States becoming "critical."
The state's projected gap between water supply and demand by 2050 has widened to approximately 700,000 acre-feet (af) per year, Hausler said, referencing a CWCB study.
To fulfill this gap, the CWCB has looked at conservation, trans-mountain diversions and drying up a large portion of agriculture in the state. "But they have not looked outside the state," Hausler said.
The Mississippi River, in the area of Hickman, Ky., has average annual flows that exceed 240 million af, he said. Colorado River's annual flow, in comparison, is approximately 15 million af.
Hausler wants to divert 1 million af per year, which equates to less than .5 percent of the average flow in the Mississippi, he said.
While this would be a "tremendous injection of water" into Colorado, McClow said, it seems that it would "hardly" be missed back in its area of origin.
Hausler's proposed route for the pipeline is 1,200 miles long with 7,000 feet of "total lift." Pumping the water would require an additional 1,600 megawatts of power, which is essentially the equivalent to the power generated at the Hoover Dam, Hausler said. Right-of-way issues would need to be accomplished through eminent domain and purchased at market rates, he advised.
Hausler estimates that the total tab for the project would tally up to $22.5 billion, including permitting, land purchases, engineering and construction costs. That equates to $22,500 per af for water delivery.
"That is well within the cost parameter of new water that is in place in the West," Hausler said.
He proposes that a "Central Plains Compact" of states and interested parties be formed to bring the dream to fruition.
While there would be many physical challenges to achieving the pipeline goal, Hausler believes political obstacles will be king.
Most people aware of Hausler's idea agree.
"I think the beauty of (Hausler's) idea is that it brings in new water, but I don't know about its feasibility with its basin of origin -- how they would feel about it," Curry said. "I think they would have to get something out of it for them to consider it."
Hausler estimates it would take at least 30 years to complete the grand plan. During that time, the project could be financed by those who would benefit from the pipeline. For example, he said there are approximately 3 million active water customers on the eastern slope of Colorado.
"If you charged an additional $8 a month to everyone's water bill, that's 300 million dollars," he said, explaining that that money could go towards debt service to borrow money.
Hausler said he doesn't foresee the proposal bringing any financial benefits to himself.
"I won't live to see the completion of it," he said. What's in it for him is more "esoteric" than money, he said, "maybe recognition of someone who had a vision to solve a widespread problem."
While the idea has gained traction, it still has strong skeptics and opposers -- especially those who think the root of the water shortage issue should be addressed, either through water conservation, population control or some other measure -- versus trying to alter the environment to the desires of humans.
Water guru and environmentalist Steve Glazer -- who "adamantly" opposes the idea because of its potential "severe environmental degradation and societal and economic impacts" -- said he believes the idea would take too long to complete.
"It would take decades to accomplish, by then other alternatives will have been executed," he said -- surmising that water rationing or drying up agriculture would likely be implemented in the meantime.
"(Hausler) is an engineer, and engineers have a tendency to tell you they can solve any problem that can exist," Glazer opined. "And maybe they can, but at what cost and to whom?"
Gunnison County Commissioner Hap Channell said he is open to looking at the feasibility of Hausler's idea, but that he has "mixed feelings" about it.
"We're just used to, as a society, sort of engineering our way out of harm's way," he said. "There's the old adage, that it's not nice to mess with mother nature."
Hausler's idea will trigger some "global and societal questions" about when the root of the problem should be addressed versus finding a way around it, he said.
Alone on a limb?
Hausler is not the only one to conjure up the idea of asking stakeholders in the Mississippi River basin to share their resources.
Dick Bratton, lifelong Gunnison water attorney and current chairman of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said he has also pondered the idea and discussed it with representatives from the seven Colorado River basin states.
"It's something they've finally, just now, been willing to talk about in public," he said.
Bill Rinne, with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has contemplated the idea as a way to address Nevada's water issues. While he hasn't talked to Hausler directly, Rinne said Hausler sent him his proposal summary.
"His concept is similar and I'd say comports with the general thrust of what we're saying," Rinne said.
From here, Rinne said a lot of technical work needs to be completed to decide if the idea is worth seriously tackling.
Hausler isn't the first Gunnisonite to brainstorm water projects to save the Upper Gunnison Basin from a trans-mountain diversion, either.
Not too long ago, Butch Clark proposed the Colorado Aqueduct Return Project (CARP), which was dubbed the "Big Straw."
His idea entailed capturing water at the Utah/Colorado border and pumping it back to the Continental Divide for use within the state. His goal was to avoid impacts to Upper Gunnison Basin headwaters ecosystems.
For the same reasons, Clark said he supports Hausler's idea, since it would lessen the likelihood of a trans-mountain diversion from the Upper Gunnison Basin.
The Colorado legislature commissioned a $500,000 feasibility study of Clark's proposal in 2003 and found it to be politically and financially unfeasible.
Hausler now hopes to have a similar study completed -- albeit with a different outcome -- to put his calculations to test. He hopes to fund the study, which he estimates will cost $750,000, via state money (from Senate Bill 179 in 2006) meant to find ways to meet state water demands.
(Michelle Burkhart can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)