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Mighty Miss may solve western water woes

Posted: Wednesday, Feb 11th, 2009

Photo by Jeffrey Carlyle The Hickman-Dorena Ferry is Kentucky’s only crossing of the Mississippi River, it is operated by STAM Marine Enterprises.

Is pipeline a pipe dream?


ALAMOSA — During the Rio Grande Inter Basin Roundtable session on Tuesday, Gunnison hay farmer Gary Hausler presented a 1,200-mile $22.5 billion proposal that would take the heat off the San Luis Valley and the West Slope to provide water for Colorado’s burgeoning Front Range cities and thirsty downstream states.

Hausler proposed an innovative if not ambitious project that he admitted would not be completed in his lifetime, even if it began tomorrow - a pipeline from the Mississippi River to Colorado.

“The Mississippi provides a huge source of unused water,” he said. “It provides more water than can be used.”

Hausler proposed that Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska form a new interstate compact, the Central Plains Compact, that would run 1,200 miles of 22-inch diameter pipe from the Mississippi River at a point near Hickman, Kentucky, to Colorado at a point between Denver and Colorado Springs on Monument Hill. The pipeline would include laterals along the way to provide water to all of the states between the river and the Rockies.

Hausler estimated the cost of the project at $22.5 billion including permits, rights of way (possibly through eminent domain), engineering and construction.

He also estimated the project would span 30 years from idea to construction with about 10 years spent on forming the compact, another 10 years on permits and 10 years on the construction itself.

Hausler has a mining and heavy construction background in addition to a stint in corporate finance before becoming a hay farmer and rancher near Gunnison. He said his idea for a water pipeline was sparked by an Exxon presentation years ago, and he has been working on the idea in earnest for the last several years.

He said short of drastic conservation or desalination, with no salt water source nearby, the only source for “new water” for the West is importation. He said the Colorado River Basin is overstretched already. (The state and court have also determined the Rio Grande Basin to be overappropriated.)

The demand for water from surrounding states and within the state due to continued growth will only increase over time, Hausler said, so a new water source must be found to prevent areas such as the Western Slope and San Luis Valley from drying up to quench their thirsty neighbors.

“There’s not enough water to meet state demands,” he said.

The Mississippi River has so much water it cannot be adequately measured, Hausler contended during his Tuesday presentation. The amount he proposed to divert from the Mississippi would be literally a fraction of its flow, he said.

He said the Mississippi runs more acre feet during a 10-day spring runoff than the Colorado River flows all year.

He added that the water law that would apply would be the Riparian Water Law that governs waters in the eastern part of the U.S. It basically provides that waters can be removed from flowing streams if it can be demonstrated that no damage occurs by the waters’ removal.

Hausler said the Mississippi’s main purpose is navigation, and the half of one percent of water the West would take from the river would not impede navigation.

Hausler said the advantages of his proposal are: the “mighty Mississippi” has plenty of water to spare; it is owned by the United States so no individual water rights would impede the project’s progress; no federal money would be required because the Central Plains Compact would pay for it; and the project would provide a steady stream of water from Mississippi to Colorado and every state in between.

Hausler saw the major obstacles to his plan as political. “It’s a sales job,” he said. Other challenges will be the extensive permitting that will be required and environmental concerns, he said.

Hausler said the next step would be a reconnaissance study that he estimated would cost in the neighborhood of $750,000. “We need someone with more credibility than an old broken down miner turned hay farmer,” he joked.

He said if his numbers checked out, and the project found sponsors to carry it forward, it could proceed. If not, it would end with the study.

He told the basin roundtable members he would likely return to request the roundtable’s support of an application for study funding from the statewide water supply reserve account. He said he would like to see multiple sponsors for such a funding request. He has already spoken with the South Platte and Gunnison roundtables and plans to present his proposal to other water groups including the Denver water board.

Some of the audience suggestions from Tuesday’s meeting included: using rights of way for already existing pipelines or even railways; and going to Colorado Springs, Aurora and other major cities for funding since they are willing to pay big bucks for water rights already.

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