Why the Basin Study is not about a pipeline to the Missouri

The Bureau of Reclamation’s study of supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin is due out tomorrow, and already it’s been getting a lot of attention. Bruce Finley at the Denver Post and Felicity Barringer at the New York Times have both highlighted the study’s consideration of the “pipeline to the Missouri” option, one of a host of water augmentation possibilities submitted by stakeholders and the public which has gotten some analysis over the course of the two year study.

The PTM option has some legs, because people in the non-water world can grasp it. But it’s an unfortunate framing for the release of this very important study, a piece of the puzzle that rightly ought to be confined to fine print along with towing icebergs down from the north (another idea that gets its due).

Most of the study’s findings are already public – the Bureau’s been releasing them steadily in a series of data dumps over the last year. What they show is a growing gap between supply and demand in the basin (with some legitimate argument over whether the Bureau let the states use pre-housing crash trajectories to high-ball their growth projections, making the gap look larger than it should). At whatever size it is, though, the study also shows that various types of “magic water” (icebergs! PTM!) can’t fix this problem. If you read carefully, it’s there in Barringer’s story:

It is unclear how much such a pipeline project would cost, though estimates run into the billions of dollars. That does not include the cost of the new electric power that would be needed (along with the construction of new generating capacity) to pump the water uphill from Leavenworth, Kan., to the front range reservoirs serving Denver, about a mile above sea level, according to Sharlene Leurig, an expert on water-project financing at Ceres, a nonprofit group based in Boston that works with investors to promote sustainability….

Ms. Leurig noted that local taxpayers and utility customers would be shouldering most of the expense of such a venture through their tax and water bills, which would make conservation a more palatable alternative.

What it shows, if I may be so humble as to generalize, is that the basin’s water users need to learn to live within their means. I’m confident they can, even if they’d rather just have the feds build them another pipe.


  1. What it shows, if I may be so humble as to generalize, is that the basin’s water users need to learn to live within their means.

    Isn’t the issue here “transmountain diviersions?” What I got from the articles (mainly the DP article) was that the PTM was a solution to water transfers out of the Colorado basin to Front Range basins, mainly the South Platte. Potentially the flow across the divide could be reversed if the PTM was built, but that wouldn’t normally be the case.

  2. PeakVT -

    I think you’re misunderstanding the reasoning behind the PTM. Its strongest advocates are in the Lower Basin (especially Pat Mulroy in Las Vegas), as way to meet their needs. The water would be used in the Front Range, freeing up Upper Basin water to be moved down past Lee’s Ferry and used in the Lower Basin. One of the key messages in the Basin Study is that the big shortfalls are all in the Lower Basin, so any augmentation plan is ultimately an effort to solve that problem through cascading water swaps.

  3. Actually this problem has been known for a while i recall reading in the 1960s of a plan to move water from the McKinsey river in Canada down to California such as this idea: http://www.applet-magic.com/NAWAPA.htm. Of course back then big dreams were dreamed, without minor details like the environment and energy being considered, since electricity at the time was thought to become to cheap to meter soon. It was likely a competitive idea to what the Soviets proposed where little things like economics could be ignored for the good of the party.

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