A Cowboy Entrepreneur Dreams of a Massive Water Pipeline Over the Rockies

If completed, it could be “the largest privately funded water project in Western history.”

Jack Richardson

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Water is life. It’s also big business. In our November + December 2023 issue, Mother Jones dives into the West’s deepening water crisis—and the forces behind it, from historic drought to short-sighted policies to corrupt lawmakers and the special interests they serve. Read the full package here.

A dusty old map changed the course of Aaron Million’s life. One day in 2002, back when he was a resource economics master’s student studying in a Colorado State University library basement, he came across a 1918 survey and had a “lightbulb moment.” The map showed a 41-mile crescent of the Green River—a tributary of the Colorado River that mainly runs through Wyoming and Utah—swooping through Colorado’s northwest corner. “I’ve cowboyed that river,” Million, who comes from a ranching family, recalls, but “I had frankly forgotten it came into the state.”

He was struck by the idea that Coloradans could stake a claim to the Green’s water—and soon learned that no one had ever tried. Thus began his ongoing quest to port the river’s water hundreds of miles out of Utah, across Wyoming, over the Rockies, and into Colorado’s arid Front Range. If completed, Million says it would likely be “the largest privately funded water project in Western history.”

Large-scale 20th-century infrastructure projects in the Colorado River Basin made the West as we know it, funneling water across deserts and sprouting farms, suburbs, and golf courses. But in the early 2000s, society’s thirst became stronger than the Colorado’s flow, a situation made worse by rising temperatures and other shocks of climate change. Today, even as the river faces an annual shortage of 1.5 million acre-feet, water managers continue to propose massive diversions to booming metropolitan areas and farmland. One contentious multibillion-dollar venture, which the Trump administration attempted to fast-track in 2020, would draw up to 86,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Lake Powell reservoir to a county in southwest Utah, where water use per capita is already double that of Tucson, Arizona. If every proposed dam and diversion project were built, an additional 1.4 million acre-feet from the river and its tributaries would be siphoned every year, according to a list compiled by the nonprofits Great Basin Water Network and Save the Colorado.

Water managers should instead be pushing conservation and water recycling, argued researchers in a 2012 report by the National Resources Defense Council. But one reason they aren’t, says Denise Fort, an environmental law professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico who co-authored the report, is that “from the point of view of an elected official, if you can bring home over the years a billion for a water project, that’s far easier than telling people in a region they’re going to have to cut back.”

Along the Front Range, where Million’s 338-mile pipeline would end, the population has swelled even as the water supply faces threats, including the state of Colorado’s debt to other states under a 1922 pact dividing up the Colorado River’s water. Million thinks his pipeline, which he boasts is a multipurpose, “21st-­century platinum project,” can not only help quench demand from agriculture and the state’s growing population, which is expected to double by 2050; it can also furnish up to 1,000 megawatts of hydro power. The vast majority would be generated by turbines turned with gravity-fed pumped storage, which generates electricity when grids need it most.

But Million’s vision for the project, which would divert 55,000 acre-feet from the Green a year, hinges on his conviction that the Green is running on a surplus; he says modeling by the Bureau of Reclamation and other organizations suggests the river “has 700,000 acre-feet above the knees,” the depth analysts say is needed to keep things flowing for both recreational rafters and several species of fish.

Bart Miller, healthy rivers director of the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, has a different perspective. “Basinwide, there’s a shortage,” he says, explaining that even if the Green had a sustainable supply—something Miller says he’s never heard anyone suggest—whatever it could offer should flow into the drying Colorado. “At some level, it’s all connected.”

And there are other claims on the Green. At a conference about the Colorado River earlier this year, a representative of the Utah Utes argued that their tribe was owed 500,000 acre-feet annually from the Green based on a 1965 agreement. But without infrastructure and clean water rights, “we’ve had to just watch it flow past us every year,” the tribal vice chairman told Cowboy State Daily.

In 2020, Utah’s Division of Water Rights rejected an application key to Million’s project mostly out of concern that Colorado hadn’t weighed in. Million sued and is awaiting a decision. In the meantime, the company he founded to build the pipeline, Water Horse Resources, signed a deal with MasTec, a Fortune 500 construction outfit, and continues to attract investors.

In August, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that, despite blockbuster winter snowfall, Lower Basin states would still have to make water cuts. Million views his pipeline and its green power potential as conservation friendly. But I kept thinking of something he said when recounting his eureka moment in the library basement. The old map was “a treasure map,” he gushed, representing “literally billions of dollars of water sitting there.” As the Western water crisis deepens, the question is how to share the Colorado River Basin’s bounty fairly.

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate