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New water development era

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It's premature to comment on the details of a proposal that would pump 165,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and deliver it to the Denver area by pipeline. The 400-mile pipeline could cost at least $4 billion, according to news reports.

Unlike previous discussions about Colorado using its water allotment in the reservoir, which is controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, this plan has stirred serious discussions about future water needs in the West and the consequences of states using their allotments, which are determined under interstate compact.

Mostly, this discussion is a wake-up call for state and local officials, who will be responsible for future water development. The days of large-scale federally funded water projects are over. As the Western states eye explosive population growth in the coming decades, planning for future water ought to happen now.

This proposal comes as state and Washington County officials have initiated preliminary engineering and environmental studies for a 120-mile pipeline from Lake Powell — just above Glen Canyon Dam — to deliver water to Hollow Reservoir near Hurricane. Washington County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. The project, estimated to cost $500 million, could begin to deliver water from Lake Powell by 2020. This would be a publicly funded project.

The Flaming Gorge project is unique in that its backer, Aaron Million of Fort Collins, Colo., envisions that it will be privately funded. This, too, may portend the future of Western water development. Instead of paying for water development through property taxes, water development conceivably could be paid up front by private investors. This already has happened with other forms of public infrastructure, such as toll roads.

Million's proposal is evidence that Westerners have begun to think outside the box when it comes to future development of water. It's unclear, at this point, if Million's approach is the best option. But it's an indication, now that federal funds for large-scale water development projects are scarce, that the West will need to handle these matters far differently than in the past.