Hint: It’s not who you might think, says Circle of Blue reporter Brett Walton.
Last December, the federal Bureau of Reclamation published a landmark study of water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin. Included as a supply option was a pipeline from the Missouri River in Kansas to Colorado’s Front Range.
Neither Kansas nor the Front Range, a string of cities east of the Continental Divide, lies within the natural boundaries of the Colorado River, which flows west out of the Rocky Mountains. As it turns out, the man who proposed the pipeline does not live in the river’s watershed either. Yet all three — Kansas, the Front Range, and the pipeline advocate — are connected by Colorado River water.
That connection is the wonder and the marvel and the madness of the American West, a region whose diverse economies and ecosystems are linked by concrete and steel conduits that move water beyond borders.
End of the Line
“We created the largest artificial watershed in the world,” says Pat Mulroy, the powerful head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a wholesaler that supplies Las Vegas.
Water from the Colorado River is piped across deserts, channeled through mountains, and — after being treated in local sewage plants — winds up in rivers that flow to the southern ends of the country:
- Some of New Mexico’s share goes into the Rio Grande, eventually flowing south and east through Texas and into the Gulf of Mexico.
- What Denver returns to nature flows into the South Platte, a tributary of the Missouri River.
- The coastal cities of Southern California dump a good bit of their diversion into the Pacific Ocean.
None of these water bodies is the logical end of the line for the Colorado River, whose natural terminus is a delta at the northern crook of the Gulf of California. A delta that is, ironically, all dried up.
Expanding the Web
The river’s web, if some have their way, could become even larger. John Kaufman, the man who proposed the Missouri River pipeline, wants to see the artificial boundaries expand. Kaufman is the general manager of Leavenworth Water, which serves 50,000 people in a town that welcomed Lewis and Clark in 1804 during the duo’s westward exploration.
The identity of the pipeline’s proponent, who was anonymous during the Bureau of Reclamation study and is for the first time being named in the media, is important because of where he lives — outside of the natural Colorado River Basin, or in the extended web.
–John Kaufman, general manager
In Kaufman’s vision, Kansas becomes a hydrological keystone for the West, facilitating water transfers that could affect at least 10 states and Mexico.
“We’d hopscotch water across Kansas and sell it to communities in the state,” Kaufman told me during a phone interview last month, explaining the benefit to his home territory. Construction of the pipeline would also supply jobs to Leavenworth, where the intake facilities would be located. At least one groundwater district in western Kansas is advocating for a similar concept, a Missouri River pipeline to the High Plains to compensate for declines in the Ogallala Aquifer, an essential source for irrigation. Kaufman has presented his idea to state and local officials several times this year.
Once the water flows past Kansas, “it’s a horse trade,” Kaufman said. Water delivered to the Front Range would be earmarked for the South Platte River Basin, which includes Denver. (The South Platte, remember, is part of the Missouri River Basin.) A pipeline would close the circle, sending South Platte water, via the Missouri, back uphill. Of course a few drops of the Colorado would be in the pipe, too.
“It’s a reuse project, really,” said Kaufman, who serves on Kansas governor Sam Brownback’s Missouri River advisory committee.
Kansas: Interstate Highways and Interstate Waterways?
Then there are the swaps. Front Range cities get roughly 72 percent of their supplies from the Colorado River, according to a 2009 study commissioned by the Front Range Water Council. If water from the Missouri were imported, then some of the trans-Rocky diversions could remain within the Colorado River Basin.
Kaufman’s idea — he calls it the Eisenhower Pipeline, in honor of the sponsor of the interstate highway system, which got its start in Kansas — was included in the Bureau of Reclamation’s final report, but top federal officials distanced themselves from the project, once word leaked a few days before the report’s official release last December.
“In my view, [water import] solutions are impractical and not feasible,” said Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior at the time. The study actually gave the pipeline high marks for technical feasibility, but the $US 8.6 billion price tag and the high energy costs pushed the pipeline to the bottom of the pile. Conservation was the big winner, deemed to be significantly cheaper and able to deliver more water.
Kaufman knows the scheme is expensive, which is why he says that he needs financial buy-in from the states in the Colorado’s Lower Basin and cooperative agreements among all the Basin states in order to shuffle water supplies.
“It’s not about providing water to the Front Range,” he said. “It’s about providing water to the West.”
Clipping Wings or Taking Flight?
Kaufman may be tilting at water pipes here. The cost is enough to clip the pipeline’s wings, especially when the federal government is shying away from investing in these types of projects unless they involve tribal water settlements. Just as daunting are the interstate political and permitting mazes.
But we should still pay attention to these ideas.
Conservation and reuse are the dominant narratives today and most cities still have significant improvements to make, but Big Infrastructure is not going away, as I’ll soon report for Circle of Blue.
The projects being built, however, are a lot smaller than what Kaufman proposes and do not cross state lines.
Do you live in either the Missouri or Colorado river basin? What do you think about this plan? Let me know directly at Brett Walton’s page or on Twitter @waltonwater or by commenting below.
–Brett Walton, Circle of Blue reporter
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton