Wild Turkey, gunfire and big pipelines
by Emily Underwood
NAME Aaron Million
KNOWN FOR Plan to build a water pipeline from southwest Wyoming to Colorado's Front Range
FAVORITE ROCK STAR Mick Jagger
HOBBY "Swinging from chandeliers." '
EXTRA: Listen to an audio interview with Aaron Million: Off the deep end?
Bolo ties are de rigueur at the Colorado Water Congress convention. Handlebar mustaches are popular, too, along with those Western sport coats with the elbow patches. Then there's Aaron Million: clean-shaven, wearing a crisp, button-down shirt. On the young side for a "water buffalo," Million couldn't seem to sit still at his table at the Hyatt Regency cafe during a break at the conference several months ago. His head swiveled restlessly, and his eyes darted around.
Million may not fit in with the Colorado water establishment, but everyone here knows him, or knows about him. He is the rancher-turned-entrepreneur who hatched an audacious plan to draw up to 250,000 acre-feet of water annually out of the Green River in Wyoming, pipe it 560 miles to Pueblo, Colo., and deliver it to the state's metastasizing Front Range.
It's got all the trappings of a good old-fashioned water project. In theory, it could keep Colorado from civil war by slaking urban thirst without stealing water from Western Slope farmers. Still, the proposal has left even the old water guard befuddled. Million's project would be entirely private, leaving the regular government and water conservation agencies on the sidelines. Not only that, but he -- not the end users -- would ultimately control the water, something that is virtually unheard of.
At the Hyatt Regency, Million noticed a young woman sitting alone and, without hesitation, invited her over for a drink. (He's been known to brag about doing both espresso and tequila shots before noon.) When she told him she was a journalist, he launched into his usual pitch, selling his personality as much as his project. He worked for $20 a summer on his grandparents' Green River ranch as a kid. But he also hung out with an urban crowd on the Front Range, where his father ran the Penny Lane Coffeeshop, a haven for liberal Boulderites. That diverse upbringing, he says, makes him the ideal broker between Colorado's agricultural, urban and environmental interests.
Million says he plans to use his control over the water -- enough for up to 1 million homes -- as leverage to push for smarter growth and better conservation measures. That, he says, would simultaneously relieve the pressure on agriculture and on the overstressed watersheds of Colorado's crowded Front Range. (It could also make him fabulously wealthy, a detail he seldom mentions.) He says the best independent water consultants haven't found a single flaw in the project. If there were any problems, he says, "I'd be the first to put a fork in it. I'd bite my own ankle. I'd buy the rattlesnake."
Bold words, spoken, perhaps, too soon. During Army Corps of Engineers public hearings on Million's project this spring, Wyomingites showed up in droves, outraged at what they call a water rip-off. Coloradoans charge that the project's price tag -- estimates range from $3 billion to $6 billion -- will put the cost of its water out of reach. Enviros worry that drawing down the Green will hurt endangered fish downstream. Because Million has not identified the end users, he may be violating laws against water speculation. And some skeptics believe Million is counting on water that is not really available for the taking: Colorado is entitled to Green River water under the Colorado River Compact, but only if the river continues to run at its 1922 level, which appears unlikely.
Colorado water experts interviewed for this story were hesitant to speak on record; Million, they say, is in a litigious mood. Dave Little, manager of Denver Water, did respond to the entrepreneur's claim that Denver Water endorsed the Flaming Gorge Pipeline: "It would be an understatement to say that is an overstatement." Million believes that larger agencies are trying to undermine him: "Let me put it frankly," he says, a glint of mischief, or paranoia, in his eyes. "The water buffaloes are trying to steal this project." He warns them to watch out. If you're going head-to-head with Aaron Million, "don't show up unmanned or unarmed. My world is full of Wild Turkey, fast horses and gunfire."
Emily Underwood just finished an internship at High Country News. Now she's a raft guide on the American River in California.