The "Big Straw’ would wreak havoc on the environment, experts say |

The "Big Straw’ would wreak havoc on the environment, experts say

SUMMIT COUNTY – The State Senate Appropriations Committee debated a bill Thursday that would provide $500,000 for a feasibility study of the so-called Big Straw – a project local water, weed and government representatives say would open a Pandora’s Box of environmental catastrophe.

If approved, the bill would go before the House in about a month.

Officially titled the Colorado Aqueduct Return Project, “The Big Straw” would divert water from the Colorado River before it flows into Utah, collect it in a 200-acre wetland near Grand Junction and pump it east to Dillon Reservoir for use on the Front Range. The water, estimated to be at least 400,000 acre-feet, is water that belongs to Colorado but that goes unused and flows to downstream states.

An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land to the depth of one foot, or enough water to supply a family of four for a year.

Critics say the cost alone would be prohibitive.

“Smaller projects take as much as $400,000 to study,” said state Sen. Joan Fitz-

Gerald. “This is $500,000 for something enormous. I worry about a lack of appropriation to study the issue.”

She and state Rep. Carl Miller are also concerned about the power it would take to pump the water to Dillon Reservoir and the quality of that water.

“I support any efforts to recapture and reuse water leaving Colorado to the lower states, but the Big Straw is certainly not the answer,” Miller said. “I oppose the Big Straw. I don’t think it’s feasible. I think it’s ridiculous. All these people on the Front Range – they say, “Let’s go to our own basin first,’ and they’re not doing it. They have no intentions of doing it.”

“The Big Straw sucks,” said Summit County Commissioner Tom Long, who follows water issues. “They’d need to treat it (before dumping it in Lake Dillon). It’s full of selenium from Hot Sulphur Springs. It would be OK if they want to pump that water and dump it on the East Slope and leave our water here. But the water-quality issue has to be answered before anyone ever commingles the water.”

Selenium isn’t the only foreign substance that could be introduced into Summit County waterways if untreated water were to be diverted back to Dillon Reservoir.

Paul Schreiner worries about noxious weeds.

The Summit County weed-control coordinator said the cost of the feasibility study alone is equal to five weed control budgets of five High Country counties. Worse, though, would be the noxious weeds he anticipates would be transported to the area – weeds the native populations have never seen before.

And every noxious weed the Colorado River picks up along the way from Grand County to Grand Junction could, in theory, be in water dumped into Lake Dillon. Among the worst are tamarisk, Russian knapweed, hoary cress and yellow star thistle.

Summit County has a handful of hoary cress populations, Schreiner said; in Grand Junction, they’re everywhere. Yellow star thistle has overtaken up to 30 million acres in California. And tamarisk is the primary plant species found along the Colorado River from State Bridge to Glenwood Springs.

The proposed wetland, so far, is the only method of filtration discussed under the plan. And tamarisk, a thirsty shrub that can consume up to 300 gallons of water a day, would certainly find its way to the water, essentially defeating the purpose of creating new water supplies, Schreiner said.

“It would be a weed-control nightmare,” he said. “The project could transport species from 4,500 feet (elevation) 180 miles away right up to the headwaters.”

And that’s just the weeds.

“One of the big pushes for Summit County has been water clarity,” Schreiner said. “If we have fertilizer runoff – whether it’s from a hay field or a front lawn – it cleans itself out a little as it moves downriver. But the water would contain a lot more phosphorus.”

High phosphorus levels encourage algae and other aquatic plant life that consume oxygen in the water and endanger fish.

Eurasian water millfoil is transported readily on boats, Schreiner said – and there’s lot of boating in Grand Junction.

“It could bring Dillon Reservoir to the point where it looks like an Amazon lake,” he said, adding that the situation will worsen as water flows to the Eastern Slope, bringing weed seeds to Park and Douglas counties.

“Looking at the budget cuts to come, I don’t know that it (weed control) is going to be high enough on anyone’s radar screen to survive,” Fitz-Gerald said. “We’re in for a reawakening for what it’s going to take to keep Colorado Colorado.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or

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