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Coloradans Raise Environmental Concerns Of Proposed Reservoir Projects


Clean water is something that Colorado needs plenty of, especially as the population there is expected to double over the next 35 years. The state's natural resource managers have proposed two large reservoir projects to feed some of the fastest-growing cities. But as Grace Hood from Colorado Public Radio reports, longtime Coloradans are worried about the ecological harm that the damming could cause.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: The Cache La Poudre River gushes out of a mountain canyon into the foothills near Fort Collins. Rose Brinks lives along this river on a 100-acre property. She's watched people for nearly four decades trek to the riverbank across from her house north of Fort Collins.

ROSE BRINKS: They enjoy fishing. There's been a lot of tubing. But some years, it's empty. Some years, there is no water in the river.

HOOD: Drought stretched water supplies here in 2002 and 2012. Reservoirs can be a lifeline to communities in dry years. They can also help meet demand as more people move to the state. That's why water managers want to build a dam and a reservoir north of Brinks's property.

BRINKS: In general what I would say is I think it's being bled enough. I don't think they should pull any more water out of the river.

HOOD: Brinks's concerns are echoed by the environmental group Save the Poudre. It's criticized the Northern Integrated Supply Project since it was proposed in 2004. There were environmental studies done on the river and for a second reservoir that would be built near Greeley, Colo. to evaluate problems and propose solutions. Mark Easter, with Save the Poudre, says the measures don't go far enough.

MARK EASTER: I think there's a new conversation that's starting around this, asking the question, do we really need these reservoirs?

HOOD: Talk to the local water agency spearheading the project, and the answer is yes. Brian Werner is with Northern Water, which works on behalf of 11 cities in Colorado. He says his agency is pursuing other strategies too, like water conservation, but...

BRIAN WERNER: We can't conserve our way to future supply, no matter how we phrase it. You just can't do it.

HOOD: A century of dam projects across the West have caused ecological harm to some rivers. Today the federal permitting process to build a dam or a reservoir is far stricter compared to the early 1900s. But some water managers fear the pendulum has swung too far. It takes years to get the permits needed to build a large-scale project. Take Denver Water, which supplies the rapidly growing metro area. It decided in 2002 that it needed to expand a reservoir outside Boulder. The agency won't find out whether it can do this until later this year.

JIM LOCHHEAD: We would not look to short-circuit the diligence and the rigor associated with environmental permitting processes. That's really important.

HOOD: Jim Lochhead manages Denver Water.

LOCHHEAD: That having been said, the permitting process - if you look at it in total, between federal and state and everything else we need to do - is broken.

HOOD: For large-scale projects, it's up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to decide whether a project gets built. But you need other federal and state permits.

Inside Rose Brinks's kitchen, she rustles through papers that show peak water flows on the Poudre River over the years. Her pet pigeon, Albert, struts on the floor near her.

BRINKS: Look at the flow of water.

HOOD: If a reservoir is built, Brinks worries what will happen to an already taxed river, particularly during drier years.

BRINKS: It could be a very successful thing. But if I had my druthers, I'd say, let's don't do it. It's too big - too big a project.

HOOD: Project planners say they wouldn't have the right to pull water during dry years. They'll continue to spend more time and money moving the project forward. A final decision from the Army Corps of Engineers is expected in 2017 at the earliest. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.