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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Population Growth Looms Large In Debates Over Proposed Northern Colorado Water Project

poudre river watson lake
Luke Runyon
The Poudre River would act as the Northern Integrated Supply Project's main water source, and would divert water slightly upstream of this stretch of the river near Bellvue, Colo.

A vote on the fate of a Northern Colorado water project more than two decades in the making is set to take place Wednesday. Larimer County commissioners are considering a permit to build the Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP.

The board’s decision could either deal a significant blow to a project criticized for its potential impacts to the Poudre River, or pave the way for it to be fully permitted.

Under the county’s purview is one of the project’s reservoirs, and a sprawling network of pipelines to move its water to a collection of the Front Range’s fastest-growing communities, with ambitions to grow larger. The project promises to give those communities water to build new homes and businesses -- without buying it from farmers.

In a spate of public meetings this summer, the project has stirred up a familiar debate over growth, and whether water should be a limiting factor on Colorado’s arid Front Range.

Glade Reservoir is the proposed body of water that would fill a bathtub-shaped valley north of Fort Collins that currently acts as a straight stretch of Highway 287. If the reservoir was full today, Haystack Rock, a graffiti-laden 40-ton boulder between Fort Collins and Laramie, would sit at the bottom.

Brian Werner, head of communications for  Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, takes a photo of Haystack Rock. Northern Water purchased the land underneath the boulder in the mid 1980s.
Matt Bloom
Haystack Rock marks the site along Highway 287 north of Fort Collins where Glade Reservoir would be filled.

Glade would be one of the Western U.S.’s biggest new reservoirs to come online in the past couple decades. With a more than $1 billion price tag, a project of this size and scale has those who live near the new reservoir and along pipeline routes concerned.

“I am not going to be as affected as some of the other residents, but I feel pretty strongly against this project,” said Lori Nielsen, a resident of Bonner Peak Ranch, a mostly rural neighborhood near the proposed reservoir. Nielsen works as a wildlife biologist, and has consulted on dam projects in her career.

“Our house is situated far enough away, our property value would probably increase, ironically, with a reservoir of this nature,” Nielsen said.

nisp map full
Northern Water
The Northern Integrated Supply Project would include two new reservoirs in northern Colorado, and a sprawling network of pipelines to transport water to the project's participants and from canal companies.

The project would be Nielsen’s new neighbor, and rearrange how she gets to and from Fort Collins. The highway she currently uses to drive to the city would be under more than 200 feet of water if the dam is built and the reservoir is filled. If it’s fully permitted, Nielsen says her community will be forced to host a new body of water that symbolizes the region’s growth, and the failures of local and state leaders to plan for it.

“Building reservoirs, reservoir development is something that we used to do 50 years ago or 100 years ago. We have so many more tools that are at our disposal now, to plan for that growth that I feel like are being ignored,” Nielsen said.

Northern Water, the quasi-governmental agency that moves water through tunnels, canals and reservoirs across a broad swath of Northern Colorado, is pushing for NISP’s construction on behalf of 15 other water providers, mostly small suburbs that have ambitions to grow. The communities of Dacono, Firestone, Eaton, Lafayette, Windsor and Severance are all participants in the project, among others.

“People still want to come to Colorado and shutting off the water tap is probably not the means to to slow the growth down,” said Brad Wind, Northern Water’s general manager.

Brad Wind, Northern Water general manager
Luke Runyon
Brad Wind is the general manager of Northern Water, the agency behind the Northern Integrated Supply Project.

For decades Front Range cities have been buying up agricultural water rights to keep up with demand. It’s a practice known as “buy and dry,” and it has raised concerns among local and state lawmakers worried that irrigated agriculture will be sacrificed to make way for suburban sprawl. NISP, Wind said, is meant to curb that trend.

“As (the NISP participants) bring on the anticipated growth that they're foreseeing there is just not in our minds another go to, besides drying up agriculture within their vicinity,” Wind said.

NISP is getting close to the end of a federal, state and local permitting process. Since first formally submitting for permits in 2004, the project has jumped through regulatory hurdles like a federal environmental impact statement, and a water quality certification from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Larimer County’s portion of the process is called a 1041 permit, and it gives local governments some discretion in how big infrastructure projects are built within their boundaries. At a series of public hearings, the county’s planning commission heard from residents worried about the project’s reliance on the Poudre River.

“What this project has done is it has forced us in a way to give up our quality of life, to give up our lifestyle, to give up the place where we want to live, in order for Northern Water to provide water to towns that aren’t even in Larimer County,” said Nancy Wallace, a member of the Larimer County planning commission.

Wallace ended up in the minority on the commission. It voted to recommend the 1041 permit to the board of county commissioners. Over the years NISP has also received support from former governor and current U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper.

Erie new homes
Luke Runyon
A sign advertises new homes in Erie, Colo.

The town of Erie, a rapidly growing community in Boulder County about a half hour from Boulder and north Denver, would be the largest recipient of NISP water.

“There is no doubt that Erie needs this water to meet its build out demands,” said Paul Zilis, the town’s water attorney. “It's not going to be tomorrow, but it's a project that they need for future residents.”

Zilis was brought on in the late 1980s when the town had only one, small reservoir for its drinking supply.

“It went dry and they literally were going to have to truck in water and luckily we found a temporary solution and from there we moved forward,” Zilis said.

water attorney Paul Zilis
Luke Runyon
Town of Erie water attorney Paul Zilis says the community needs water from the Northern Integrated Supply Project to keep growing.

Limited water supplies, and fierce competition for existing sources, are already contributing to the Front Range’s rising home costs.

“The bottom line is that if NISP doesn't get built, every one of the 15 participants are going to be on their own competing for scarce water,” he said.

That scarcity will force suburban cities and developers to scour the countryside for Front Range farmers wanting to sell their water rights, Zilis said.

NISP participants, including Erie, are required to have a conservation plan on file with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But the project’s sponsor agency, Northern Water, doesn’t specify how much conservation a participant needs to be doing in order to be a part of the project.

Erie is doing its part to cut back how much it’s using now, Zilis said, but this is not a problem conservation alone can fix.

“We will continue to try to save water, but there I don't think it's physically possible to conserve 6,500 acre feet worth of water,” he said.

After more than 15 years of permitting, countless hours of negotiation over the project’s mitigation plans, and millions of dollars spent on studies, surveys and outreach, resident Lori Nielsen said she’s concerned Larimer County commissioners will see NISP as inevitable, and give it a rubber stamp.

“But on the other hand in 20 years, a lot has changed. Once again, we have a lot of tools in our toolbox. We have a lot of alternatives that haven't some of them haven't even been looked at yet,” Nielsen said.

And, she said, even in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, she’s heartened by the public response at meetings she’s participated in.

“The only thing that typically makes a difference is local community voice and spirit. That is what I think regulators listen to,” she said. “I would hope that the county commissioners are going to step back and think, really seriously think, about what this means to the community.”

This story is part of a project covering water in the western U.S. and the Colorado River basin, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Part two of this story explores concerns about the Poudre River, NISP’s main water source.

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