Proposed Water Project Tests If Northern Colorado's 'Working River' Can Handle Another Job
The Cache la Poudre River in Northern Colorado is often referred to as a “working river.” It provides drinking water for cities and irrigation water for farms. During the summer months it’s popular with kayakers, tubers and anglers. It’s home to fish, birds and other wildlife.
But a reservoir proposal facing a key vote from Larimer County commissioners would give it one more big task, and the panel is hearing from community members who think it can handle the work, and those who don’t.
The Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP) -- with its two new reservoirs, and network of pipelines across a broad sweep of Northern Colorado -- is seeking a 1041 permit to begin construction of the infrastructure project that would use water from the Poudre and South Platte rivers to satisfy the needs of 15 fast-growing Front Range municipalities and water providers.
The agency pushing for NISP, Northern Water, says it has made significant changes to the planned project in order to help the already overtaxed Poudre River, while opponents say it will only hurt, not help.
On a recent warm summer morning, parents with bottles of sunscreen chased down their children before they waded into the Poudre River with their inflatable tubes. The newly finished Poudre River Whitewater Park near downtown Fort Collins has been a draw for families this summer looking to get out of the house and cool off.
“It just opened officially last October with a grand opening, but this is the first spring where it's really been open,” said Evan Stafford with American Whitewater, a group that advocates for swiftwater recreation. (American Whitewater receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s water coverage).
But with the ribbon cutting less than a year ago, Stafford said NISP presents an upstream threat. The project’s biggest reservoir, Glade, would be miles from the park, but it would be felt by kayakers and tubers alike. NISP would pull water out of the river at the same time whitewater paddlers flock to it.
“It's already pretty affected, but NISP would really increase that effect to almost there being no flooding or a natural kind of rise in the river due to the snow melt,” Stafford said.
That’s important, not just for kayakers, but for the river’s ecological health too. High spring flows flush sediment downstream and are critical for fish and bird habitat.
Without those rushing, turbid spring flows, “it would be hard, I think, to really call it a river at that point. It becomes a drainage ditch,” Stafford said.
But that characterization of NISP’s potential impact is unfair, says Northern Water’s general manager Brad Wind.
“At the end of the day to fill a reservoir you’ve got to extract some water from the river,” Wind said.
Because the project relies on relatively junior water rights, Wind says they would have to wait until the highest flows to divert water into the reservoir. Those flows come during the spring runoff. But, he said, once full, the reservoir would release water at other times of year when the Poudre is struggling because of demands from farmers.
“Yes, we do take some water off the peak,” Wind said. “But in so doing that, we’re providing a benefit to the Poudre many of the other months, 10 or 11 months of the year, of which the Poudre hasn’t seen. And those benefits won’t take place unless the project is built.”
NISP has committed to releasing so-called base flows through Fort Collins in certain times of the year to aid fish populations and fill-in dry up points that show up when demand from farmers spikes during the summer months. But it could be awhile before those releases take place. By Northern Water’s projections, construction on Glade’s dam and reservoir might take until 2027 to finish. Filling the reservoir could take up to a decade if the Poudre’s flows are reduced due to drought.
“We have spent a lot of years fine-tuning a project to benefit the Poudre River to provide recreation, obviously to provide important water supply to participants,” Wind said. “We think there's a lot of goods that will come out of the project.”
NISP is nearing the end of a more than 15-year permitting process. The latest stretch of public meetings has taken place almost entirely during the pandemic. NISP boasts a laundry list of endorsements from former governors, local business groups, farm groups, even two of three Larimer County commissioners. There’s been a renewed call from the project’s opponents for commissioners Steve Johnson and Tom Donnelly to recuse themselves from deliberations, though both continue to participate in hearings.
Fort Collins, the biggest city along the river’s course, recently voted to oppose the project, making it one of the first governmental bodies to do so.
“I hear words like, devastating, dehydrate, draining our wetlands, depleting our flow, decreasing the flow to the point where fish cannot sustain,” said council member Susan Gutowsky during an August meeting to update the city’s official stance on NISP. Gutowsky’s district includes a stretch of the Poudre River.
“It seems to be more of a compelling argument to talk about the health of the Poudre River than to say, ‘I'm glad I'm here, and I'm glad there's enough water for me and my family. But I don't want anybody else coming into the state,’” said council member Ken Summers, who voted against the resolution.
Fort Collins city council’s opposition is more of a symbolic gesture, given that much of the project’s infrastructure falls outside city limits. The vote from Larimer County commissioners on the 1041 permit has real potential to either slow down the project’s momentum, or ease its way into being fully permitted. It still needs a record of decision from the Army Corps of Engineers, which could come as early as this fall.
All three Larimer County commissioners declined interview requests due to it being a pending land use issue.
As local policymakers debate the project, community members are watching. On Fort Collins streets, bumper stickers sporting the slogan, “Keep Your Dam Hands Off My Poudre” have been a staple for years.
A couple blocks from the Poudre River Whitewater Park, Todd Simmons pours drinks at Wolverine Farm Publick House, part of the city’s recently christened River District.
With the River District honing in on a distinct identity, adding residents and businesses, and the whitewater park drawing a diverse crowd of river lovers, Simmons says the Poudre is becoming a focal point. As a business owner in an area named for the river, he wants to advocate for its health. He’s also on the board of the local environmental group Save The Poudre.
“You know, any kindergartner could figure it out. If you build something that draws water off the river, how can it not be negatively affected?” Simmons said.
Simmons said he doesn’t discount the needs of nearby cities facing water shortfalls, and wants to be neighborly. But he also thinks more conversation is needed to come up with a creative solution, one that avoids taking any more water from the Poudre.
That’s a difficult task for any water project in the West, let alone one with more than 20 years of history behind it.
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 one of this story explores how growth has become central to the discussion over NISP.