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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.

Larimer County Commissioners Vote To Approve Northern Integrated Supply Project

The Poudre River Whitewater Park opened in October 2019 and is a popular spot for tubers and kayakers.
Luke Runyon
The Poudre River Whitewater Park opened in October 2019 and is a popular spot for tubers and kayakers.

Larimer County commissioners voted to approve a controversial water supply project Wednesday night. In a 2-1 vote, commissioners paved the way for the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP) to be fully permitted.

Commissioners Tom Donnelly and Steve Johnson voted yes on the county’s 1041 permit, which gives local governments oversight of large infrastructure projects built within their boundaries. Commissioner John Kefalas was the lone no vote. Donnelly and Johnson’s seats on the county board are up for election this fall, as both men are term-limited.

The Northern Integrated Supply Project would bring online two new reservoirs in northern Colorado, and require construction of a network of pipelines across the region.
The Northern Integrated Supply Project would bring online two new reservoirs in northern Colorado, and require construction of a network of pipelines across the region.

The vote came after lengthy hearings before the county board and the county’s planning commission. The majority of speakers at those meetings spoke about concerns over the project’s effects on the Poudre River, its main water source. The project would divert water from the river during its peak flows due to its relatively junior water rights.

Nearby residents in the Bonner Peak and Eagle Lake neighborhoods also voiced concerns about pipeline routes disrupting quiet, rural neighborhoods, and diminishing property values. Northern Water, the agency pushing for NISP’s construction, hasn't ruled out using eminent domain to build those pipelines, if necessary.

NISP includes the construction of a large new reservoir along highway 287 north of Fort Collins, and a sprawling network of pipelines to carry water to its 15 participants, mostly fast-growing suburbs in Weld, Boulder and Morgan counties.

In comments explaining his vote against the permit, Kefalas noted scientific papers show a warming trend across much of Colorado, with consequences for rivers fed by snowmelt, like the Poudre.

“Based on the modeling that has been done with the Upper Colorado River basin, I think there are serious implications to the Poudre River flow and how that affects the Glade Reservoir,” Kefalas said.

Kefalas said he was also uncomfortable with the project’s tradeoff in advocating for flatwater recreation on a reservoir a 20-minute drive outside of Fort Collins, instead of seeing high spring flows through the city as a recreational amenity.

“It’s a risk to diminish the value of the Poudre River flowing through the city of Fort Collins, of protecting the natural areas, and the fact that it’s accessible to people from all walks of life. You don’t have to drive there. To me, that’s a social equity thing,” Kefalas said.

In voting to approve, commissioner Johnson said a rejection of the permit would be an example of parochial self-interest. While much of NISP’s water would be used in communities outside of Larimer County, Johnson said Colorado is full of examples of projects where water is stored and transported from one region to another. The majority of the Front Range’s water supply is drawn from the Western Slope.

“Colorado’s a semi-arid state, we have 16 inches of rain a year, in a good year,” Johnson said. “How do we provide for the additional people that will come here in a responsible way that preserves our environment but provides for our kids and their kids?”

“We know those people are going to come. And there’s no way -- there’s no good way to stop growth in our community,” Johnson said.

Commissioner Donnelly hewed closely to the county’s 1041 evaluation criteria, which assess projects based on how they fit into the county’s master plan and affect its residents. NISP’s proponents were able to satisfy all of the county’s criteria, Donnelly said.

Gary Wockner, head of environmental group Save The Poudre, said in a statement his organization plans to challenge the Larimer County permit in court, though no lawsuit has been filed yet. As commissioners began their deliberations, several local groups called for Johnson and Donnelly to recuse themselves based on past statements of support for NISP.

In a statement, Karen Wagner with local environmental group, No Pipe Dream, said the vote did not come as a surprise.

“Lame duck commissioners, Johnson and Donnelly, failed our organization and the citizens of Larimer County, who have argued long and hard that NISP is unsustainable, disastrous for the Poudre River and injurious to residents who live and make their livelihood in the pathway of the river-draining proposal,” Wagner said.

The project is still awaiting a record of decision from the Army Corps of Engineers before it can move forward into construction.

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.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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