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Population Growth Looms Large In Debates Over Proposed 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.

Many communities in the West are growing, and in some places that’s putting pressure on already scarce water supplies.

That’s the case in northern Colorado, where a proposed set of reservoirs promises to allow small suburbs to keep getting bigger. The project, called the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), has stirred up a familiar debate over how the West grows, and whether water should be a limiting factor.

Northern Water
Northern Water's illustration of the Northern Integrated Supply Project

NISP -- with its two new reservoirs, and network of pipelines across a broad sweep of Northern Colorado -- is close to being fully permitted, which would pave the way to begin construction of the infrastructure project to satisfy the needs of 15 fast-growing Front Range municipalities and water providers. The project promises to give those communities water to build new homes and businesses -- without buying it from farmers.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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, a water quality certification from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and a 1041 permit from Larimer County. The 1041 permit gives local governments in Colorado some oversight authority on large infrastructure projects within their boundaries.

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

At a series of public hearings this summer, 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, which then approved on a 2-1 vote the permit for the project. Environmental advocacy groups quickly promised to sue over the decision.

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.

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.

“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.

Limited water supplies, and fierce competition for existing sources, are already contributing to Colorado’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 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.

Luke Runyon
Because of its change in flows, the Poudre River Whitewater Park in Fort Collins would likely see a decrease a days where kayakers are able to use the park if NISP is built, while tubers could see an increase of days.

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, 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. Opponents say the project will only hurt, not help.

The Cache la Poudre River, where NISP would draw water for its largest reservoir, 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 also home to fish, birds and other wildlife.

On a recent warm summer morning, parents with bottles of sunscreen chased down their children before they waded into the 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.

Luke Runyon
Evan Stafford with American Whitewater says he's concerned about the effects the Northern Integrated Supply Project could have on the Poudre River Whitewater Park.

“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.

The project still needs one more federal approval from the Army Corps of Engineers before it’s considered to be fully permitted, and ready to head into design and construction phases.

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.