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What Is The Northern Integrated Supply Project, And Why Is It Controversial?

Northern Water
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Site for the proposed Glade reservoir north of Fort Collins. The storage lake would be approximately the size of Horsetooth Reservoir.

An open house in Fort Collins will take place Wednesday night about the controversial Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a much-needed water lifeline for communities on the fast-growing Front Range, or it’s a project that isn’t needed and will hurt ecosystems along the Poudre River.   

KUNC's Luke Runyon joins Colorado Edition to explain what's going on.  


Interview Highlights  

Erin O'Toole: For those who aren’t familiar, what is NISP? 

Luke Runyon: NISP stands for the Northern Integrated Supply Project, and it’s a proposal that’s been in the works in some form for about 20 years. The biggest pieces of the project are two new reservoirs proposed to be built north of Fort Collins and Greeley.

Now, the one north of Fort Collins – called Glade Reservoir – is the more controversial of the two. As it stands now, Glade would flood a valley that a lot of people in Northern Colorado have probably driven through. The reservoir would be in a stretch of Highway 287 – that's the two-lane highway that goes from Fort Collins to Laramie, Wyoming. If you’ve ever seen the big rock with graffiti and art all over it between those two cities, that’s where the reservoir would be. And its construction would require the highway to be moved to a new location to accommodate it.

The other reservoir, Galeton, would be north of Greeley, in a more remote part of Weld County.  

That sounds like a lot of effort to build these two additional reservoirs. Why are they needed?   

Northern Water – and the Front Range water providers who would benefit from the additional water – say that this project is an absolute necessity. They argue that Colorado is growing in population. That those growing cities will need more water. And that these reservoirs aren’t just adding redundancy to municipal water supplies... they’re filling a gap, between the demand for water in the state and the available supply. Most of the water from NISP would be going to smaller communities along the Front Range that are growing rapidly, like Windsor, Erie, Frederick, Firestone, Severance. Even out to Fort Morgan on the plains. These are places that want to grow, but if you project out into the future they don’t have the water secured to make that growth possible.  

So this would help make sure that people in this rapidly growing area have the water they need. What's the downside?  

There are a lot of concerns about this project. This is something that the environmental community is very worried about. NISP would tap into the Poudre River to fill up its reservoirs. And the Poudre already runs very low at certain times of the year because of demand from farmers out on the plains. If you add in climate change, which could both limit the snowpack that feeds the river and put more strain on it with higher temperatures, NISP opponents argue that the addition of a new reservoir could really injure the Poudre River and the ecosystems that rely on it.  

Plus, as with many infrastructure debates in Colorado these days, there’s some questioning of whether these reservoirs really are necessary, or if they just feed unsustainable growth in Colorado. Some people would say we need to be conserving water, limiting use on farms and in cities, to meet the future needs, not just keep building these big buckets to store it.  

What's next for this project?   

There will be quite a few more meetings and at least a couple more big decisions need to be made before it can move forward into construction.

For it to move forward, Northern Water is entering into something called an Intergovernmental Agreement with Larimer County, where Glade Reservoir would be built. This is basically a chance for local officials to make some demands of Northern and stipulate certain aspects of how the project would be built. So they’re talking about recreation on and around Glade like boating, hiking, camping. They’re also talking about where and how Highway 287 will be moved, because this new reservoir will flood the existing highway, and they’re talking about a pipeline. This pipeline would start at the reservoir and move its water to some of the project’s participants which are scattered all across the northern Front Range and plains.  

So once they figure all that out, then Larimer County would enter into this agreement.

But the project also needs a water quality permit from the state department of public health and environment. And it still needs a final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. By Northern Water’s timeline, if everything goes their way they could be in construction on the new dams and pipelines in 2023. But these projects have all kinds of things that can hold them up, and you can be certain that this one will be challenged in court once those final permits are issued.  

This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Oct. 9. Listen to the full episode here

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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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