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City wanted to pipe the water from west of Fort Collins to its fast-growing population

Feb 11, 2019

City wanted to pipe the water from west of Fort Collins to its fast-growing population

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Thornton’s controversial effort to move millions of gallons of water via a 72-mile pipeline from the Cache la Poudre River west of Fort Collins to its mushrooming population in Denver’s northern suburbs was dashed Monday night by all three of Larimer County’s commissioners, ending more than a year of debate and contentious back and forth on the issue.

The commissioners denied a 1041 permit for the project, citing concerns about the project’s potential impacts to property owners in Larimer County and to the environment at large. The decision was met with applause in the hearing room Monday night.

Commissioner Steve Johnson said the $423 million pipeline proposal, which aimed to move water from the Poudre River via a 48-inch diameter pipe across the northern edge of Fort Collins to Interstate 25 before turning south toward Thornton, ranked as one of the most contentious issues he had ever seen raised in the county’s history.

He acknowledged that Thornton “purchased that property (the Poudre water) legally and they have a right to that property,” but he said the city didn’t give enough consideration to alternatives to a pipeline.

“The 600-plus supporters of the grassroots No Pipe Dream organization commend the Larimer County commissioners for their unanimous denial of the 1041 application for the Thornton Water Project,” Karen Wagner, the group’s co-chair and a former commissioner in the county, said after the vote. “The board recognized the considerable impacts on their constituents.”

Wagner and other pipeline opponents had called on Thornton to send its Poudre River shares down the river through Fort Collins instead of excavating miles of land for a pipe, arguing that the additional flow would dramatically improve the health of a river that has dwindled to a trickle at times.

In a statement issued shortly after the vote was cast, Thornton Water Project Director Mark Koleber said the city was disappointed that the commissioners “chose to ignore the recommendations of their own county staff that Thornton met all of the 1041 criteria for a water pipeline to be built in the county, potentially causing a delay in Thornton residents’ access to the clean water resources they own.”

“In the coming days and weeks, we will review the decision and determine our next steps,” he said.The simmering battle over Thornton’s proposed pipeline, in many ways, echoes Colorado’s long and colorful history of water wars that have pitted farmers against urban dwellers, the western part of the state against the booming Front Range, and city against city.

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Gary Wockner, executive director of Save the Poudre — a group that aims to “protect and restore” the waterway that flows from Rocky Mountain National Park to the South Platte east of Greeley — said Thornton had “a huge opportunity to do the right thing.”

“The Poudre is already severely depleted and degraded through Fort Collins and this is an opportunity to help restore the ecological health of the river,” he said.

Wagner said there needed to be more give from Thornton when it comes to moving its water. A pipe will negatively impact residents while it is being installed and won’t bring any benefits to Larimer County in the short or long term, she said.

“The benefits accrue all to the city of Thornton,” she said.

Larimer County’s primary responsibility, Wagner argued, is to enforce its land use code to protect its residents. Sending Thornton’s drinking water down the Poudre would not only help improve the river’s condition for the people of Fort Collins and the animals that depend on the waterway to live, but would still allow the city north of Denver to collect every last drop it has rights to.

But moving its water via the Poudre through Fort Collins to Windsor before taking it out of the river would badly degrade the water’s quality, given urban and agricultural runoff and the presence of two water treatment plants in that urban stretch, said city spokesman Todd Barnes.“

We want the same water quality we would get where we already divert it,” Barnes said.

Thornton purchased senior water rights in the Poudre back in the 1980s in anticipation of steady population growth in the years to come. Much of that growth has already happened: The city has blossomed from a population of approximately 50,000 people in 1985 to around 140,000 today. By 2065, Thornton expects to have a population topping 240,000.

By then, its Poudre shares will deliver 14,000 acre-feet of high-quality water — an acre-foot, generally speaking, can serve the needs of two families of four for a year — to its residents.

“We’ve always known since we purchased the water we would need it,” Barnes said. “The idea of taking water from far away is not unique at all in Colorado.”

Over the past year, Barnes said Thornton has made multiple concessions to lessen the impacts of a pipeline in Larimer County and to see to it that the county’s residents get some benefits from the project. Those included offers of $1 million to help improve flows in the Poudre River, another million dollars to mitigate impacts to traffic from pipeline construction and an offer to protect some farmland the city owns in the county under a conservation easement.

Already, Thornton had agreed to move the alignment of its water pipe from the Douglas Road corridor north of Fort Collins to a far less busy county road farther away from the city.

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