US Representative Cory Gardner plans legislation ‘that fixes the broken permitting system’


From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

Many water providers and users in Weld County say they’re elated that one of their representatives in Washington is trying to fix the “cumbersome” and “inefficient” federal permitting process for new water-storage projects. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., has proposed legislation that would require federal regulators to approve or deny permits for reservoir projects within 270 days after a state’s governor endorses a water project. If a decision isn’t made within 365 days of the governor’s endorsement, the project would be automatically approved, according to Gardner’s proposed legislation, which also looks to create a federal “Office of Water Storage.”

“We’re thrilled that there are efforts in place to address this,” said Jon Monson, water and sewer director for the city of Greeley.

He noted that one of the city’s planned projects — a 30-mile pipeline that would transport more drinking water from its Bellvue Water Treatment Plant northwest of Fort Collins to Greeley — has been in the federal permitting process for about five years, and the city’s planned Milton-Seaman Reservoir has been in the federal permitting stage for nearly 10 years. “(The federal permitting process) we have just doesn’t work in meeting the challenges we face,” he said.

While touring Weld County on Aug. 30, Gardner said he plans to introduce his water-storage legislation in Washington this month.

Monson added that he and others with the city of Greeley are eager to learn more specific details of Gardner’s proposed legislation, and hope to take part in discussions with him. Many water users and experts — particularly in the South Platte River basin, where Greeley and other rapidly growing communities try to coexist with large, water-dependent agriculture and oil and gas industries — stress the need for building more reservoirs, and building them in a timely manner.

According to the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative report, Colorado could face as much as a 600,000 acre-foot supply gap by 2050.

Most water experts, like Monson, agree that a variety of efforts, including water-conversation measures, will be needed to address the issue.

But many also say building new water-storage projects will be as critical as any other efforts.

Water has been in tight supply for many Front Range users recently, largely due to the widespread drought of 2012.

Many users, particularly farmers, have expressed frustration that during the above-average snowpack years of 2009, 2010 and 2011, the South Platte River basin watched about 1.4 million acre-feet of water above what’s legally required flow into Nebraska, according to numbers provided by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud. That much extra water was flowing into Nebraska because there weren’t enough reservoirs in the basin to capture the abundant snowmelt, they say, and having more reservoirs would have made a huge difference in enduring the 2012 drought.

But because the federal permitting process can take several years, if not longer, many needed projects aren’t in place yet, farmers and others say.

While many in Weld County are in favor of Gardner’s efforts to speed up the federal permitting process, some have raised concerns. Environmentalists, including the Fort Collins-based Save the Poudre organization, said last week that Gardner’s bill would “gut” the National Environmental Policy Act and create a new bureaucracy within the Army Corps of Engineers.

To the disappointment of many water users and officials in Weld County, Gardner’s proposed legislation wouldn’t impact the Northern Integrated Supply Project, which calls for building two new reservoirs — one northwest of Fort Collins, and one in northern Weld County — to supply 15 providers with 40,000 acre feet of new water each year. Gov. John Hickenlooper has not endorsed the project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been reviewing the project since 2004, when the Northern Water officials first submitted an application for the project.

“It wouldn’t solve everything, but we certainly need something to speed up this process,” said Frank Eckhardt, a LaSalle-area farmer. Eckhardt, a board member for the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley and for local irrigation-ditch companies, has long been involved in discussions regarding water-storage endeavors, like the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project.

Despite its support from Gov. Hickenlooper and other state water officials, the Chatfield project — which would nearly double the size of the reservoir south of Denver, and deliver more water downstream to local farmers in the Central district and other water users — has been in the federal permitting process for more than a decade, Eckhardt said. Eckhardt is grateful that Chatfield’s federal permitting process is reportedly nearing the finish line, but said the additional water provided by the project was already needed in recent years. Central Water, which provides augmentation water to more than 100,000 acres of irrigated farm ground in the area, is one of 11 water-providers participating in the proposed Chatfield project. The $184 million endeavor would raise the Denver-area lake by as much as 12 feet, and, in doing so, would provide an additional 2,849 acre-feet of water annually to some of Central’s users.

Local farmers, like Eckhardt, say they need to secure such water supplies, and quickly, because the cities around them are growing and are increasing their own water needs. Central Water and the farmers within its boundaries have long been dependent on leasing excess water from local cities, but those supplies are becoming more limited, and expensive. “We’re running out of time,” Eckhardt said. “We need more storage quickly.”

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