Fifteen towns, cities and water districts in northern Colorado hope to begin building two dams and other infrastructure in 2025 to deliver enough water to meet needs for a quarter-million people, many of them along the fast-growing Interstate 25 corridor.
Northern Water, the agency overseeing what’s known as the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), hailed federal approval of a critical permit last month as a milestone. “This action is the culmination of nearly 20 years of study, project design and refinement to develop water resources well into the 21st century,” said Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water. Wind said that NISP will enable the 15 project members, including Windsor, Erie and Fort Morgan, to grow without buying farmland, then drying it up and using its water for growth.
The environmental group, Save the Poudre, hopes to dash those plans. The nonprofit says it will file a lawsuit in an attempt to block the $2 billion NISP. To succeed, the group will have to overcome precedent. It failed to block Chimney Hollow, the dam that Northern Water is constructing as part of a separate project, in the foothills west of Berthoud whose construction began in 2022 after a three-year court case.
“We have a much stronger case against NISP because the project would drain a dramatic amount of water out of the Poudre River, which would negatively impact the river’s ecology, its habitat, and its jurisdictional wetlands — protected by the Clean Water Act — all the way through Fort Collins and downstream,” said Gary Wockner, director of Save The Poudre.
This new court challenge was set up by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announcement Dec. 9 that it was issuing a crucial permit under the Clean Water Act. Directors of Northern Water, the overarching agency for the participating jurisdictions, are scheduled on Thursday, Jan. 5, to take up whether to accept the terms of the permit. Staff members have advised them to do so.
The impetus for NISP can be traced to the early 1980s when Northern Water began drawing up plans to dam the Poudre River in the foothills near Fort Collins. Federal agencies balked at Denver’s plans for a similar project on the South Platte River at Two Forks, in the foothills southwest of Denver. Northern shelved its initial plan. But after the scorching drought that began in 2002, Northern developed plans for NISP, which it submitted to federal agencies in 2004.
Two reservoirs are central to NISP. Glade Park, an off-channel reservoir, would be built north of La Porte, bounded by the Dakota hogbacks and a dam that would cross today’s Highway 287. It would have a capacity of 170,000 acre-feet, slightly larger than the 157,000 acre-feet of Horsetooth Reservoir. Northern’s water rights are relatively junior, dating from the 1980s and would only generate water in spring months during high runoff years.
The project promises delivery via pipeline of 40,000 acre-feet of high-quality water annually to the 11 mostly smaller towns and cities and the 4 water districts. Erie is buying the largest amount of water from the new project, claiming 6,500 acre-feet. An acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons.
The second storage pool, Galeton Reservoir, at 45,000 acre-feet, would impound water northeast of Greeley. Unlike the water from Glade, which is to be strictly dedicated to domestic use, Galeton would hold water that will be delivered to farms in Weld County that otherwise would have received water from the Poudre River. This will be done via a water-rights swap with two ditches north of Greeley. Those agreements have not been finalized.
Preservation of agricultural land, costs of water, and water quality figure prominently in the talking points both for — and, in some cases, against — the project.
Northern and its project participants argue that NISP will allow them to grow without drying up farms. It can do so, they say, by delivering the water at a lower cost.
The federal environmental impact statement’s no-action alternative found that population growth would occur regardless of whether a federal permit was issued, said Jeff Stahla, the public information officer for Northern Water. That analysis found that in the absence of NISP, the 15 cities and water districts would look to buy water rights currently devoted to agriculture, ultimately taking 64,000 acres — or 100 square miles — out of production.
The 15 utilities will be able to get NISP’s new water at $40,000 per acre-foot, substantially below current market rates for other regional water sources such as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project shares. Those shares, which constitute seven-tenths of an acre-foot, have been selling for about $75,000.
In some cases, expanding cities will take farmland out of production — and presumably gain access to the water, but not always.
“We do not want to dry up northern Colorado,” says John Thornhill, Windsor’s director of community development.
Thornhill said that Windsor, a town of 42,000 with its 20th Century sugar beet factory still standing, is participating in NISP to improve the resiliency of its water portfolio as it prepares for another 10,000 to 15,000 residents in the next 10 to 15 years.
“The town of Windsor has just as much interest in having a clean, healthy river as anybody else does,” he says. “[The Poudre River] goes right through our town.”
Fort Collins is not participating in the project. In a 2020 resolution, it said it would oppose the proposal or any variant that failed to “address the City’s fundamental concerns about the quality of its water supply and the effects on the Cache la Poudre River through the city.”
Water quality will be at the heart of Save the Poudre’s lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers’ 404 permit. The group’s Wockner says the diversion to Glade Reservoir will reduce peak flows in the Poudre, a river already suffering from E. coli and other pollutants, by up to 40%. “The water quality in the river will worsen because as you take out the peak flows what is left is dirty water,” he says.
Also at issue, says Wockner, will be the impacts to Fort Collins’ wastewater treatment. With reduced flows downstream from its two treatment plants, those plants would have to be upgraded.
On the flip side, Fort Morgan got involved partly because of Glade Reservoir’s higher water quality, according to City Manager Brent Nation.
The city of 12,000 historically relied upon aquifer water heavily laden with minerals for its domestic supply. As the aquifer became increasingly tainted by chemicals used in agricultural production, the city, in the late 1990s, began importing water through an 80-mile pipeline from Carter Lake, a reservoir that stores imported Colorado River water southwest of Loveland.
To use aquifer water for its new population growth Fort Morgan would need to upgrade its water treatment system to use reverse osmosis. That’s a more expensive treatment that also produces a problem of brine disposal.
Both Fort Morgan and Windsor have started working on land-use regulations that will restrict high-quality water for domestic use, at least in some subdivisions, leaving lower-quality water for landscaping.
If NISP as proposed survives Save the Poudre’s legal challenge, it may still need a 1041 permit from Fort Collins. Those regulations have not yet been adopted, however.
Allen Best grew up in eastern Colorado, where both sets of grandparents were farmers. Best writes about the energy transition in Colorado and beyond at BigPivots.com.