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Environment

Fort Collins planners, worried about Poudre River impacts, reject Northern Water’s plan for 3-mile pipeline through the city

Rejection of the NISP pipeline is yet another skirmish in a series of water and pipeline battles playing out in the northern Front Range.

The Poudre River Whitewater Park lived up to its name on Wednesday June 9, 2021. The whitewater park is open, but access to the Poudre River shoreline was closed between North Shields River Access and Salyer Natural Area.(Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Fort Collins planning commission on Wednesday rejected an application by Northern Water to run more than three miles of pipeline in a 100-foot-wide construction zone through city parks and neighborhoods as part of the complex Northern Integrated Supply Project.

The 3-to-2 rejection may not stall the massive project for long, as state law allows Northern Water’s own board to override the decision by a two-thirds vote, which it is sure to get. But the unrest in Fort Collins is another skirmish in a series of water and pipeline battles playing out this year in northern Front Range counties.

Water developers say they need supply to meet the demands of growing cities and suburbs, while many residents are objecting to the cost to the environment and to their own wallets. 

“What happens during that construction will forever change the activity of wildlife, the patterns of wildlife, and they may never come back to those areas,” Fort Collins planning board member Per Hogestad said before he voted against the NISP pipeline application. 

Fort Collins city planners launched the night’s hearing by recommending the board reject the NISP pipeline. Among other objections, city staff said its construction would cut down important riparian cottonwood stands without rebuilding them, and that the plan lacked detailed restoration plans for other areas in the proposed easement. 

“No matter how much mitigation. . .  it’s going to take water out of the river and diminish the quality of the river ecosystem,” Fort Collins resident Zack Heath said during the public comments. 

Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind told the planning commission that the water agency, which serves more than 1 million people in parts of eight counties on the northern Front Range, has made numerous changes to the $1.1 billion NISP to accommodate the steady stream of objections made over more than 10 years. Most importantly, he said, the new system of water buckets and delivery pipes that make up NISP will put a steadier, stronger flow of water into the Poudre River through Fort Collins, improving the health of an overused river that nearly dries up in summer. 


“That’s a big win for them,” Wind said of conservation groups like Save the Poudre who have been trying to block the project in courts and local councils for years. “We believe in that. We’re committed to that.”

Friday morning, Northern Water issued a statement saying in part that it would “look closely at the concerns raised by the City of Fort Collins staff, planning and zoning commissioners and public commenters. We look forward to working with the city to address those concerns while keeping the long-term goal in sight” of building the water delivery project. The board will consider its next steps at a meeting in August, spokesman Jeff Stahla said.

The list of Front Range water fights is long

NISP is one of the longest-running of a growing number of water delivery disputes pitting neighbors against city and county planning boards, and cities and counties against each other.

Thornton wants to build a 74-mile underground pipeline from water it owns in a Larimer County reservoir, through Weld County and onto city treatment plants. After similar years of wrangling, Weld County listened to neighbor and landowner objections and voted against a permit through county space. But Thornton, in Adams County, on Tuesday overrode the decision, which state law allows the applying entity to do when it is financing and building the pipeline. 

In Westminster, many residents are furious at city council members for a series of steep increases in domestic water prices, among other planning decisions, and their anger has helped fuel an ongoing series of recalls and marathon voting sessions. Some longtime city residents say the council and city utilities have botched long-term planning for adequate water resources and failed to maintain treatment plants and other infrastructure. 

Brighton is also in a series of battles over water use and water prices, including conflicts over power sharing between the city manager and elected officials on water questions. 

The Fort Collins planning decision is not likely to be a major hurdle for Northern Water, which is close to breaking ground on the reservoir-and-pipe system that makes up NISP but has more regulatory problems to solve. 

The Northern Integrated Supply Project has navigated a tangled route of permits since at least 2004. Fifteen communities that are part of Northern Water want to build new reservoirs called Glade and Galeton, bracketing Fort Collins on the west and east, and connect them through the Poudre and a series of farm water ditches with complex withdrawal and return pipelines. 

As part of the overall plan, Northern Water would let about 22 cubic feet per second out of its newly-stored pool in Glade to keep a steady flow in the Poudre through most of Fort Collins, for most of the year. The pipeline under debate Thursday night would then take that water back out of the river and carry it to a separate pipeline that runs on the north side of the project.  

Conservationists ridicule that plan, saying Northern Water’s gesture toward the environment would turn the Poudre into a weedy, low-flow “ditch” populated by carp. 

Save the Poudre and allies in Fort Collins have jammed up the permitting process all along, at the federal, county and local levels. They are currently suing Larimer County over approved permits, and note that the Army Corps of Engineers has still not given final approval. 

“The majority of the commission made the right vote,” Save the Poudre’s Gary Wockner said after speaking during the public hearing. “NISP is half-baked, and the application was only 30% complete. Our lawsuit will also continue to move forward which will challenge NISP’s ability to overrule this decision. The Poudre stays alive for another day and another fight.”

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