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Fort Collins puts new barriers in front of billion-dollar Northern Water dam and pipeline project

City Council calls for local control rules in big land projects could delay approval of Northern Water’s Northern Integrated Supply Project by a year.

Cache la Poudre River rafting Northern Integrated Supply Project NISP Fort Collins dams water rights
Rafters with Rocky Mountain Adventures navigate high waters on the Cache la Poudre River as storms move across the region Sunday, May 25, 2014, in Fort Collins, Colo. (AP Photo/The Coloradoan, Erin Hull)
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Fort Collins has placed new barriers in front of Northern Water’s $1.1 billion plan to build a dam and pipeline network along the Cache la Poudre River, further slowing a decades-long project backed by 15 growing Front Range communities and water districts. 

City government put a hold on the kind of pipeline and infrastructure work Northern Water needs for its Northern Integrated Supply Project, saying Fort Collins will pause for a year to write new regulations under state “1041” permitting laws that encourage local control of big land use projects. Fort Collins’ planning commission had rejected a NISP pipeline proposal through city open space last summer, but Northern Water’s board overrode the decision, as is allowed by state law. 

Northern Water says it has already complied with local approval protocols, including receiving 1041 approval from surrounding Larimer County, and will study its options if Fort Collins tries to force NISP through a newly created layer of planning. 

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“We think that we’ve completed” the city’s Site Plan Advisory Review process, which was the standard before Fort Collins started talking about creating 1041 rules, Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla said. “We’re really going to take a close look at exactly what was passed by the city council.” 

Placing a hold on new projects and asking staff to create a 1041 process for the first time was not meant to target Northern Water specifically, though it will likely delay their Fort Collins projects, city council member Kelly Ohlson acknowledged. A new group of city council members taking office after spring elections learned Fort Collins could use the state’s 1041 law to influence projects rather than just react to them, Ohlson said. 

“I’m a strong proponent of local control, and communities having a say in charting their own destiny and projects that positively and negatively impact them,” he said. 

Mayor Jeni Arndt said the new tier of local regulations should not make a big difference in Northern Water’s decadeslong pursuit of final project approvals. Northern Water wants to build two big reservoirs northwest and east of Fort Collins, and connect them to the Poudre and the South Platte River through a series of pipelines and ditches. 

Arndt said city leaders have narrowed down their interests in creating a 1041 review process to two areas for now: water projects and development that impacts natural areas. 

“I don’t feel like that’s an evil volley against them,” Arndt said. “It’s not tit for tat. We have some legitimate concerns about our natural areas and parks.”

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Conservation groups that have battled NISP and its complex water engineering for years are happy to see a new bump in the road for Northern Water, which says it expects to receive a final federal-level permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers any month now. Opponents have filed suits and protested local government approvals since portions of NISP were first conceived in the 1980s. In July, they focused on the Fort Collins planning body’s decision whether to approve project pipelines buried in city park land and right of way. 

The 1041 process, named after a statehouse bill passed in 1974, is a “vital tool for local communities to have a say in ensuring a healthy environment and mitigating impacts from projects that are typically from outside interests,” said Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director for WildEarth Guardians. 

Pelz noted that Boulder County on Tuesday accepted a legal settlement with Denver Water to allow expansion of Gross Reservoir, instead of putting the controversial project through a county 1041 review. While Denver Water said it had already received necessary federal reviews, Boulder County commissioners all expressed dismay at the expansion and said they were being forced to accept a bad deal for residents. 

“As has recently played out in Boulder County, without the 1041 process, local people are left with damaged ecosystems, additional noise and pollution, unsightly structures, lost recreational opportunities, reduced property values, and ultimately a compromised quality of life,” Pelz said. “Generally, water managers in Colorado don’t build a dam in their constituents’ own backyards.”

 A delay from Fort Collins to pursue more local control rules follows Northern Water’s success in September getting Larimer County approval for another key element of the project: moving U.S. 287 east over a ridge, north of Ted’s Place, to create the dam basin where Glade Reservoir will store Cache la Poudre water.

 Overall, the northern supply project will build Glade and another new reservoir northeast of Greeley, Galeton, that will store South Platte River water. Some of the new supply will be delivered in the Cache la Poudre channel, while other transfers will be made by a series of pipelines and ditches. 

Northern Water says the project will bring much-needed supply to 80,000 more residents in more than a dozen growing communities that have signed up for the water. The water agency says storing Cache la Poudre water in Glade during higher runoff allows them to supply a steady stream for wildlife and recreation through Fort Collins at times when the river otherwise runs nearly dry. 

Opponents say NISP takes water from wildlife and scenic rivers, and encourages sprawling growth in communities that could do more to conserve water. 


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