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A view of Water Storage and Supply Company Reservoir #3 north of Fort Collins. About 80% of the water falls in the Western Slope while 80% of the state population live on the eastern side of the Continental Divide relying on the water. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

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TED’S PLACE — Thornton needs water. 

Developers are scrapping homebuilding projects out of fears that the city can’t guarantee them a water tap in the next few years. 

Thornton has water. 

It’s waiting here at a headgate where the Cache la Poudre’s pristine high Rockies snowmelt is siphoned off into a farm ditch and reservoir network, 70 miles north of Thornton in western Larimer County. Thornton secretly started buying the water off farmland far from home in 1986, and now owns about 19,000 acres — and the accompanying water shares — across Larimer and Weld counties. 

Thornton needs a way to get its priceless water. 

Weld County is fine with 50 miles of pipeline to convey the good stuff south toward the Denver suburbs.

Asked by Thornton to host the first six miles of that pipeline, Larimer County is a “no.” Sue them? Thornton tried. Hard “no.” 

Put your water down the Poudre River, some helpful environmental groups are telling Thornton. Colorado has been draining and abusing the Poudre for more than a century, they point out. The river could use a revival, they say, and at the other end, Thornton gets its water. 

Are you insane, Thornton responds. That river is filthy. 

Realizing how ironic it sounds to say clean water doesn’t belong in a river, Thornton adds that it would take nearly a billion dollars to recreate drinkable water after it travels for miles collecting PFAS, E. coli and farm runoff. 

And there the dispute sits, at once a sprawling multijurisdictional battle and a microcosm of Colorado’s water dilemma. For more than a century, Colorado has added people where the water isn’t. And with every year of environmental awakening and local activism, it gets harder to move the water to where the people are. 

Eighty percent of Colorado’s thirsty people live east of the Continental Divide, while 80% of the water falls on the west side, a fact that has left the distribution of the state’s life-giving water supply 100% complicated since the late 1800s.

Colorado water providers are used to playing the long game. Thornton had a feeling its investment in the notorious Two Forks Dam proposal on the South Platte River southwest of Denver wouldn’t pan out, and started buying northern Colorado farm water years before the EPA killed Two Forks in 1990. 

But multiple generations of managers since did not expect that nearly 40 years later, they’d still be blocked from using the water in Thornton. 

“We had done the hard part,” Thornton’s deputy director of infrastructure Emily Hunt said as she stood on the headgate near Ted’s Place, looking west to the mountains holding Thornton’s clean water in the snowpack. “What I struggle with a lot is that there’s nuance to everything, right? So, do we want to give up on that? To create a workable solution? People have to be really comfortable with that idea of being agile.”

Emily Hunt, deputy infrastructure director for water with the City of Thornton, points out WSSC Reservoir #4 at the Water Storage and Supply Company’s Fort Collins office. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Planned ahead, but surprises intervened 

For decades, looming but not-quite-here water shortages in the dry West have made for great symposium topics at thoughtful conferences. Now, in 2022, climate change, drought and steady growth have combined to actually stop the bulldozers and hit pause on the landscaping crews. 

The fast-growing Weld County town of Severance put new residential building permits on hold this year while it waited for its water supplier to build new pipelines and catch up with years of rampant expansion. To the south, Castle Rock banned most grass turf at new homes to preserve long-term water supplies. Arvada nearly doubled its water and sewer connection fees to $54,000 to make sure growth paid its own way. 

And developer Michael Kolesar and his partners pulled the plug on 25 homes near a Thornton commuter rail station in September after the city couldn’t commit to a water supply when their new neighborhood would be done. 
“It just became abundantly clear that there would have been zero water taps available for even solid development like this one,” Kolesar said. “For the foreseeable future, at least until 2026.” The elderly couple counting on selling the land to fund their retirement is now stuck with sharply devalued property, Kolesar said, and his team has moved on to places where the water still flows.

While Thornton officials say they haven’t warned developers of any hard date cutoffs, they do want to get word out that failing to get a path to water the city owns will indeed stop growth. 

“We’ve been telling folks that they can continue to work through the development process, but we can’t guarantee that the development will be able to plat when they get to that stage,” Thornton spokesman Todd Barnes said. “This uncertainty is definitely having a negative impact on projects like this that aren’t already in the development process.”

Water fills a fountain at the Denver Premium Outlets in Thornton. (Photos: Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)
A 25-home development on this land south of the RTD transit station at Eastlake & 124th in Thornton was scrapped when the City of Thornton couldn’t promise a water supply.

Thornton sits at about 147,000 people now, Colorado’s sixth-largest city, up from 50,000 in 1985. High visibility developments along Interstate 25, like Denver Premium Outlets and a shopping district anchored by Topgolf, bolstered the city’s north side, and planners want to fill in promising spaces around RTD’s N Line commuter rail stations. The city could mushroom to 240,000 people in 40 years, but only with access to the distant water. 

Think of all the ways to say “We planned for this,” and frustrated Thornton officials have said it. 

In the early 1980s, already anticipating decades of potential growth, the city was getting much of its water delivered from the South Platte River as it coursed through central Denver. The arrangement was not ideal — residents have always complained about odors and bad tastes picked up as the water passes through Colorado’s industrial heartland and exits to Thornton, just before the Metro Water Recovery treatment plant. But Thornton was willing to take more South Platte River water for growth, and signed onto the hotly controversial Two Forks Dam proposal led by Denver Water. In 1990, the federal EPA finally killed the dam that would have flooded pristine trout streams and wilderness around Deckers.

“We planned for this,” Thornton said again, having started the search for alternatives long before the EPA’s death blow. In the late 1980s, Thornton quickly became one of the larger landowners in both Weld and Larimer counties. The city bought up farmers’ shares in the Water Supply and Storage Company reservoirs and ditches taking water from the Cache la Poudre. 

Taking on the land responsibilities along with the water rights, Thornton owns about 17,000 acres of farms in Weld County, and thousands more acres in Larimer County. While the city fought a 12-year water court battle — legendary in law schools — to convert farm rights to city use, it learned how to farm and get along with extremely wary neighbors. 

Thornton didn’t have to pay local taxes, since it’s a government in its own right, but agreed to millions of dollars in payments to local towns, school districts and first responders that were losing out on farmers’ property taxes. Thornton has slowly converted about 7,000 acres from corn and other row crops to dryland grazing, and replanted with native grasses to hold the soil. 

Mindful of other Front Range cities buying and drying farmland for municipal water and devastating local economies, the water court decree in Thornton’s favor demanded the city take care of its new land deep into the 2060s. Nor could Thornton convert the water to city uses until it had demonstrated as much water conservation as possible in its existing neighborhoods to stretch out current supplies. 

Did all that, Thornton argues. Its per capita water use dropped to 110 gallons a day, one of the lowest of larger cities; Denver Water says its per capita use is 140 gallons a day. 

Thornton’s new parks have minimal grass turf for playing fields, and are surrounded by ribbons of low-water, drought-tolerant plants, Hunt notes, as she surveys a ditch map on the wall of the WSSC headquarters on the edge of Fort Collins. The era of plush median grass is over. City officials will revisit a turf ban in new developments, as other cities are doing. Thornton was among the first to raise water rates to encourage conservation. 

“We want people to understand that we are walking the talk,” Hunt said. 

Gaps that a pipeline can’t close 

Still, the physical gap between Thornton and its water is 70 miles wide. And the psychological and legal gaps appear infinite, for the moment. Middle sections of the pipeline in Weld County, near Johnstown, are under construction. But the all-important first stretch, from near Terry Lake north of Fort Collins east across I-25, is on indefinite hold.

With its slow-rolling buy-and-dry program in place, Thornton in the 2010s started applying for the right to build the pipe from the farmers’ reservoirs northwest of Fort Collins down to Adams County. In the 1970s, Colorado approved a permitting process called “1041,” after the bill that created it,  that gave local jurisdictions the right to review other agencies’ building projects across their land. 

Local governments aren’t supposed to use 1041 to just say no. But the original bill’s language gives them the power to negotiate through permitting. As open space fills up, and neighbor and environmental groups learn how to leverage the law against growth, agencies increasingly use 1041 to block projects through their land. Only to find themselves seeking 1041 permission elsewhere to build something they want. 

Boulder County took 1041 as far as it could go in slowing Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir Dam, but gave up and settled when Denver said only federal hydropower officials had jurisdiction. Fort Collins told a long-planned, $1 billion Northern Water project along the Poudre to hold off last year while it wrote 1041 rules for a pipeline the project needs through a city neighborhood. 

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Neighbors of the Thornton project first organized when the city proposed the Larimer County run north of Douglas Road, an outlying stretch residents said was still too dense to be disrupted by pipeline construction. They cited everything from ambulance access to terrified horses, and a drop in land values. 

The proposal went through a small farm former Larimer County Commissioner Karen Wagner owned.

From the start, Wagner said, Thornton “has acted like a bully and that we don’t have any say over it. They think they can do it their way,” she said. Even as a former government official, she doesn’t have sympathy for Thornton trying to secure water for fast growth. Fort Collins, population 168,000, has a carefully planned growth management footprint, Wagner said, and unchecked growth for cities like Thornton is a phenomenon from Colorado’s past. 

“It’s time to start looking at reality,” she said. 

Larimer County continued public hearings on the permit in 2018 and directed Thornton to hold public working groups on revisions. Thornton moved the route north to more rural County Road 56, but residents reacted by getting more organized against it. The newly endangered homeowners reached out to Wagner, she said, and she helped launch No Pipe Dream as a vocal and connected opposition group. 

“That’s why they’re there, because that’s the lifestyle they want,” Wagner said, dismissing Thornton’s contention that many landowners would welcome the small payments for right of way. “I haven’t heard anybody who’s willing to take a buyout from Thornton to give them access to the property.”

Hunt, the Thornton infrastructure manager, said the city responded to the building opposition with meticulous individual outreach to all the landowners along the route, and hosted multiple forums and information sessions for the community. They tried to bat down complaints about emergency access with assurances that of course open lanes would be the top priority during construction. This was not the first pipeline through a Colorado neighborhood, Thornton tried to say. 

Thornton officials grudgingly credit the river advocacy group Save the Poudre for jumping in with No Pipe Dream and others to slow the pipeline and capture the attention of Larimer County commissioners. 

In the West, water has many champions. Putting the Rockies’ pristine, limited snowmelt through a pipeline was NIMBY to some, but an enticing YIMBY for others looking at other features on the map.

Gary Wockner, co-founder of Save the Poudre and Save the Colorado, has led political and legal opposition to multiple projects that threaten to take more water out of a Poudre environmentalists argue is nearly dried up by farm and city users. For example, after decades of planning and protest, Northern Water still awaits final permits to build its massive Glade and Galeton reservoir system along the Poudre and South Platte rivers.

Wockner says his solution is simple and elegant. Thornton should let its water stay in the Poudre instead of siphoning it at the Ted’s Place headgate into the farm reservoir system. The city’s water would rejuvenate the Poudre for miles until the river reaches Windsor, where Thornton could build a treatment plant and pipe its reserve the rest of the way. 

“This would probably be the biggest opportunity for river restoration that we have ever seen in the state of Colorado,” said Wockner, lauding the vision of 14,000 acre-feet of Thornton water drawing flora and fauna back to the hard-used channel. “Use the river as a conveyance. We call that a nature-based solution. They wouldn’t need a single permit.”

Emily Hunt stands outside, using her hands for emphasis while talking.

What I struggle with a lot is that there’s nuance to everything, right? So, do we want to give up on that? To create a workable solution? People have to be really comfortable with that idea of being agile.

— Emily Hunt, deputy infrastructure director for water with the City of Thornton

In Feb. 2019, after more hearings, Larimer County denied the revised route as well. 

Looking down at the trickle of the Poudre at Ted’s Place on a late fall afternoon, Hunt says of course river advocates would love to have Thornton’s water doing their work. She says the city has offered mitigation to gain more Larimer County support, leaving small amounts of water at certain times to support river life instead of diverting it all constantly into the reservoirs, as is Thornton’s right. 

“We want to be able to contribute in that way,” Hunt said. “Can our whole project be done that way? No. And so that nuance is just what kills me.”

Every city water agency in Colorado is now dealing with cleaning up ubiquitous contamination from the PFAS family of “forever chemicals,” with the EPA consistently tightening standards of how much can be left in drinking water. Thornton argues that flowing all its mountain runoff through the Poudre as it winds past Fort Collins’ industrial and commercial heart will pick up PFAS, pesticides, fertilizer, household chemicals and stormwater runoff. Not to mention the treated sewage discharge of other towns. 

Thornton can’t risk safe drinking water for its residents in order to dilute other cities’ problems, Hunt said. 

Cost of creating clean water are rising sharply

The water treatment plant Thornton recently finished to replace older systems and handle growth cost about $100 million. Detoxing Thornton’s water after a Poudre channel bender would require a treatment plant costing at least $800 million, Hunt said. The annual operating costs of that kind of specialized plant would also be $44 million more than Thornton’s current treatment plants. 

Wockner counters that Thornton was serious enough about using the Poudre that officials invited him down I-25 to lunch to discuss it in the early 2000s, and that a Poudre option has been part of Thornton’s array of proposed solutions since then. 

That was just engineers touching the bases required by brainstorming and project planning, Thornton spokesman Barnes responds. It was never seriously considered. Thornton City Manager Kevin Woods wrote to Wockner in late October that the city “stands ready to work with you on an acceptable reasonable solution. But, as noted above, multiple courts have made it clear that Thornton cannot be required or expected to put its drinking water down the Cache La Poudre River and Thornton is unwilling to revisit that proposed solution.”

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Indeed, Colorado courts did say Larimer County’s 1041 process could not require Thornton to switch to the Poudre conveyance option. The permit process can’t mandate an alternative solution the applicant doesn’t want, courts have said. 

But the courts have also said Larimer County has the right to reject the pipeline as proposed. Thornton appealed a 2019 rejection to Colorado’s District Courts, and lost, then lost again at the Court of Appeals. In early October, Thornton said it would not appeal to the state Supreme Court, and is back to the mapping draft table.

Larimer County officials won’t talk about the pipeline or what happens next with Thornton. A spokeswoman for the county commissioners declined an interview request, saying the commissioners have been advised that since Thornton may apply again, they continue to sit in a “quasi-judicial” role that precludes comment. Larimer County changed its 1041 land use criteria in April, and the city will need to start fresh, the county said. 

Thornton is audibly infuriated by Larimer County’s official positions. Thornton believes the way forward now is to have open talks with Larimer County officials about what pipeline route might be acceptable, and then either draw up a new permit application or an intergovernmental agreement to make it possible. 

Larimer County is telling Thornton that open talks are illegal, and that their attorney says the county can only vote yes or no on whatever permit is put in front of it. Besides, said county spokeswoman Michelle Bird, “The public doesn’t want officials talking about these issues behind closed doors.” 

Barnes responds, “The city of Thornton’s attorney strongly disagrees with the advice Larimer County’s attorney has given.”

“We’d love to hear from them directly,” Hunt said.

The diversion dam that sends Poudre River water to the Larimer County Canal. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“Having it actually come is shocking”

Since Thornton first went shopping for farm water up north, Colorado’s population has grown by 2.5 million. Long-term drought of historic proportions has cut 25% from the Colorado River water available to divert to Front Range growth. PFAS has gone from a nice nonstick coating for pancake griddles to a yearslong cleanup that will cost Colorado water and waste agencies billions. 

What hasn’t changed, Hunt said, is Thornton’s duty to deliver safe drinking water to more than 100,000 residents — and counting — every day, without fail. Every year that goes by, pipeline construction costs go up, right-of-way acquisition costs go up, and climate change robs even the most senior water rights holders of their once-unshakeable confidence in supply. 

“Our constituents invested in this back in the mid-1980s,” Hunt said. “And part of what they invested in was that high quality source water. We feel like that’s something that we need to be able to deliver to them.”

At the same time, Hunt said, she understands Larimer County officials have the same protective mindset. 

“I mean, Thornton wants the same thing when anybody’s knocking down our door,” she said.

Developer Kolesar is now looking around for new land, while carrying a list of extra complications that in 2022 went from vague to urgent. 

“It’s very shocking from a large municipality with substantial growth potential,” Kolesar said. “Now I’m realizing this is happening anywhere I might develop. The ability to get reasonably priced water taps is evaporating.

“We all knew this was coming,” Kolesar said. “But having it actually come is shocking.”

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: booth@coloradosun.com Twitter: @MBoothDenver