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Rafters move along the Cache la Poudre River Saturday, July 23, 2022, near Bellvue, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday approved the key federal permit sought by Northern Water since 2004 to build a controversial $2 billion reservoir and pipeline project around Fort Collins, bringing major changes to the Cache la Poudre and South Platte Rivers closer to reality. 

Environmental groups and some local officials have fought the Northern Integrated Supply Project for decades, saying it would drain more of the Poudre River at key times and represents old, discredited thinking about bringing water to growing Front Range communities. Northern Water, meanwhile, has fought in multiple courts and local government agencies to deliver the 40,000 acre-foot of water rights to dozens of towns and water agencies.

“This action is the culmination of nearly 20 years of study, project design and refinement to develop water resources well into the 21st century,” Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind said. The project also allows the 15 participating communities to grow without drying up more northern Colorado farmland. 

Opposing environmental groups vowed to continue to fight the two reservoirs, the planned move of U.S. 287 in northern Larimer County, and diversion projects involved in NISP. Save the Poudre, the most vocal and litigious opponent, said it would sue to block issuance of the Army Corp.’s “404” permit, just as it has with other dam projects. 

“The Cache la Poudre River is the heart and soul of Fort Collins and we’ve dedicated 20 years to protecting it. NISP would not just drain the river, but also drain the culture and economy that Fort Collins has built around the river,” said Save the Poudre founder Gary Wockner. “We tried to reach a compromise solution with Northern Water, but they refused, so we are suing to stop this environmentally devastating project.”

Northern Water said Friday it could start construction work on the proposed Glade Reservoir, planned for a spot northwest of Fort Collins where U.S. 287 will be relocated, as early as 2025. The water agency still needs approvals from various local governments. 

Environmental groups have sued to overturn Larimer County’s issuance of a 1041 local construction permit, and Fort Collins has delayed consideration of a pipeline route through city neighborhoods until it creates its own 1041 rulemaking process. The 1041 permits are named after a state legislature bill from the 1970s governing local approvals of multijurisdiction projects. 

The groups in the past have used lawsuits to fight the Windy Gap/Chimney Hollow project by Northern Water, and Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir Dam in Boulder County

Still, Northern Water has called issuance of the 404 “Record of Decision” a major milestone it looked forward to receiving before the end of 2022, after years of revisions and delays. The permit includes provisions for mitigating harm to the watershed caused by the construction of Glade and Galeton reservoirs, and by diversion of water from the Poudre. 

Northern Water says mitigation plans it has agreed to will restore long-absent flows to parts of the Poudre through the middle of Fort Collins, which runs nearly dry in late summer and fall. Much of the Poudre and South Platte river flows over the decades have been diverted for municipal and farm uses throughout northeastern Colorado. 

Save the Poudre and others have long contended that the new projects will divert spring mountain runoff from the Poudre into the new reservoirs at a time when the moisture is needed by local plants and wildlife. 

Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla acknowledged the project can still be delayed by lawsuits over the 404 permit and other aspects of the proposal. 

“That certainly is available” to the opponents, Stahla said. “You look at this and say this is the end of a long journey, but there are still many, many steps ahead.” 

Northern Water has worked on the geology and design of the dam that will create Glade Reservoir between a hogback and a ridge currently split by U.S. 287. The projected total cost after 30% of the design was finished was $1.6 billion in 2020. That figure is more likely to be in the $2 billion range by the time construction starts, Stahla said. 

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Corps of Engineers is tasked with analyzing the threats construction poses to wetlands and the need for the water supply. 

“The corps has concluded that the project’s 40,000 acre-foot yield will meet a substantial amount of the 15 Northern Front Range participants’ future water needs, and that NISP is the least environmentally impactful means of satisfying that need,” Northern Water said. 

Northern Water said the project will eventually serve 250,000 people in cities and towns including Erie, Windsor, Fort Morgan and Lafayette, as well as customers in the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...