Army Corps OKs NISP; court challenge ahead
BERTHOUD — In a major victory for a long-debated water-storage plan, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday approved the Northern Integrated Supply Project. Within minutes, the proposal’s most vocal critic threatened court action to stop it.
The Corps’ “Clean Water Act Section 404 Record of Decision” was hailed by its project managers as a major milestone for NISP because it reflects the lead federal regulatory agency’s review and approval of the project.
In a statement from the Corps’ Omaha district, it explained that its approval would allow the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District — known as Northern Water — to discharge fill material into 33.6 acres of water to facilitate construction activities associated with NISP.
Northern Water seeks to provide 40,000 acre-feet of water each year from a new municipal water supply. Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a permit is required for the discharge of dredged or fill material in waters of the United States. The Corps regulatory program is tasked with evaluating such proposed discharges.
The federal approval “doesn’t mean we’ll be ready to start shoveling tomorrow or even next spring,” said Jeff Stahla, public information officer for the project manager, Northern Water.
“We’re still in the design phase,” Stahla told BizWest late Friday. “We did some work over the summer out at the site, and we dug a trench to learn more about the geology of the area specifically. What that will allow us to do is to get up to full design in the next couple of years. This clears the path for us to get the final financing arranged and move forward from there.”
Stahla estimated that construction could begin by 2025 on the proposed Glade Reservoir portion of the project, about the same time that work on another piece, Chimney Hollow Reservoir, is wrapping up.
He noted that the city of Fort Collins is developing some of its own land-use policies that would affect the project, and that “we’ll need to get with them for some of the local land-use permits.”
“This is an interesting time for water development in Northern Colorado,” he said.
The project’s impact on the flow of the Cache la Poudre River through Fort Collins has been one of the primary points of contention as NISP has worked its way through the study and permitting process.
Gary Wockner, director of the group Save the Poudre, said late Friday that “we’ve fought this river-destroying project for nearly 20 years, girding for this final battle. Our attorneys’ pens are sharpened, and we will sue to stop this project and protect the Poudre River as soon as possible.
“We’ve given the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District every chance to find a compromise solution,” he said, “but instead they’ve chosen to compromise the Cache la Poudre River.
“Northern proposes to spend $2 billion on a project that has one massive environmental impact in Larimer County -— further draining and destroying the Cache la Poudre River through Fort Collins,” Wockner said. “We are happy to keep a dialogue open with Northern Water as the lawsuit plays out, but for now it’s a court battle they want, and it’s a court battle we will give them.”
Save The Poudre is also fighting NISP in state court, suing the former members of the Board of Larimer County Commissioners who issued a permit to NISP. Wockner said that lawsuit would play out in 2023, but that “federal court battles generally last two to three years for the first round in federal district court.”
Save the Poudre and another group, No Pipe Dream Corp., had battled the project in Larimer County District Court last year as well.
The Corps’ approval was based on a lengthy and rigorous scientific analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act and a host of other environmental laws, including the federal Endangered Species Act, National Historic Preservation Act, state Water Quality compliance certification and state Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Plan requirements.
In its report, the Corps concluded that NISP’s 40,000 acre-foot yield would meet a substantial amount of the 15 Northern Front Range participants’ future water needs and that the project is the least environmentally impactful means of satisfying that need. A range of other potential alternative approaches were considered, including the impacts to the region if no federal action was taken.
“This action is the culmination of nearly 20 years of study, project design and refinement to develop water resources well into the 21st century,” Brad Wind, Northern Water’s general manager, said in a prepared statement. “This project will also allow participating communities to serve their customers without targeting water now used on the region’s farms.”
Northern Water said in a news release that the project was refined through the federal permitting process to avoid and minimize environmental impacts and provide mitigation and enhancements to river-related resources.
“NISP’s operations will send more water down the Poudre River and through downtown Fort Collins in most months of the year,” Northern Water contended in the news release, “providing additional flows through the city in late summer, fall and winter than currently exist. NISP will also offer significant new flatwater recreation opportunities to everyone.”
NISP includes Glade and Galeton reservoirs and associated project infrastructure to deliver water to more than 250,000 Northeastern Colorado residents. Participants in the project include the cities of Fort Morgan, Evans, Fort Lupton, Lafayette and Dacono as well as the towns of Erie, Windsor, Frederick, Eaton, Firestone and Severance. Also included are the Fort Collins-Loveland, Left Hand, Central Weld County and Morgan County Quality water districts.