For more than 30 years the City of Thornton has sought a cool clean drink of the Cache la Poudre River. But in February Larimer County Commissioners again sent the Denver suburb home thirsty when they denied the second application to build the pipes and pumping stations needed to slake the thirst of Thornton’s growing population.
In 1986 Thornton bought farms with water rights totaling more than 40,000-acre feet, becoming the largest landowner in Weld County. Then, as is western water law in the place that invented it, Thornton had to pony up additional millions for 12 years in court to convert this agricultural water to municipal use. By 1998 the city 70 miles south of the Poudre had the rights to use that river’s water for future growth, but no way to get it there. Which brings us to Thornton’s current migraine: 1041 Powers.
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In 1974 the Colorado legislature strengthened city and county protections by creating 1041 regulations so local governments may maintain control over development projects. This means that though Thornton owns that water, moving it south through pipes and pumps requires permissions and a pile of permits from governments of all localities that the pipes will pass. Kind of messy for the city that just wanted something better to drink than the fouled waters of the South Platte.
After commissioners rejected Thornton’s Douglas Road pipeline plan in 2018, people with a personal stake in locally located pumping stations and pipes 4 ½ feet around being buried in their backyards again packed Larimer County Board of Commissioners Land Use Meetings to debate Thornton’s latest idea: to direct a giant straw through eight properties in Eagle’s Lake near County Road 56. It’s quiet up there, the neighbors say. They have wildlife and natural beauty. They don’t want no stinking pipeline any more than Douglas Road residents like Dick Brauch who received no reprieve from the new plan since Thornton still wants his land for a 10,000 square foot pump house. But Brauch has no intention of selling 24 acres to Thornton for a noisy pump house and imagines the fight will go something like this: Thornton will make an offer based on current prices. He will reject the offer. Then they’ll take him to court on an eminent domain claim, which will only make his lawyers rich since it’s a claim he can’t win against Thornton’s lawyers who “do this every day.”
Of around 50 2-minute public speakers on February 4th, all but three opposed Thornton’s pipe plans, most proposing instead that the city take water from the Poudre after it runs through Fort Collins. Known as the Poudre River Conveyance, this option was on Thornton’s short list until UW professor and drinking water expert, Dr. William Bellamy, scrutinized water quality reports. Additionally, the 30-year-experienced Dr. Bellamy looked at the map.
Taking their allotment at Windsor gives Thornton the water they bought in the 80s say some, who elaborates that this is the city’s only right since they bought agricultural water that was already delivered dirty by the time it got to those East Larimer and Weld County farms. But as Dr. Bellamy discovered when he looked at the map, between the headgates of the Larimer County Canal near Bellvue and the bedroom community of Windsor, there are wastewater treatment plants plus ag and urban runoff carrying oil, sediment, dog poop, road salts, and all manner of alphabet soup like TDS, TOC, CECs, DBP and of course, E Coli. Ya know those big drains in the curbs? The ones that swallow the water, soap suds, and pesticides when you wash your car in the driveway or kill the dandelions in your lawn and the water washes down the gutters on your street? That all goes straight to the Poudre River. To treat that water would cost Thornton a lot.
So pay it to say Poudre River option proponents. Except for one Save the Poudre member who recently returned from the Poudre River Forum, a meeting of the minds launched by CSU Water Institute’s MaryLou Smith to foster collaboration around a healthy and working river. Having heard at the forum from Dennis Harmon and other supporters of Thornton’s new plan, she acknowledged the challenge of Harmon’s Water Supply and Storage Company if it loses that water to the river. The loss of water to the reservoir and ditch system will also affect agriculture and wildlife habitat.
Harmon of the cooperative whose shareholders, including Thornton, own the reservoirs and canals that will one day send 13,034,040,000 gallons south to the Denver metro city, said that removing that much water will compromise the system’s ability to function. It takes water to carry water, and if 10% of the river’s flow is left in the Poudre River to flow through Fort Collins instead of down the diversion, some ditches will dry up and be unable to float water downstream to ag users, said Harmon. Already the “buy and dry” of farms to pad the water supplies of growing cities pulls so much water from ditches that downstream users can’t get the water they’ve paid for.
Farms are called “dry” when water that was allocated for irrigation is no longer released onto the property, but instead used elsewhere. These dried up farms are either leased for grazing, returned to native shortgrass prairie, or dry land farmed.
In the 1041 process, Thornton doesn’t have a stick, so it throws in carrots to sweeten the pot. One carrot is the giveaway of dried up farms. Thornton promises to contribute 4 of its farms to a conservation easement, joining local families who have agreed to conserve their farms for an “Open Lands Master Plan,” which contributes to the Larimer County Advisory Board mission of “alluvial deep fertile and well-drained soils.” For this reason, the Larimer County Advisory Board likes Thornton’s latest pipeline proposal. That and the Board doesn’t like the ethics of making our neighbor extract water downstream where oil and gas, forest fire contamination, and the risk of water treatment plant failure put Thornton’s citizens at risk.
As for the neighbors, only one on the proposed pipeline path sympathizes with Thornton citizens who have been paying for Wild and Scenic River water for 30 years with nary a dripping drop from their taps. He says the value of that Poudre River water is in its cleanliness, and that’s what Thornton bought.
No Pipe Dream’s attorney, John Barth, countered that legal precedent dictates that ownership of a water right makes no guarantee of water quality. Thornton argued that their water decree mandates pulling Poudre water from the Larimer County Canal, well upstream of urban runoff and alphabet soup. They say they’ll have to build a reservoir near Windsor if they can’t use the upstream system of lakes and canals owned by Water Supply and Storage Company.
On public comment night, mistrust of the Adam’s County municipality was as common as applause. All that comment clapping prompted Representative Tom Donnelly to remind the assembled that applause after every speaker would lengthen what was already looking like a very long night. Larimer County residents, some in the proposed pipeline corridor whose property values have plummeted on the mere prospect of a pipeline, stood with Brauch to remind the commissioners who they work for. “The only thing we owe them is good wishes and thanks for leaving us alone,” Brauch concluded to rousing applause, in spite of Commissioner Donnelly’s pleas.
As the applause subsided, Mick Ondris proposed a solution that he says promises to both deliver water supplies to a depleted river and provide Thornton with clean drinking water, because, as the plan states, “The single most effective long-term water quality mitigation is simply the re-watering of the Poudre River from Shields Street to CR13.” Thornton would get water “of similar quality as water delivered from WSSC #4” (Larimer County Canal’s primary upstream reservoir). But this proposed plan, the Shields Street River Alternative, has also fallen from Thornton’s short list.
Though Thornton had the last word on Monday, February 11th, county commissioners remained unconvinced that all requirements for approval of 1041 projects (section 14.10) had been met by The City of Thornton and all voted in favor of a denial on Thornton’s application. Commissioners cited Conditions #1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 10, 11, and 12, stating that landowners and natural habitat would be adversely affected by the pipeline and that mitigation efforts have been inadequate, alternatives unexplored.
Commissioner John Kefalas said his job is to represent the rights of his constituents and that the Larimer County Master Plan from November of 1997, as flawed as it is (he adds), stipulates protection of landowner rights and enhancement and maintenance of quality of life for residents. Commissioner Kefalas says Thornton should have looked closer at other proposals that “minimize impacts on property rights and the Cache la Poudre River.” He cited the 10th condition, “The benefits of the proposed development outweigh the losses of any natural resources or reduction of productivity of agricultural lands as a result of the proposed development,” saying that Thornton’s proposals have not yet met this standard.
Pipelines and other such projects suffer from NIMBY syndrome, Commissioner Steve Johnson added. “But NIMBY is not 700 people.” The sheer number of people who came out for 7 plus hearings and 900 correspondences with commissioners told him “these effects” are real.
Alternatives such as the Shields Street River Alternative and the Poudre River Option have not been adequately explored said, Commissioner Johnson. And besides, what’s all this flap about treating dirty water? He spoke directly to Thornton saying, “You currently treat water that comes out of the Denver metro area.” That’s worse than anything flowing through Fort Collins.”
Commissioner Tom Donnelly told Thornton officials, “You were cheap on the mitigation efforts. It’s been a shotgun blast all over the place.”
Communications Director, Todd Barnes, voiced Thornton’s disagreement with the Board’s decision and noted that planning staff has twice recommended approval of Thornton’s 1041 application. “The commissioner’s decision didn’t coincide with all of the hard science and the engineering that were part of our application,” said Barnes.
While pipeline opponents retired early for the first Monday night in many, it was back to the drawing table and conference room for the Denver metro city as they labor to satisfy all 12 conditions of a process that takes control of the water delivery process out of their hands. Thornton will be back. They bought a piece of the Cache la Poudre River. And they’ll find a way to take it south.