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Drought and burn scar contaminants force Greeley to go underground for water, in aquifer purchase

Greeley: Aquifer should secure supply through 2060
poudre river.jpg
Posted at 8:30 PM, Aug 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-27 09:35:24-04

GREELEY, Colo. — Like most front range communities, Greeley is experiencing tremendous growth.

“Here in Greeley, we’re like steady Eddie with 2.5 to 3% [growth], year in and year out almost, regardless of what the economic condition is,” said Sean Chambers, director of Water and Sewer for the City of Greeley.

Today, the city’s population is about 111,000, but projections indicate an explosion over the next 40 years.

“Based on census data, state demographer projections, we’re going to be 260,000-plus people by the year 2060,” Chambers said.

Because of that, planners like Chambers are looking ahead, especially when it comes to the water supply.

“The reality is we have to have a diverse supply,” Chambers said.

Greeley is already well-positioned with an enormous amount of surface water rights. In fact, it’s one of the largest shareholders of what’s known as CBT water, or Colorado-Big Thompson river water rights with more than 20,000 acre feet.

But, much of Greeley’s watershed sits in areas recently scorched by the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak wildfires last year.

Fifty percent of Greeley’s supply is impacted by the East Troublesome burn scar.

“And you get debris and tremendous sediment and ash,” Chambers said. “Across Northern Colorado, more than 1 million people are impacted by that East Troublesome fire burn area.”

On top of that, another 30% of Greeley’s watershed is impacted by the Cameron Peak burn scar.

“We’ve had our source water intake on the Poudre River turned off for about 40 days this summer period because the water quality was too poor to treat,” Chambers said.

In addition to those issues, Greeley has hit a roadblock with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Milton Seaman Reservoir expansion project. Despite 15 years of work trying to get permitted for the expansion, Greeley has come up empty on trying to expand the reservoir.

So, it’s moving to Plan B. Greeley has just secured an underground aquifer called the Terry Ranch Project near the Wyoming border.

“This adds a different type of water asset to our portfolio,” Chambers said. “It’s drought-proof. It’s reliable. It provides us resiliency in wildfire or other runoff events.”

But the aquifer deal isn’t without its critics.

“I have great concern that they will not be able to recharge it when it’s empty. It’s a one-time use,” said John Gauthiere, Greeley’s former chief water engineer.

Gauthiere is also the founder of Save Greeley’s Water, an organization that has already launched two ballot initiatives for the upcoming election, one of which would change the city charter requiring a citizen vote before the City of Greeley makes any future water deals.

“I believe this is something the citizens could very easily understand and could vote on,” Gauthiere said.

Gauthiere’s group says there’s also an unhealthy level of uranium in the aquifer.

“And it’s no small amount of uranium,” Gauthiere said. “It exceeds the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Chambers says the water can be treated.

“The science absolutely proves that the uranium can be treated,” Chambers said. “Those who say it’s undrinkable are ignoring the science.”

City planners certainly have their supporters.

“It’s the people here and it’s the leadership here that make it such an attractive place,” a Greeley business owner said.

“As long as they do it smart and have a good plan, I’m all for it,” said Joey Haythorn, who farms about five miles north of Greeley.

Greeley is also utilizing a series of old irrigation canals snaking through the city to save drinking water by using ditch water on lawns and for other outdoor purposes.

“It’s perfect for large green areas at universities, cemeteries, golf courses and beyond,” Chambers said.

Chambers believes Greeley is well-positioned to handle Colorado’s population boom for years to come.

“Our planning vision is really about 50 years out to make sure we’re well-prepared when that day comes,” he said.