Larimer County about to open floodgates on long-simmering pipeline controversy

'Our Colorado' explores a pipeline controversy

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Larimer County is about to open the floodgates on a long-simmering water pipeline controversy.

Our Colorado is facing a big splash of water issues because of the population explosion. Thornton planned for this growth years ago, buying water from farmers and storing it up near Fort Collins.

Now it needs it.

But, accessing it means going through farms, roads and communities.    

This Wednesday, the Larimer County Planning Commission will listen to arguments on both sides regarding the Thornton Water Project.

At the center of the issue in Larimer County is a section of the pipeline that would be buried under W. Douglas Road north of Fort Collins. A neighborhood group has started a campaign called, ‘No Pipe Dream,’ in an effort to stop the plan to bury that portion under Douglas Road.

To be crystal clear, Thornton has owned the water rights since the mid-1980's. The city bought them from farmers near Ault and Pierce – part of a master plan to accommodate future growth. Now, the time has come where Thornton needs to tap those water rights.

“They want to come down my fence, over and down my fence,” said Dick Brauch who owns several acres off Douglas Road. Thornton’s plan would partially bury a segment of the pipeline under Brauch’s farm.

“I can deal with whatever they do to me if I have to,” Brauch said.

He understands Thornton’s need to get the water it rightfully owns. But, he’s not a huge fan of the current plan to pipe it from a reservoir, through his farm and under Douglas Rd.

“It’s just going to be a disaster if they put it in the road,” he said. 

Lynn Utzman-Nichols lives off Douglas Road. So do more than 300 other residents

“We think the road is a bad option,” Utzman-Nichols said. “We feel like the road was a rush decision.”

Thornton disagrees. The city says the road is simply the best option in terms of environmental and neighborhood impact. And – the plan is to keep it open during construction.

“We’re working with them in an open manner,” said Mark Koleber, water project manager for the City of Thornton. “In a respectful manner. We’ll be able to maintain access for school buses, emergency responders. It’s not a long-term impact. Once we’re done, you won’t even know the pipeline is there.”

Thornton will not need all the water it owns. It will continue leasing the majority of it back to farmers.

And, Thornton is drawing praise from many growth experts.

“We’re the model for how to do an ag (agricultural) to municipal transfer,” Koleber said.

Neighbors argue there are other options that would take the pipeline up through another neighborhood and be less disruptive. Or, there’s the possibility of leaving the water in the Poudre and pulling it out further downstream.

“I’m just asking them to pick a route that is most preferred by Larimer County citizens,” Utzman-Nichols said. “I feel like they should be good neighbors.”

Thornton argues leaving the water in the river would be cost-prohibitive in terms of treatment. Plus, it has spent years building reservoirs and storage systems – knowing this day would eventually come.

“Letting it stay in the river poses concerns. There is urban runoff,” Koleman said. “So, every time there’s a big rain storm, water from parking lots with oil and whatever - all of that would end up in the river. All of that would be ahead of our drinking water source.”

Most Front Range communities do pull water from upstream.

“A lot of people put in pipelines to get good quality water,” Koleman said. “Fort Collins takes water from upstream of where Thornton will take its water. Greeley does the same.”

Still, digging up Douglas Road remains a point of contention.

“There’s no way you can put a pipeline of that size in a two-lane road and not just horribly destroy the flow of traffic,” Brauch said.

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