Dam would create reservoir near Fort Collins
FORT COLLINS, Colorado ” Gary Wockner loves walking the banks of the Cache la Poudre River downtown, scuttling after crawfish with his daughter and scouting for rare birds.
Trouble is, there are weeks at a time he could walk the middle of the channel and never get his feet wet.
The Fort Collins version of the Poudre is used up and worn out. It’s been diverted for a century’s worth of thirsty Front Range farms and cities.
Now a massive $431 million dam and reservoir project would take 70 percent of what’s left of the Poudre at peak flows.
One of the biggest engineering proposals in the dry West and the largest on the Front Range since 1975, the project would fill a valley with a new pool bigger than popular Horsetooth Reservoir, move 7 miles of federal highway and add another major reservoir and pipeline system northeast of Greeley. Builders call it the best way to fill the taps of 40,000 new Front Range homeowners.
“This project covers only half of the projected growth demand,” said Carl Brouwer, project manager for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which delivers water to cities serving 770,000 people. “Highways get busy and people notice. Well, we have water traffic jams on the horizon.”
Opponents add in decades of interest payments and call it a “billion-dollar drain pipe” that would ruin the best feature of a perennial “livable city” pick. They’ve labeled it an environmental and financial disaster that would force cities to chase development to pay off bonds at a time when the mortgage crisis has frozen the economy.
Worst of all, they claim, the project is old-school dam-and-divert, in an era when the new West sought water through conservation instead of construction. Though the Poudre is tame in Fort Collins, its bolder upper reaches make it the only Colorado entry on the federal register of Wild and Scenic Rivers.
“We think this project will destroy the Poudre,” said Wockner, part of a coalition against the project that includes Save the Poudre, the Sierra Club and the Colorado Environmental Coalition. “It’s the biggest environmental disaster facing Fort Collins in its history.”
The builders ” the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and 15 cities that have bought shares in the new water ” dismiss the apocalyptic rhetoric. The new reservoir north of Horsetooth could actually put more water in the Poudre during dry months through carefully timed releases.
It would create a new recreation lake for boaters who overrun Horsetooth. And this plan ” the Northern Integrated Supply Project ” is the least-damaging way to find new water. They say opponents would rather “buy and dry” farmland and wipe out a way of life on the Eastern Plains.
“There is a no-growth contingent that believes water causes growth and all dams are bad,” Brouwer said. “To that group, there’s not much we can say. We place a high value on irrigated agriculture, and we don’t shy away from that.”
The Army Corps of Engineers will choose between the arguments, or map a middle path demanding mitigation of damage the reservoir causes. The Army’s initial Environmental Impact Statement, required on all major water projects, is due next month after piles of submissions and hundreds of public comments. It’s the Army Corps that must issue the final permit, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has veto power.
When opposition to Denver’s Two Forks Dam on the South Platte River reached a crescendo in 1990, the EPA vetoed the project in a decision that directed Western states toward conservation ” low-flow toilets, Xeriscape instead of grass, recycling treated sewage water ” instead of construction.
Objections to the reservoirs focus on three arguments:
” The Poudre is too valuable a resource ecologically, aesthetically and financially to strangle with a major diversion. High spring and summer flows bring water to cottonwoods, scour silt and algae from pools, and protect the few remaining fish. Fort Collins and support groups have spent millions creating parks and paths along the river, so why dry up the city’s prime amenity?
” Northern Colorado lags far behind Denver and other cities in finding new water through conservation efforts, so choking off the Poudre is unnecessary. Moreover, 85 percent to 95 percent of water supplies are spread onto arid farmland; if cities need more water, they should buy up more of that farm water than they have already, or create cooperative exchange agreements with farmers for wet and dry years.
” Going into debt to build a reservoir means chasing new homes that can pay the bill. Local homeowners will pay the massive price tag, in tap fees on new buildings or water rate hikes for all customers. Water planners say they are building reservoirs for only half the 80,000 new residents projected in northern Colorado over the next 40 years. But if the economy stays slow, will cities beg for growth to pay debts?
Opponents point out that Berthoud and other towns have already found the price tag too high, withdrawing from the project before planning fees escalated into design and construction charges. Berthoud spent about $130,000 on the project over the past five years and recently sold its shares to Frederick for $30,000, said Town Manager Jim White. Berthoud’s cost share would have ramped up to $800,000 in two or three years, and $8 million by 2011.
“The era of big dam building is over. Or was over, until this thing reared its big, ugly head,” said Mark Easter, a botanist and a leader of the Sierra Club’s Poudre Canyon branch. “They are in effect begging for growth.”
Some towns, though, already have the cash on hand and say they need the water.
Lafayette was “the poster child” for parched cities during the 2002-03 drought, said public works manager Doug Short. Lawns scorched under once-a-week watering rules. Since then, the city has shrunk its development footprint; the population will grow from 25,000 to 35,000 at buildout, and only 200 new homes plus 50 affordable homes can start each year.
“We actually have the cash in our fund balance right now to pay for this,” Short said. “We’re in Boulder County people want to limit growth; we just want to make sure we have water during a drought.”
It’s a sign of the sprawling nature of the supply project ” affecting 65 miles of the Poudre and South Platte rivers ” that protesters barely mention the highway relocation or downstream pipelines that have impacts of their own. Depending on the engineering, relocating part of U.S. 287 from Fort Collins to Laramie would cut through a massive hogback. The project would also flood a massive basin of windswept pastureland. The second reservoir, to be called Galeton, will take 10 percent to 15 percent of the flow out of the South Platte in some months.
Those alternatives, though, are a major improvement over old plans to dam beautiful fishing canyons higher up the Poudre, water developers argue. And the suggested options like drying more farmland are far from “no impact,” either. Most cities have already grabbed the “low-hanging fruit” of water conservation, and future efforts to find water by saving it would be much more “draconian” for residents, Brouwer said.
“We have gotten a lot better at looking at need first, not just building a pool of water and finding buyers for it,” he said. “You reach the point where you have to build some infrastructure.”
While Fort Collins will lose a good portion of its flow in peak months, the water district acknowledges, it is offering to put water back in the river during dry months in a way that could support trout fishing, kayaking and expansion of the popular tubing season in town.
Fort Collins and other local governments have spent millions in voter-approved taxes to buy up the river corridor for open space. Both sides agree that too many months of the year, the Poudre amounts to little more than a pile of slimy rocks.
“There’s a lot of emotional response to this, and I can understand it. Less flow looks bad,” Brouwer said. “But when you do the actual science, we will see it’s going to be OK.”
The Army Corps won’t signal its intentions, but project manager Chandler Peter is willing to discuss impacts and alternatives. There is a “no action” alternative, by denying the permit, Peter said, but opponents should not buy into that bureaucratic language. In reality, if the project is rejected, individual towns would then scramble to buy up farm water, build smaller dams and reservoirs, and fill gravel pits with water.
In the meantime, both Fort Collins and Greeley have major pipeline and reservoir projects of their own in planning stages, each creating its own controversy.
“People say if you deny it, nothing changes,” Peter said. “But there’s a lot going on.”
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Are we seeing more bears because there are more bears on the valley floor, or because we’re all spending more time at home? It could be a bit of both.