Poudre River defenders sue to block Army permit for controversial $2 billion northern Colorado dams

Poudre River defenders sought to throw another wrench in the long-delayed $2 billion Northern Water plan for two reservoirs and extensive water pipelines, asking a federal judge in Denver to reject a key Army Corps of Engineers permit for the project.

The lawsuit by Save the Poudre alleges the Army Corps’ approval of Northern Water’s Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP) violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, because it relies on an outdated environmental impact statement and failed to consider alternatives less damaging to river ecology.

Northern Water has refused to consider compromise proposals from Save the Poudre, local officials and other environmental advocates, the nonprofit’s leader, Gary Wockner, said Thursday after the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court.

“After 20 years, we now have no choice but to file this lawsuit and let it play out in court, which will likely take several more years,” Wockner said. Save the Poudre claims Northern Water is also waiting on Fort Collins to set up criteria for considering a pipeline route integral to the project, and that the city hasn’t even begun that process.

Northern Water, working on behalf of 15 cities and water providers to add drinking water supplies for fast-growing northern areas of the state, had hoped to begin construction by late 2024 with one project moving seven miles of U.S. 287. The highway currently runs through a canyon that would become Glade Reservoir.

“Northern Water has not had the opportunity to explore the issues brought forth in the action against the federal government,” spokesperson Jeff Stahla said. “But we are confident in the thorough work performed by the Army Corps of Engineers that the permit issued to NISP will be affirmed based on the detailed work done over the years and extensive mitigation being included.”

The Corps of Engineers, which is the defendant named in the Save the Poudre lawsuit, did not return messages seeking comment Thursday.

Northern Water has been working for decades to plan and permit the sprawling NISP plan, which includes a second reservoir northeast of Greeley called Galeton, and a pipeline network for trading water rights with other users of the South Platte and Cache la Poudre rivers.

A map
The Northern Integrated Supply Project, currently estimated at $2 billion, would create two new reservoirs and a system of pipelines to capture more drinking water for 15 community water suppliers. An environmental group is now suing the Army Corps of Engineers over a key permit for Northern Water’s proposal. (Save the Poudre lawsuit, from Northern Water project pages)

The issues raised in the lawsuit have held steady over that time. Save the Poudre and other river advocates claim NISP will divert water from an already depleted Poudre, harming wildlife and ecosystems as well as popular recreation sites in Fort Collins.

“In some months and years, NISP would divert 65% of what water is left in the river which is already heavily diverted by farms and cities,” Save the Poudre said, in a statement. The group also claims Northern Water has not implemented enough water conservation to lessen the need for 40,000 acre-feet of new storage planned for NISP. An acre-foot of water is enough to serve one to two households for a year.

Northern Water began the permitting process for NISP in 2004 and received the Army Corps’ so-called “404” greenlight in late 2022.

During that time, environmental groups have sued to overturn Larimer County’s issuance of a 1041 local construction permit, and Fort Collins has delayed consideration of a pipeline route through city neighborhoods until it creates its own 1041 rulemaking process. The 1041 permits are named after state law passed in 1974 giving local governments decisionmaking power in multijurisdiction projects.

The groups in the past have used lawsuits to fight the Windy Gap/Chimney Hollow project by Northern Water, and Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir Dam in Boulder County. The lawsuits contributed to delays, but both of those projects are now under construction.

Throughout the process for NISP, Northern Water has said the project would actually improve streamflows on the Poudre at important times of the year and give more support to wildlife. Supporters of the dams also say agreements with irrigation companies will provide new water to cities without drying up new swaths of farmland in northern Colorado.

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