Water projects stuck in regulatory limbo

In the past decade, Jeff Drager has watched his two daughters grow up, graduate from high school and college and start their first jobs. Yet he’s still stuck on the same project at work – winning state and federal approval to build a new water reservoir.Begun in 2003 and scheduled to be up and running by 2011, the project, known as the Windy Gap Firming Project, like many others across the state, still is mired in regulatory delays.Whether or when Windy Gap will be built is still unclear 10 years after the first regulatory review took place.Three other major water projects face similar delays and uncertainty.Drager, an engineering project manager with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, is in charge of bringing Windy Gap online. The project includes building Chimney Hollow Reservoir, one ridge over from Carter Lake in the foothills outside Loveland. It is designed to help Northern Water better manage and store water it developed in 1985.Northern is working with 13 Northern Colorado water providers to develop the latest phase of Windy Gap, which is designed to serve 60,000 households.Northern Water initially submitted the project for environmental review to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2003. Through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a project’s environmental impacts are reviewed during several stages of technical analysis and public comment. A 2005 Northern Water fact sheet projected a final “record of decision” could come by the end of that year, meaning construction could start soon after and the reservoir would be ready by 2011.That forecast was wildly optimistic. The bureau didn’t issue a final environmental impact statement, a key step in NEPA, until late 2011. Reviews by federal and state scientists, environmental groups and western Colorado interests each triggered calls for mitigation and changes that added months and then years of delay.“Nobody would have anticipated some of these things” said Drager.Project partners have spent $12 million to date just on permitting, agreed to pay millions more than expected for environmental mitigation and watched the cost estimate jump nearly 28 percent, from $223 million to $285 million. That’s roughly $1,033 per household.Similar delays and cost overruns have plagued nearly every other major Colorado water-development project that has sought regulatory approval since the 1990 defeat of Two Forks Dam. Proposed by Denver Water, the $1 billion Two Forks project passed through NEPA with government approval before the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the decision because of study inadequacies and unresolved water-quality impacts.After more than a decade of drought and a new wave of growth, water utility planners believe the project review system is broken and must be fixed. Legal experts and environmental watchdogs say the projects themselves are outdated in concept and that utilities need to rethink how they obtain, store and deliver water.Starting and stoppingDrager has had to ask Windy Gap Firming Project partners for an extra $1 million four separate times in the past five years to pay for unexpected mitigation. Consideration of the upper Colorado River as a federally designated…

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