EPA letter calls NISP impact statement insufficient

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has joined an official chorus of complaints that environmental impacts of a controversial water-storage project have not been sufficiently analyzed.

In a 20-page letter sent last week to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA listed a series of objections to the Supplemental Draft Economic Impact Statement released by the Corps in June regarding the proposed Northern Integrated Supply Project. Echoing comments made in recent weeks by officials from Larimer County and the cities of Fort Collins and Greeley, the EPA said the Corps’ SDEIS lacked sufficient information to adequately predict the project’s potential impacts or to achieve the level of compliance with provisions of the Clean Water Act that the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District would need to get a federal permit to build and manage NISP.

If approved, NISP would include construction of two reservoirs that combined could store more than 215,000 acre-feet of water, 40,000 of which would be allocated to municipal water supplies annually. Glade Reservoir, which would be larger than Horsetooth Reservoir west of Fort Collins, would be built north of the intersection of U.S. Highway 287 and Colorado Highway 14 northwest of Fort Collins and would hold up to 170,000 acre-feet of water diverted from the Cache la Poudre River. Galeton Reservoir would be built east of Ault and Eaton in Weld County and hold up to 45,000 acre-feet of South Platte River water.

About a dozen cities and towns and four water districts have signed up to buy water from the project if it wins final approval from the Corps. Supporters see the project as crucial to keeping up with the growing demands of development, industry and agriculture along the Front Range, as well as capturing rainfall and snowmelt in wet years. Opponents have said it would drain water from the Poudre as it flows through Fort Collins, limiting opportunities for recreation that include tubing, whitewater kayaking and fishing, and Greeley officials added that the reduced flows would force their city — which is not a NISP participant — to spend more on water filtration.

“Although stressed and, in some instances currently degraded” by withdrawals for various uses, the Poudre and South Platte “river systems are of ecological, agricultural and recreational value to local and regional areas in Colorado and their aquatic and hydrologic functions are extremely difficult to  replace,” wrote Martin Hestmark, assistant administrator in the Office of Ecosystems Protection and Remediation for EPA’s Denver region, in the Sept. 3 letter to the Corps’ Denver regulatory office.

Hestmark’s letter detailed concerns about what the agency regards as insufficient Corps projections about river hydrology, water quality, permitted discharges, aquatic biological resources, wetlands and riparian areas, agricultural impacts and climate change, as well as proposed steps to mitigate those harmful impacts and possible alternatives.

The EPA gave the project an EO-2 grade. The EO, or environmental objection. “signifies that the EPA’s review identified the potential for the NISP project to cause or contribute to violations of water-quality standards or significant degradation that, without sufficient mitigation, could be substantive and would occur on a long-term basis,” Hestmark wrote. “The ‘2’ rating signifies that the EPA’s review identified the need for improved impact analysis and mitigation to adequately assess the potentially significant, long-term environmental impacts of the proposal. Given the importance of documenting the project’s consistency with requirements in the Clean Water Act, the planned Phase II water quality effects analysis and the related mitigation for those effects should include a formal and full public review in advance of the final EIS.”

In a letter dated Aug. 28, Northern Water general manager Eric Wilkinson wrote that “NISP participants have spent $12 million on the detailed SDEIS process. Under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers, several expertly qualified independent consultants have thoroughly studied all aspects of NISP as reflected by the funding provided by the NISP participants to complete those studies. …

“As planned by the Corps, in addition to the river-water quality evaluation completed for the SDEIS, detailed water temperature and water quality analyses will be completed prior to the release of the final EIS” late this year or early in 2016, Wilkinson wrote, adding that the project has received more than 100 endorsements from around the state, including industry and economic-development groups, newspapers and the Larimer County commissioners.

Northern Water’s boundaries include about 880,000 people living on 1.6 million acres in portions of Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer, Weld, Logan, Morgan, Sedgwick and Washington counties.

In response to the EPA report, Gary Wockner, director of Save the Poudre Riverkeeper, the primary NISP opposition group, wrote that “the NISP SDEIS has major problems, “A vast amount of work must be done in order for the environmental analysis to comply with federal law, which will take years and millions more dollars. We encourage NISP participants to drop this project and focus on alternatives that are faster, cheaper and easier to implement.”