Thornton a major player in Northern Colorado water

Growing demands for local residential developments and the continuing needs of agriculture aren’t the only drivers of demand for the scarce liquid in Northern Colorado.

While opponents of the proposed Northern Integrated Supply Project worry about how much water it would draw from the Cache la Poudre River, another entity wants to drain water from that channel as well:

The city of Thornton.

Sometime in the next decade, the Denver suburb plans to build a 56-mile-long pipeline to funnel water from the Poudre south to Thornton — at a currently projected cost of $400 million to $500 million.


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A wake-up call for Northern Colorado came in 1986, when Thornton paid $55 million for 21,000 acres of farmland in Larimer and Weld counties, mostly near Ault and Pierce, said Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the driving force behind NISP. “About 18,000 of it was irrigated. It took them until ’94 to get the change of rights through the water-courts system.

Much of that farmland was taken out of production — the phenomenon that has come to be known as “buy and dry.”

“They not only filed for those changes but also filed for additional water rights out of the Poudre. That would be available in addition to when and if water is available.”

The water rights Northern Water acquired for the NISP project “are just senior to Thornton’s, in 1980,” Wilkinson said. “But it’s a conditional water right. It depends on due diligence — the ‘perfection of the water right,’ putting it into beneficial use.

“We’re insistent on keeping that water right,” he said. “Thornton would be next in line to use that water out of the Poudre.

“With NISP, we’re developing that water right — 40,000 acre feet. If NISP doesn’t go forward, that’s a loss of that amount of water.”

Some other entities are vying for water rights in Northern Colorado as well, he said. In 2014, the town of Castle Rock bought 2,500 acre-feet of water to be diverted from the Box Elder Creek basin.  “United Water, they have supply contracts with East Cherry Creek Valley and Adams County Water and Sanitation,” he said.

“There’s a lot of activity up here in regard to the purchase of water rights; most have been for water purveyors outside Northern Colorado.”


Dallas Heltzell can be reached at 970-232-3149, 303-630-1962 or dheltzell@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DallasHeltzell.