Water project’s backers unfazed by year’s delay in final impact study

BERTHOUD — Backers of a planned water-storage project in Northern Colorado are not sounding alarm over this week’s announcement that a final environmental assessment of the project has been pushed back a year.

The Northern Integrated Supply Project would supply 40,000 acre-feet of water annually to participating water districts and communities through the construction of two reservoirs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won’t rule on whether the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District can build the reservoirs until it releases a final environmental impact statement. Release of that document, which had been projected to be released next summer, won’t be available before sometime in 2017, the Corps said this week.

“Participants in NISP began work on studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act in 2004,” said Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the district known as Northern Water. “These studies are required to look at all facets of the project to clearly define the project’s impact on the environment as well as ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate those impacts. These studies are complex, requiring significant resources and specialized expertise. That is evidenced by the nearly 12 years and approximately $15 million that the participants have invested to date.

“Most studies have been completed but some require additional time, thus the reason for the extension,” said Wilkinson on Wednesday in a prepared statement. “The project participants have supported, and continue to support, a thorough NEPA process to assure the Final Environmental Impact Statement is comprehensive, complete, and defendable. Participants are working diligently to assure this extension has minimal effect on the beginning of project construction.”

The Corps said it still has more than a dozen tasks to complete, including study of the voluminous number of public comments it received when a draft version of the EIS was released in June. That document prompted a chorus of official complaints. The federal Environmental Protection Agency wrote a 20-page letter in September contending that the Corps’ draft EIS lacked sufficient information to adequately predict the project’s potential impacts or compliance with provisions of the Clean Water Act. The Fort Collins City Council, acting on its staff’s recommendation, voted unanimously to oppose NISP in its current form. City officials in Greeley, which is not a NISP participant, said the reduced flows would force that city to spend $10 million on extra water filtration, and its Water and Sewer Department wrote that the Corps’ water-quality analysis was insufficient and not in compliance with NEPA.

Larimer County commissioners, however, passed a resolution in support of 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 that otherwise would flow out of the state.

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,

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.