Editorial: Local governments should play hardball in Thornton water fight

Pipe down, Thornton.

A simmering problem is coming to a boil for Northern Colorado, as Thornton prepares to build a pipeline to deliver water from the region for its municipal use. The project, which requires approval by the Larimer County and Weld County commissioners, as well as various municipalities and property owners, includes a 70-mile pipeline that would run under or along Douglas Road to the east side of Interstate 25, then south along Weld County Road 13, through various Weld County communities before reaching Thornton.

The project would begin construction in 2019 and has been decades in the making, as Thornton began purchasing Poudre River water rights in the 1980s. The city has acquired about 100 farms, mostly in Weld County, converting the water to municipal use and embarking on a “buy and dry” pattern of converting agricultural properties to dryland farming. All told, the city has accumulated about 21,000 acres and more than 30,000 acre feet of water

Thornton’s acquisition of water has helped limit the growth potential of some communities — such as Ault in northern Weld County. Travelers along Colorado Highway 14 between Fort Collins and Ault can see an abundance of small signs indicating ownership by Thornton, and the lost water rights from those farms means that water would be insufficient for many other purposes.

It’s been a pattern that has concerned Northern Colorado civic and business leaders for decades. At one time, local leaders contemplated establishment of a “water bank,” whereby a local authority would be created to purchase and hold water rights for the benefit of Northern Colorado.

We wish that such a project had been initiated, and encourage civic leaders to revisit the idea.

In the meantime, we urge commissioners in Larimer and Weld counties — as well as local municipalities — to turn a skeptical eye on the pipeline project, ensuring that all costs related to construction are borne by Thornton and that impacts on traffic, noise and dust are mitigated.

Finally, it’s time for the state to address this issue and prohibit municipalities from buying and drying farmland. Municipalities should have no right to steal water from local communities.