April 12, 2024

Thornton water debate moves to Larimer leaders

FORT COLLINS — In anticipation of a large public response to Thornton’s latest proposal to build a pipeline across Larimer County, the county planned three nights of public hearings by the planning commission and the potential for four public hearings in front of the Board of County Commissioners.

But after four hours of work this week, the county planning commission voted 5-3 to approve Thornton’s latest plan and to recommend that the county commissioners do the same. Larimer commissioners will hear testimony on the project beginning April 22 and continuing May 6, 8 and 20. The last two of those hearings are identified as “as needed,” meaning a decision could come before that final date.

The issues revolving around Thornton’s purchase of multiple farms in Larimer and Weld counties and the water rights that go with them date back to the 1980s. The uproar then was about water resources leaving the basin to feed Denver’s water-hungry suburbs.

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Thornton didn’t attempt to get that water to its city until recent years. In 2020, it sought a 1041 permit to build a pipeline, and Larimer County denied it. Thornton went to court and lost.

A 1041 permit is a state process that allows one government to weigh in on the project of another government when the impacts are local, such as in the case of a pipeline.

Thornton tried again, this time successfully so far.

As the vote total implies, sentiment on the pipeline route is not a slam dunk. Three members of the planning commission voted against for various reasons, and at least one other member was on the fence until the very end of discussion.

Commissioner Connor Duffy said the “packet and presentation was way out of scope. … I’m on the fence on one or two (of the criteria the county can apply) but I’ve got failing (grades) on 16 of the 22 criteria,” he said. 

He said the project should have included “an exhaustive co-location review … and we don’t have that.” 

While the proposed route of the pipeline does co-locate with some of the proposed Northern Integrated Supply Project pipeline proposed to be built over the next decade, it doesn’t follow that route completely. 

That issue was also a concern for Commissioner John Slutsky, who eventually voted in favor of the permit.

“I’m so on the fence,” Slutsky said. “We don’t have data on co-locating with NISP. To me, it doesn’t make sense that there are less impacts by not co-locating. I’m saying the criteria doesn’t fit.”

Lisa Chollet objected to some of the testimony in favor of the project from Thornton. “It’s not Larimer County’s job to provide affordable housing and clean water for Thornton.” She was also concerned about the “disproportionate impact of the project on family farms” along the route, as noted in testimony from farmer Eric Steidel. “We didn’t invest in our farm to have it carved up by utilities,” Steidel said.

Still, John Barnett of the county planning staff said that the pipeline route meets the county’s criteria as permitted by the 1041 process. 

The 42-inch diameter pipeline will run 10.4 miles within Larimer County, plus additional miles through Weld County on the way to Thornton. The easement for the pipeline will be 50-feet wide and will be 63 acres in total land area. 

Carolynne White, an attorney with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP law firm that represents Thornton, asked that the county’s condition number eight, which placed restrictions on some of Thornton’s dried-up farmland in the county, be removed. She said the 1041 process should address the pipeline route itself, not other property that the city owns. She said that conditions on the Thornton farms are governed by the water decree that permitted Thornton to convert ag water to municipal use and is beyond consideration in the 1041 process by either the city or Larimer County.

The planning commissioners did address condition eight in its motion, with Commissioner Ann Johnson adding to the motion that condition eight apply only to the pipeline route. Johnson also added that Thornton must show evidence that it has coordinated with state and federal authorities about dam safety.

While the pipeline project does not include a dam, the route does pass near a dam on one of the reservoirs in Northern Colorado. 

In the end, five of the commissioners concurred with chairman Bob Choate, who said that to him the proposal meets the county’s allowed criteria.

“The Poudre River (flow) concerns are outside our purview. The river water has nothing to do with it. Drying up farms has nothing to do with it,” he said.

“The application is better than the last one. I think it meets the requirements,” Choate said.

The Larimer County Planning Commission approved Thornton’s latest water pipeline plan and recommended that county commissioners do the same.

Ken Amundson
Ken Amundson is managing editor of BizWest. He has lived in Loveland and reported on issues in the region since 1987. Prior to Colorado, he reported and edited for news organizations in Minnesota and Iowa. He's a parent of two and grandparent of four, all of whom make their homes on the Front Range. A news junkie at heart, he also enjoys competitive sports, especially the Rapids.
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