Thornton has a goal to one day be a city of 260,000 people, living in thousands of houses and apartment buildings across this sprawling suburb north of Denver.
It owns the water to meet that goal.
But city leaders say they are increasingly frustrated by Larimer County’s unwillingness to let them build a critical pipeline that would carry the water from the Cache La Poudre River near Fort Collins to Thornton — so much so that they have started alerting developers that the city may have to stop issuing building permits.
The new language warns that “the City does not guarantee capacity in its water or wastewater systems for proposed or future developments.”
Among the projects at stake for the state’s 6th largest city is dense multi-family housing planned around new N-Line rail stations that just went operational in September.
That’s frustrating to Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann, who points to the thousands of acre-feet of water the city owns free and clear in the Cache La Poudre River northwest of Fort Collins — water rights it purchased more than three decades ago.
“We have the water — it’s in our plan — and we should be able to get it,” the mayor told The Denver Post last week. “Why is it taking so long to get what’s rightfully ours?”
The answer goes back to February 2019, when the Larimer County commissioners unanimously voted to deny Thornton a permit for a 72-mile-long pipeline the city wants to install to carry that water to this suburb of 140,000. Jeff Coder, Thornton’s deputy city manager of city development, said the denial essentially holds Thornton’s growth plans “hostage.”
The city has enough water in its portfolio to supply 5,000 additional housing units, he said, or approximately 160,000 residents. The city’s long-term vision is for a population of 240,000 by 2065.
While no builders have pulled out of the city, Coder said, that day may not be far away. Maybe as soon as 2024 or 2025, he said.
“It’s understandably creating a great deal of concern,” he said. “In fairness to those who are making significant investments in our community, we don’t want someone who has gone through the approvals process expecting to get a building permit to have us at the last minute tell them we can’t because of this water issue.”
We want to prepare people for a worst-case scenario.”
But Gary Wockner, who heads the non-profit Save the Poudre, said Thornton is doing nothing more than trying to “foment political chaos” as the pipeline dispute plays out in court.
Thornton’s desire to run a pipe through Larimer County not only does nothing to improve the Poudre River’s health but disrupts those living along the pipeline’s right-of-way.
And residents in Larimer County get none of the water being transported, he said.
“All the benefit would go to Thornton, and all the damage would go to Larimer County,” Wockner said. “What gives them the right to hold Larimer County hostage?”
“River as a conveyance”
The obvious solution, he said, is for Thornton to let its water flow down the Poudre through Fort Collins — “use the river as a conveyance” — and take it out further downstream near Windsor, obviating the need for a $450 million pipe that will require trenching and burial across 26 miles of Larimer County.
“They have the right to their water and they can get it,” Wockner said.
Thornton even presented this scenario as an option for accessing its water a decade ago, Wockner said.
“The river is already in ecological delay in Fort Collins,” he said. “This is an unbelievable opportunity to increase flows in the river — an almost unprecedented opportunity to put water back in the river.”
The city counters that allowing its share of water to flow through Fort Collins — and past several water treatment facilities — would severely degrade its quality and cost the city dearly to clean it. Emily Hunt, deputy infrastructure director for Thornton, said the river option was merely one of a number of alternatives the city put on the table as it was firming up plans to access its water.
“We specifically picked a site that was above urban impacts and the price we paid reflected that,” she said. “If we wanted a low-quality source that we clean up later, we could have done that and paid less money.”
According to the city, Thornton paid $578 million for 289 shares of water and storage rights in the Poudre River, along with $92 million for more than 18,000 acres of farmland in Larimer and Weld counties, where it has been sending its Poudre shares by ditch over the last 30 or so years.
But that level of investment wasn’t enough to sway the commissioners in Larimer County last year.
Outgoing Commissioner Steve Johnson said then that the proposed 48-inch diameter pipe, which would run across the northern edge of Fort Collins to Interstate 25 before turning south toward Thornton, ranked as one of the most contentious issues he had ever seen raised in the county.
But just this past September, the same commissioners voted 2-1 to approve a 1041 permit for the Northern Integrated Supply Project, a controversial $1.1 billion water storage initiative that would create Glade Reservoir northwest of Fort Collins and a second reservoir out on the eastern plains.
It also involves several water pipelines running through Larimer County.
Thornton recently included the NISP approval in its court filings appealing Larimer County’s denial of its pipeline project, citing it as evidence that the commissioners’ 2019 decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Wockner agrees, calling the Sept. 2 NISP approval “100% sheer hypocrisy” in light of commissioners’ decision on Thornton’s pipe 18 months prior. He said both projects should have been shot down.
“Both pipelines should be held to the same standard — send the water down the river,” he said.
Commissioner John Kefalas, the lone Democrat on Larimer County’s board of commissioners, was the only member of the board to deny both projects. He declined comment last week, citing “current litigation.”
“Not just a Thornton issue”
David Foster, a land use attorney who has represented developers in Thornton for more than 20 years, said the city’s notification to home builders about a potential long-term water shortage is “unusual.”
But Foster remains an optimist, trusting that the two municipalities will come to a fix over the next few years. Thornton is also hopeful of eventually getting the permits it needs and is building segments of the pipe outside of Larimer County.
In the meantime, Foster hopes not too much damage is done.
“There are a lot of people with a lot of money out of pocket right now,” said Foster, who represents half a dozen developers with residential projects before the city. “It’s not good for the people of Thornton, it’s not good for the people of Adams County.”
It’s also not good for northern Colorado, said Sam Bailey, vice president of economic development for the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. His organization represents a swath of Colorado stretching from Castle Rock to the Wyoming border.
He worries about developers skipping over Thornton and taking their business to nearby cities where future water supply is not an issue.
“We don’t want this issue to be used as an economic development strategy to move projects to another community,” Bailey said. “A water issue for Thornton is not just a Thornton issue. It’s an issue for surrounding communities too. There’s no benefit to having one community short on resources.”
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