In 2008, the City Council passed a resolution stating its opposition to the project, which would draw water from the Poudre River and store it in a new facility — Glade Reservoir — that would be built northwest of the city. Another reservoir, Galeton, would be built near Greeley and draw from the South Platte River.
The council at that time cited a variety of concerns raised by city staff members and consultants after reviewing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, or DEIS, for the project. Issues included potential negative impacts to the river’s water quality, riparian areas and wildlife habitat as a result of substantially reduced flows through Fort Collins.
Here we are seven years later and a Supplemental DEIS for the project has been issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which took a deeper dive into the project in response to comments made by Fort Collins and other stakeholders.
Don’t be surprised if the same concerns about NISP are raised this time around when the city submits comments to the Corps. Time and some tweaking of plans for the massive project haven’t made it any more palatable, according an early analysis of the SDEIS by city staff.
The document is improved, city staff say, but in the end, cutting the Poudre’s flow through the city by as much as 66 percent in May, 25 percent in June and 54 percent in July during years of average precipitation and river flows would have significant impacts.
Water quality would suffer — potentially raising the city’s costs for treating drinking water and wastewater — the number of “boatable” days on the river would drop, and the river’s ecology and overall health would be diminished, staff told council members Tuesday.
More Northern Integrate Supply Project coverage here and here.
Kassler was a company town, and the company was Denver Water.
The town, named for Edwin Stebbins Kassler, one of the board members of the private company that preceded Denver Water, was established in 1901 as one of the first filtration plants for water coming from the South Platte River through Waterton Canyon.
When Denver was founded, along the banks of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, residents got their water directly from the river or from riverside wells. But that wasn’t the best, or cleanest way to get water. People bathed in it and washed their clothes in it and, as the city grew, the river began to fill with industrial waste. In addition, as more and more residents moved to Denver, the river could no longer provide enough water for residents, especially during a drought.
The solution came at the turn of the 20th Century: go upstream on the Platte, into Platte Canyon, now known as Waterton Canyon. To clean the water, the private company that eventually became Denver Water built the first “English slow-sand treatment system” west of the Mississippi, at Kassler, which could filter up to 50 million gallons of water a day.
Construction on the Kassler system began in 1901. But its distance from Denver, and the fact it had to be in operation around the clock, meant workers needed to be close by. Thus was born the town of Kassler. Workers built a boarding house, a bunkhouse, and eight single-family rental cottages, since it wasn’t only single men who worked at Kassler. They also built an administration building, a barn for the horses and a blacksmith, a schoolhouse with room for eight grades, and something called a measuring house, where engineers governed how much water was pouring down the pipes.
Water was filtered through four sand “beds,” or “cribs,” totaling a bit more than 10 acres. The sand was layered on top of gravel, with pipes beneath. There were cast-iron pipes, still in use today, and wood-stave pipes, which looked barrels, but without ends. Water would flow through the sand, removing particulates, then through gravel and into perforated pipes and then on to Denver in ditches.
Workers had to manually remove silt that emerged from the water and into the sand, labor Geist described as “back-breaking,” though by the 1950s, tractors had taken over cleaning the silt.
Working at Kassler was sometimes a family affair, according to Geist. Generations worked there, with jobs passing down from one generation to the next. One family, the Swans, were among the first to live at the town and also among the last to live there, when the plant was decommissioned in 1985. The last house still standing in Kassler was once their home.
Today, what remains of Kassler is the administration building, the Swan House, and the barn, all used for educational tours. Geist said Denver Water is putting together a plan, based on input from the community, to determine whether the buildings will be restored, set up as a museum, or used some other way.
The final presentation in the series “Colorado’s Water Stories” is 7-8 p.m. Aug. 18 at the History Colorado Center, 1200 Broadway, in Denver. It’s a chance to meet the people behind the Living West exhibit and hear their stories about water and its importance to the state. The event is free.
Although public hearings on the Northern Integrated Supply Project have been completed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will continue to accept written comments about the project from the public until Sept. 3.
NISP is a proposed water storage project in which the City of Fort Morgan is one of 15 participating entities. The project involves the creation of two reservoirs near Fort Collins and Greeley, and Fort Morgan officials consider it the best possible way to secure a stable water supply for the city’s future, according to a city news release. The project is spearheaded by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
NISP has been in the permitting stages for many years, and the public hearings and comment period on the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement mark a significant step toward final permitting of the project by the Corps of Engineers.
“We have more water in our system than we’ve ever had since we’ve been recording,” Aurora Water Resources Management Advisor Joe Stibrich told congressional aides, city council members, city staff and Aurora residents on a tour of the city’s vast water distribution system last week. “We hit 99 percent of our storage capacity about a week ago.”
In total, Aurora Water has more than 156,000 acre-feet of water storage, which could supply the city with years of emergency supply in case of a drought.
The city gets water from three river basins. Half of the city’s water comes from the South Platte River Basin, a quarter comes from the snow melt flows from Colorado River Basin, and a quarter from the Arkansas River Basin.
But Aurora was not always a municipal water powerhouse.
In 2003, Aurora’s water supply level was at 26 percent capacity, the lowest in the city’s history. The idea for the at-the-time innovative Prairie Waters Project came about in the wake of that severe drought.
The $653-million Prairie Waters Project increased Aurora’s water supply by 20 percent when it was completed, and today provides the city with an additional 3.3 billion gallons of water per year.
The entire system pumps water from wells near Brighton, where it’s then piped into a man-made basin and filtered through sand and gravel. From there, the water is then piped 34 miles through three pumping stations to the Binney Water Purification Facility near Aurora Reservoir, where it’s softened and exposed to high-intensity ultraviolet light. The water is then filtered through coal to remove remaining impurities.
“It’s the crown jewel of our system,” said Stibrich during the tour. “Prairie Waters almost creates a fourth basin for us.”
But even before Prairie Waters, the first “crown jewel” project that allowed Aurora to grow and become the state’s third-largest city, was the one that allowed Aurora to cut most of its water ties with Denver.
Throughout the 1900s and into the 1960s, Aurora relied on the Denver Water Board for its supply. But the partnership between the neighboring cities grew contentious when, in the 1950s, Denver Water imposed lawn watering restrictions on a booming metropolitan area. Part of those restrictions included a “blue line” that prevented some Aurora suburbs from getting permits for new tap water fees.
In 1958, Aurora partnered with Colorado Springs to construct the Homestake Project, located in southern Eagle County in the Colorado River basin. The project was designed to use water rights purchased on the Western Slope that could supply the two cities.
For nearly a decade after the project was conceived, it was mired in legal battles with Denver and Western Slope entities. The first phase of the dam wasn’t even completed until 1967. In the 1980s, Aurora and Colorado Springs unsuccessfully attempted to expand the water collection system within the Holy Cross Wilderness area as part of a phase two plan.
The issue to this day is divisive, said Diane Johnson, a spokeswoman with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District during the city’s tour of the reservoir.
“For people to think we might be having some other dam up here and impacting their access to wilderness is an emotional issue,” she said.
It was a memorandum of understanding created in 1998 between Eagle County and the two Front Range cities that identifies 30,000 acre-feet of water in the Eagle River basin to be divided into thirds between the three entities that helped alleviate tensions and put the project back on track.
Today Homestake Reservoir provides Aurora with 25 percent of its water, and Aurora Water officials are looking at various ways to expand their storage to satisfy the Eagle River MOU.
One idea is a small reservoir in the Homestake Valley near the Blodgett Campground. Aurora Water officials said the issue with that plan is having to relocate the winding Homestake Road to a portion of the Holy Cross wilderness to accommodate it. Another alternative, which Aurora Water officials said they prefer, is to create a holding facility called a forebay, in the same valley, along Whitney Creek, that would hold water pumped back from a former World War II military site known as Camp Hale. From the holding facility, water could be further pumped up the valley to Homestake Reservoir.
Aurora Water officials are still working through the various politics of the alternatives, and repeatedly emphasized during the tour that there is no “silver bullet’ when it comes to water storage.
From Homestake, water travels east through the Continental Divide and tunnel where it’s sent to Turquoise Lake, then to Twin Lakes Reservoir near Leadville.
Aurora only owns the rights to a limited amount of storage in Twin Lakes, and that water has to be continuously lifted 750 feet via the Otero Pump Station to enter a 66-inch pipeline that leads to the Front Range.
The Otero Pump station — located on the Arkansas River about eight miles northwest of Buena Vista — is another impressive facet of Aurora’s vast water system, and the last stop on Aurora’s water journey before it is delivered to the Spinney Mountain Reservoir in South Park. With the ability to pump 118 million gallons per day, Otero provides half of Aurora’s and 70 percent of Colorado Springs’ drinking water, delivered from both the Colorado and Arkansas basins to the South Platte River Basin.
Tom Vidmar, who has served as the caretaker at Homestake for nearly 30 years and lives right next to the pump station, said the biggest issue facing Aurora’s water system is storage.
“We actually spilled water out of Homestake this year and didn’t collect (the) full amount we were eligible to take, simply because the reservoirs are at capacity,” Vidmar said during a tour of the massive pump facility. He said the electricity costs alone for Aurora to pump the water add up to around $450,000 a month.
A project Aurora Water officials hope to see come to fruition in 15 years is turning land the city purchased at Box Creek north of Twin Lakes in Lake County into additional storage space so water can be pumped more efficiently through Otero.
“Box Creek is an important project. It gives us more breathing room,” said Rich Vidmar, who is Tom Vidmar’s son and an engineer with Aurora Water, during the tour. “As we look at storage and where to develop storage, right now we’re looking at spots where we have chokepoints in our system where we’re not able to operate perfectly to get as much water as possible.”
Just as the state anticipates that its population of 5 million will double by 2050, so does Aurora — and storage will be key to providing water for a city that could potentially grow to more than 600,000 residents in the coming decades.
But the mountains aren’t the only place where Aurora hopes to expand its reservoirs. The city also is looking to expand Aurora Reservoir even further east.
At a July study session, Aurora Water Officials described a feasibility study being conducted to determine just how much water Aurora could store at a future reservoir, which would sit on the former Lowry Bombing and Gunnery Range.
The annual remembrance service for victims of the 1976 Big Thompson Canyon Flood will be held at 7 p.m. Friday next to the Big Thompson Canyon Volunteer Fire Department station a mile east of Drake on U.S. Highway 34.
This year’s event will honor firefighters, law enforcement officers and other emergency services workers who responded to the disaster. The flash flood hit July 31, 1976, taking the lives of 144 people and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
The program will include speakers, music and light refreshments. Participants are welcome to bring a chair and a snack to share.
I was backpacking in the Flat Tops Wilderness that week with Mrs. Gulch. Monsoon drizzle in between downpours pushed us to hole up in Steamboat Springs to get a room at a place with a hot tub.
I called my mother the night of July 31 to check in. She asked, “Johnny, are you anywhere near the Big Thompson? There’s been a terrible flood.”
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Supporters Gather at NISP Rally
More than 150 Northern Integrated Supply Project supporters rallied at Northern Water’s headquarters on July 2 to celebrate momentum created by the recent release of the project’s Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
Speakers U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, State Senators Mary Hodge and Jerry Sonnenberg, Chris Smith (Left Hand Water District general manager and NISP participants Committee chairman) and Eric Wilkinson (Northern Water general manager) addressed an enthusiastic audience comprised of NISP participant representatives, mayors, county commissioners, lawmakers and private citizens.
Several speakers warned that without NISP, more farmland will be dried up as water providers find necessary supplies for their needs. The SDEIS studies show this could lead to a dry-up of an additional 100 square miles of irrigated farmland – an area approximately twice the size as the City of Fort Collins.
“That would mean a $400 million loss of agricultural output,” said Gardner. “That is economic devastation. We can’t keep pushing it down the road. The longer this takes, the higher the cost, and the more acres that get dried up,” he added.
More Northern Integrated Supply Project coverage here and here.
…But irrigation soon could end on [Brant] Peterson’s southwest Kansas farm. The wells under his land in Stanton County are fast running dry as farmers and ranchers across the Great Plains pump the Ogallala faster than it can be replenished naturally.
Three of his wells are already dry.
Within five years, Peterson estimates, he likely won’t be able to irrigate at all.
Wet and dry: A country divided
While the east half of the country generally receives at least 25 inches of rain a year, much of the west is dryer.
This means much of our country’s corn and hogs are farmed west of the 100th meridian. Meanwhile, in the Great Plains, milo, or grain sorghum, has become a popular crop due to its reduced need for water, and cattle farming has long been popular out west…
Western Kansas’ only significant water source is the Ogallala…
The vast freshwater reservoir beneath the prairie formed 5 million to 10 million years ago as streams draining from the Rocky Mountains deposited water in the clay, sand and gravel beneath the Great Plains.
The water lay there undisturbed for epochs until enterprising homesteaders who settled the West discovered the liquid bonanza that would make their arid land bloom.
Now, in a geological blink of an eye, the Ogallala, which made the Great Plains the nation’s breadbasket, is in peril…
The disappearing water supply poses a twofold danger. It could end a way of life in a region where the land and its bounty have been purchased by the toil and sweat of generations of farmers.
It also threatens a harvest worth $21 billion a year to Kansas alone and portends a fast-approaching, and largely unstoppable, water crisis across the parched American West.
With water levels already too low to pump in some places, western Kansas farmers have been forced to acknowledge that the end is near. That harsh reality is testing the patience and imagination of those who rely on the land for their livelihoods.
As they look for survival, farmers are using cutting-edge technologies to make the most efficient use of the water they have left. They’re contemplating something almost unimaginable just a generation ago: voluntary pacts with their neighbors to reduce irrigation.
And many are investing their long-term hopes in an astronomically expensive water transportation project that isn’t likely ever to be built.
The Arkansas River, which once flowed out of Colorado into western Kansas, is nothing but a dry ditch now, its riverbed reduced to a rugged obstacle course for all-terrain vehicles.
And average rainfall here is just 14 to 16 inches a year, nowhere near enough to replace the water that farmers draw from the Ogallala.
Kansas enjoyed a rainier-than-normal spring this year, easing several years of drought conditions throughout the state. But the relief is temporary.
The storms that soaked the state in recent months won’t alter the Ogallala’s fate, experts say…
Once emptied, it would take 6,000 years to refill the Ogallala naturally…
The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water for 20 percent of the corn, wheat, sorghum and cattle produced in the U.S.
It sprawls 174,000 square miles across eight states, from South Dakota to Texas, and can hold more than enough water to fill Lake Huron and part of Lake Ontario.
But for every square mile of aquifer, there’s a well. About 170,000 of them. Ninety percent of the water pumped out is used to irrigate crops…
Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to address the rapid decline of the aquifer. Water rights holders in much of western Kansas had to install flow meters in all their wells starting in the mid-1990s. Soon all wells in Kansas will have to be metered. And the state government has stopped issuing new permits to pump water from the Ogallala in areas of western Kansas where water levels have dropped the most.
Now, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has pledged to make water policy a central pillar of his administration. The final draft of his 50-year “water vision” for the state, released in January, outlines an incentive and education-based approach focused on encouraging voluntary, coordinated conservation efforts by the farmers who have the most to lose by the aquifer’s decline.
So far, however, farmers have agreed to limit water use in just part of two northwestern counties. A group of farmers in Sheridan and Thomas counties established a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, in 2012 to cut water use by 20 percent over five years.
It seems to be working: In the first year, participants in the LEMA used about 2.5 inches less water for irrigation than their neighbors and produced just two bushels less per acre, on average.
A proposal to create another LEMA in west-central Kansas was voted down last year by water rights holders.
“The problem is everybody wants to be democratic, and you have people for and you have some people against,” said Bill Golden, an agricultural economist at Kansas State.
It isn’t easy to convince individuals to put their profits at risk to preserve a common resource, especially when some farmers have more water left than others, Golden said.
“But I think that we will probably see more LEMAs in the coming years,” he said. “That is the most acceptable answer. I mean, we’re going to run out of water. Nobody’s talking about saving the aquifer and not using the water. The question is, can we extend the life of the aquifer and make it a soft landing?”
For now, that leaves individual farmers making their own decisions about how best to manage water on their land.
Ten miles east of Peterson’s farm, in Grant County, Kan., Clay Scott parked his Dodge pickup on a country road and reached for his iPad.
A few hundred feet away, a solar panel planted in a field of wheat powered a probe that measures soil moisture at different depths.
Right now the probe told Scott’s iPad that he could hold off on watering the field. His sprinklers lay idle.
“People think that we waste our water out here,” Scott said, “and we just kind of grin because we work so hard to use that water.”
In addition to the soil moisture probes linked to his iPad, Scott consults satellites and radar data to track every shift in the weather and drop of rain that falls in his fields so he can minimize irrigation. He uses low-till techniques to preserve the soil and experiments with genetically engineered drought-resistant corn. He installed more efficient nozzles on his center-pivot sprinklers.
And he’s trying out a new device called a “dragon line,” which drags perforated hoses behind a center pivot to deposit water directly on the ground, reducing pooling and evaporation.
Scott’s version of high-tech farming would be unrecognizable to his great-grandfather, who homesteaded in nearby Stanton County around the turn of the century.
Still, despite all his efforts, Scott knows there will come a day – sooner rather than later if nothing is done – when irrigation is no longer viable in this part of Kansas.
The effects of the depleted aquifer already can be felt on Scott’s farm, where he’s had to reduce irrigation by 25 percent.
Some of his two dozen wells are pumping just 150 gallons per minute now, down from thousands of gallons per minute when they were first drilled. And as the water table drops, the energy costs of pumping from deeper underground have become higher than the cash rents Scott pays on the fields he leases.
“We’ve gone through periods where we re-drilled and tapped all but the very lowest water,” Scott said. “There are places we don’t pump the wells anymore.”
As an elected board member for the local Groundwater Management District, Scott hopes that he’ll be able to shape conservation policies that will enable his children to continue farming after him. He sees the situation in California, where the state has forced farmers to cut water use, as a cautionary tale. If farmers in Kansas don’t find ways to conserve enough water on their own, the state could enforce water rationing.
“I’ve got three boys, and a couple of them have already talked very seriously about coming back to the farm, and I’d like them to have the opportunity and ability that I’ve had to grow crops and livestock, even in a drought,” he said.
Scott’s long-term hopes rest in the construction of an $18 billion aqueduct that would import high flows off the Missouri River to water crops grown in western Kansas.
As conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the concrete ditch would stretch 360 miles from east to west across Kansas with 16 lift stations and massive reservoirs on either end. The proposal was met with opposition – and not a little ridicule – by the legislature in Topeka, as state lawmakers struggled to close a $400 million budget hole.
“We’re not working on it at this point,” Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, said in an interview.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon dismissed the aqueduct as a “harebrained” scheme that would divert river water needed for barge traffic and municipal use.
But in western Kansas, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.
“When they’re flooding in the Missouri River and cities are sandbagging, it sure seems to us like we have an answer to their problems,” Scott said. “Nobody wants to build a house and see it flooded; nobody wants to plant a field and watch it wither.”
Fervent support for the project speaks to the urgency felt by Scott, Peterson and other farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods and communities depend on irrigation. They’re hoping to convince the federal government to kick in funds for the aqueduct. And they’re looking into the possibility of building it through a public-private partnership, like a toll road. Farming cooperatives in California and Colorado have expressed interest in the project, they say, and want to explore extending it farther west.
A federal engineering bailout for western Kansas isn’t very likely, however.
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in an interview that such a costly project would be a nonstarter under Congress’ current budget caps.
“In all honestly, it’s a front-burner issue for folks in southwest Kansas, but to build that kind of aqueduct would be billions of dollars, and I just don’t think that’s feasible at this point,” Roberts said.
Barring the construction of an aqueduct, rural communities that depend on the Ogallala face a bleak future.
The state would have to cut its irrigated acres in half today to get anywhere close to sustainability, said Golden, the agricultural economist from Kansas State.
But it isn’t as simple as turning off the sprinklers.
“People survived out here on dryland farming. I can do it,” Peterson said, using the term “dryland” to refer to growing crops without irrigation. “Here’s the cost: My community is going to wither away.”
An irrigated field in southwest Kansas produces more than eight times more corn per acre on average than a field that isn’t irrigated, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Land values would drop. The loss of equity and tax base would mean fewer farmers and bigger farms, consolidated school districts, and impoverished towns with declining populations.
Like any economy dependent on mining a finite resource, this one is headed for a bust, and the farmers know it.
“We can’t wait another 30 years to get our policy right,” Scott said. “The drought in California is showing what living in denial can do.”
Keith Gido, professor in the Division of Biology; Josh Perkin, 2012 Kansas State University doctoral graduate; and several co-authors have published “Fragmentation and dewatering transform Great Plains stream fish communities” in the journal Ecological Monographs.
The article documents a reduction in water flow in Great Plains streams and rivers because of drought, damming and groundwater withdrawals. This is causing a decrease in aquatic diversity in Kansas from stream fragmentation — or stretches of disconnected streams.
“Fish are an indication of the health of the environment,” Gido said. “A while back there was a sewage leak in the Arkansas River and it was the dead fish that helped identify the problem. Children play and swim in that water, so it’s important that we have a good understanding of water quality.”
Several species of fish — including the peppered chub and the plains minnow — were found to be severely declining in the Great Plains during the ecologists’ field research, which compared historic records to 110 sampling sites in Kansas between 2011-2013. Both fish species swim downstream during droughts and return during normal water flow, but the construction of dams, or stream fragmentation, prevents fish from returning upstream.
“The Great Plains region is a harsh environment and drought has always been a problem. Historically, fish were able to recover from drought by moving,” Gido said. “They could swim downstream and when the drought was over, they could swim back. Now, there are dams on the rivers and the fish are not able to recover.”
Streams in the Great Plains region have more than 19,000 human-made barriers. Gido estimates that on average, stretches of streams in the Great Plains are about six miles long. In surveying Kansas’ streams and rivers, the researchers discovered numerous small dams that do not allow enough habitat for the fish to complete their reproductive cycles. Moreover, the fish are unable to migrate in search of suitable habitat.
“Groundwater extraction exasperates the drought, and the damming of the rivers inhibits the fish from being able to recover from those conditions,” Gido said. “This is unfortunate, but there are some things we can do to help.”
Gido suggested a renewed focus to conserve water, reduce dams and make fish passageways like the one on the Arkansas River under Lincoln Street in Wichita. During the planning for the reconstruction of the Lincoln Street Bridge and the dam over the river, the city worked with wildlife agencies to build a passage that would allow fish as well as canoes and kayaks to navigate through the structure.
Similar structures could be constructed on the Kansas River to help fish migrate.
“The plains minnow is still found in the Missouri River and could recolonize the Kansas River — where they used to be the most abundance species — if there was a fish passage through some of the dams.”