Colo. pipeline project likely to stir up long-held resentment in Weld County |

Colo. pipeline project likely to stir up long-held resentment in Weld County

Mark Koleber, Thornton, Colo., water project director, left, Cody Wertz, consultant for the City of Thornton, stand side by side over the diversion structure west of Fort Collins, Colo. This will control the water flow into Thornton's purposed pipeline by diverting it from the Poudre River.
Photo by Joshua Polson/ | The Greeley Tribune

By the numbers

$440 million — The cost for Thornton, Colo., to build a 48-inch pipeline from north of Fort Collins to Thornton.

75 — Miles of pipeline to be laid in the project, which is expected to be complete in 2025.

$155 million — Amount Thornton has spent buying water rights, converting those rights to municipal use through water court and maintaining Thornton-owned property in Weld and Larimer counties.

240,000 — Projected population of Thornton in 2065, which is how far out the pipeline should satisfy Thornton’s water needs.

75-100 — Number of years Thornton officials expect the pipeline to last.

The Poudre River is important to Thornton, Colo.’s growth plans, said Mark Koleber, the director of the Thornton Water Project. In fact, it should satisfy Thornton’s thirst until 2065. But the access to that source, a diversion point off the Poudre River, is 75 miles from Thornton.

That means Thornton’s plans include a pipeline that would snake through Weld County, Colorado.

On the evening of April 10, the Thornton City Council gave city staff the power to declare eminent domain on the more than 15 landowners in Windsor and Johnstown who haven’t yet agreed to a price for allowing Thornton’s 48-inch pipeline to run through their property.

Thornton may not use eminent domain, but now that Thornton staff have the power to declare it, it serves as a hefty bargaining chip. When a government entity declares eminent domain, it still pays for the property — fair market value — but landowners don’t have a choice in the sale.

The pipeline also could dig up some bitter feelings between Weld residents and Thornton.

To understand why a pipeline carrying water could engender hard feelings, you’d first have to understand how Thornton has been viewed in Weld since the 1980s. It’s fair to say they were viewed as “the bad guys,” and likely, for many Weld residents, they still are.

Thornton bought up the bulk of nearly 20,000 acres of Weld farmland in the mid-80s. They weren’t looking to grow crops or build houses. Thornton wanted the water rights. The $155 million campaign followed the so-called practice of “buy and dry,” a move cities use to gain water to supply their inevitable growth while drying out farmland those water rights once served in the process.

The goal, always, was to dry up the farms and build a pipeline to serve residential water needs in the growing, metro-area city.

“The city of Thornton looked all the way from down in the Arkansas Valley up through the systems we’re already using — like Clear Creek — to identify (water sources) that can provide that long-term volume of water,” Koleber said.

Landowners can profit from those moves, but part of the problem came when Thorton left the homes on the land to rot and didn’t take care of the weeds that sprouted in the parched landscape. Many neighbors, in fact, called Thornton a slumlord.

Now comes the pipeline, 75 miles of it, and another $400 million — and, potentially, another fight as Thornton works to buy land necessary to install the pipeline and satisfy its drinking water needs until 2065.

Koleber knows there were problems between Thornton and Weld in the past. But Thornton made moves to correct them.

Thornton officials now come up once per year to update county commissioners on the state of their land holdings — the land that was once the source of dust and despair as late as 2009. Their grasslands are taking off well, officials said at a recent meeting, and a program to repair disheveled homes is now complete. The city now engages in continual upkeep.

Weld County Commissioner Mike Freeman, who once described Thornton officials as “absolutely the most difficult people to deal with in that community,” said things have changed.

“As time has gone on, they’ve tried to be good neighbors,” Freeman said.

For a water supply slated to satisfy Thornton’s thirst for decades to come, Koleber sees land maintenance and good communication as a small price to pay.

“You have to have a water supply, and that’s part of what you need to do to get the water supply,” Koleber said. “We like to think we’re doing it right — being good stewards and good neighbors.”


Thornton won’t officially submit a permit application with Weld until the midpoint of 2018, but officials already have met with Weld planning staff. Everyone knows what’s coming.

The biggest point to come out of that meeting might also be the most contentious: Weld County officials don’t want the pipeline in the right-of-way of County Line Road, also known as Weld County Road 13.

That means the pipeline will run through — under, actually — people’s property. But it also means landowners will get paid for that. Weld officials say if landowners have to deal with construction in front of their homes or near their fields, they might as well get paid for it.

Freeman, who represents District 1, which encompasses Ault and Pierce, said producers farm right up to the road.

“So even if they put the pipeline in the right-of-way (of the road), it’s going to be a huge impact to the guy farming that ground,” Freeman said. “To us, it made sense if you’re going to impact me as a landowner, I should get paid for it.”

Koleber said residents are concerned about the location of the pipeline. In Larimer County, the pipeline will go right under Douglas County Road — impacting one lane of traffic during the construction but avoiding residents’ property.

In Weld, getting the necessary easements won’t be easy. Officials in Thornton already are eyeing stretches in Windsor and Johnstown in an attempt to get ahead of impending construction projects. The city could declare eminent domain on up to 17 properties, including property along Weld 13 in Windsor and property along Weld 13.5 and Weld 15 in Johnstown, Koleber said.


But Koleber very much wants to avoid being seen as the bad guy again. City staff have hosted four public forums, each featuring about 120 residents. Koleber said communication is key, as is avoiding problems before they crop up.

An example: Once the pipeline gets to Weld 13, and heads south, it may take a meandering path. If there’s a house on the east, the pipeline will curve west. If there are wetlands on the west, it will curve east.

In some cases, such as the declaration of eminent domain, there may be no way to avoid conflict, but Koleber promises to pay fair market value for the land necessary to move Thornton’s pipeline south.

The potential pitfalls will still exist after 2025, when the pipeline would first operate.

Today, just one-third of Thornton’s 17,000-plus acres of Weld farmland have been dried up. Eventually, every acre will see the same fate. Instead of water running through the Larimer County Canal, east into Weld, Thornton will divert it into a pipeline above Fort Collins.

That brings us back to the trip to the source: the headgate of the Larimer County Canal, where water is diverted from the Poudre before it heads east to help thousands of acres of crops grow. It’s a bumpy, off-road affair, the raised ground near the ditch just wide enough for one vehicle. There’s a gate, then a second gate.

The ditch is managed by the Water Supply and Storage Co., but Koleber has the keys. It helps that Thornton owns half the company’s water rights and stocks the board.

Rainbow trout tease in shallow water off the Poudre. It’s so clear it might just be heavier air. But water wasn’t flowing in the ditch just yet.

When it does, it still won’t feed the Thornton pipeline. The goal for that is 2025, and Koleber and Thornton consultant Cody Wertz were there to trace the route — from the Poudre to Thornton.

From the Poudre, the water flows to several reservoirs north of Fort Collins. From there, it will be diverted into a 48-inch pipeline, which will snake east to County Line Road to fill a water tank at the top of a hill. Pumps help get it there.

From there, through the use of gravity, the water will work its way south toward Thornton. Another pump station somewhere along the way will help it get up and over the rest of the hills before Thornton.

It sounds simple enough, but between permits and acquiring easements and 75 miles of construction, Koleber said it will add up, meaning the pipeline won’t be bringing water to Thornton until 2025.

“I’m looking forward to it being done; that’s going to be a great day for Thornton,” Koleber said. ❖

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