Commissioners approve strict permitting process on water lines
Weld County officials adopted new water line regulations last week, but some say the rules meddle where they don’t belong.
The Board of County Commissioners voted 4-1 to require almost anyone building a water pipeline through Weld to go through a public hearing process.
Cities, towns, water districts or ditch companies will have to get a use by special review permit, or USR, which requires a lengthy written application and two public hearings. Organizations within Weld County, such as the city of Greeley, are exempt from the rules and won’t have to go through the hearings. Only organizations pumping water out of the county or across it to somewhere else will have to get the permit. For example, the city of Thornton has been buying Weld County farmland and intends to drain its water, pumping it down to the city.
One county commissioner thinks no organization should have to go through such hearings.
“For me, philosophically, I just can’t support it,” said Commissioner Julie Cozad, the sole commissioner voting against the plan. “For me, it is a private property right issue.”
When companies and other organizations build a pipeline through someone’s property, they have to get what’s called an easement. That means the organization has to work with the property owner on a legal access agreement, and often, the owner gets paid.
That process ensures the property owner is protected, Cozad said.
“I don’t think the government should get in the middle of it,” she said.
If companies have to go through hearings, it gives the county commissioners control over some of the project’s specifics. They can require mitigation efforts, which the regulations’ proponents say is vital to anyone who has a pipeline going through their yard.
But it also gives county officials bargaining chips on other parts of the project. For example, they could tell a company it will only get permission if it changes its route. Cozad said this violated the company’s private property rights.
The USR process can be expensive. The application itself can cost $2,500, and it requires studies that some companies would have to contract out. Cozad said those costs get passed down to water users.
“When we add regulation to things, it does increase the cost to consumers,” she said.
She also said this regulation was crafted to address one issue in particular. The city of Thornton bought Weld farmland in the 1980s with the intention to strip it of its water rights. The city would then transfer that legal water access to its residents.
“They didn’t take that water,” Cozad said. “They did purchase those farms. … That was their right to do that.”
Other commissioners voiced concerns about Weld’s future access to water and lack of resident protection.
“Right now it’s one (city), I agree,” Commissioner Sean Conway said about Thornton. “But it’s going to be others. … Up and down the South Platte, the Poudre, we’re seeing more thirsty municipalities.”
Officials believe projects like these are going to become more common, so the county needs some kind of mechanism to give input and let neighboring residents do the same.
There are already regulations on pipelines, Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said. But there’s nothing that allows residents to speak up for themselves to regulators.
“I’ve been in those negotiations with pipelines on my property,” she said. ”I don’t know if any of you have been through it. I have.”
She said it was tough, and having another way to negotiate with the companies would help.
Although no current commissioners fell on Cozad’s side of the argument, a former one did.
Bill Jerke, who was also a state legislator and is now the executive director of energy industry advocate group FUEL Colorado, was the only resident who took the stand during the meeting.
“Obviously, I’m here because I oppose this,” he said. “I just have a number of issues.”
The state already has its regulations on water transactions, and people already go through water court, he said. Under these rules, the county commissioners could go against all those other agencies and decline a USR permit, which would block projects.
“I’m not sure you’re granted that right as the county government,” he said.
He also doubted the USR process could protect residents. Usually, a landowner has to file for the permit, not the developer. Residents and the entity working to get the pipeline would have to work on the application together.
“If (the residents are) agreeing to be represented by the entity, how are they being abused?” he said.
Last, he accused the board of interfering with business.
“As much as I dislike Weld water leaving Weld, … I think getting county government interfering … is even more bothersome to me,” he said.