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Colorado environment group sues Army Corps of Engineers over $2B river diversion plan

A Colorado environmental group is asking a federal judge to strike down a $2 billion plan that would reroute river water to the state’s expanding northern communities.

The nonprofit Save the Poudre last week filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in Denver, arguing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should not have issued a permit for the project, to be carried about by Northern Water.

The project, called the Northern Integrated Supply Project, would involve building two new reservoirs and piping 40,000 acre-feet of additional water to 15 providers in Northern Colorado. For reference, a typical U.S. household uses about 1 acre-foot of water each year.

Estimating that the region’s population could double by 2050, the utility stressed a need to boost the region’s water supply and ensure “a high-quality way of life” for these future residents.

The first of the two planned reservoirs, the Glade Reservoir near Fort Collins, would store water diverted from Cache la Poudre River — the focus of the environmental group’s lawsuit.

The Galeton Reservoir, meanwhile, would contain water rerouted from the South Platte River and would be located adjacent to the city of Greeley.

Last week’s lawsuit, according to the plaintiffs, is occurring “in the 20th year of bungled and massively delayed permitting for the NISP boondoggle.”

Their filing accused the Army Corps of Engineers of violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Water Act when it granted the permit to Northern Water.

The authorization in question, per the lawsuit, involved the construction and operation of “a massive dam,” the reservoirs and the diversions via Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

This clause regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into the waters of the U.S. and requires a permit before any such activity occurs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for administering Section 404 permitting decisions and for enforcing related provisions, per the clause.

The lawsuit accused the Army Corps of Engineers of failing to conduct a sufficient environmental impact statement (EIS), while alleging the company “moved full steam ahead” without considering a compromise solution proposed by the plaintiffs.

That solution, proposed by Save the Poudre in 2022, offered support to a plan that would send all the water downstream in the Poudre River rather than diverting it via pipelines.

The plaintiffs expressed concern that the current version of the project could “degrade the Cache la Poudre River” and threaten wetlands — adversely impacting recreational activities and degrading water quality.

“The ecological impacts will be astounding,” the lawsuit noted.

The case estimated that the project would divert about 35 percent of the river’s water each year as it flows through Fort Collins. In some months, that figure could be as high as 65 percent of the city’s remaining flow, the plaintiffs noted.

“After 20 years, we now have no choice but to file this lawsuit and let it play out in court which will likely take several more years,” Gary Wockner, director of Save the Poudre, said in a statement.

Northern Water first embarked on the permitting process for the Northern Integrated Supply Project in August 2004 — publishing a draft EIS in April 2008, a supplemental draft EIS in June 2015 and a final EIS in July 2018.

In total, the environmental assessments evaluated more than 200 water storage facilities and 16 potential supply sources, with four project alternatives ultimately considered in the EIS, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

After years of pushback from environmental groups and infrastructural delays in adjacent municipalities, the Army Corps finally issued the Section 404 permit in December 2022.

“Northern Water has not had the opportunity to explore the issues brought forth in the action against the federal government,” Jeff Stahla, a spokesperson for the comment, said in an emailed statement.

The statement expressed confidence, however, in the Army Corps’s comprehensive work and that the permit issued to the project “will be affirmed based on the detailed work done over the years and extensive mitigation being included.”

In a “Facts and Fiction” section of the project’s website, Northern Water stressed that water strategically discharged from the planned Glade Reservoir “will help improve flows in the Poudre River even during droughts.”

The Hill has reached out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for comment.

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