Colorado's Cache la Poudre River flows east out of Rocky Mountain National Park and through a canyon northwest of Fort Collins. Along the way, like any other Western river, it is diverted to water croplands and fill washing machines. It is a magnet for rafters and fisher-folk, and the people of Fort Collins regard it as an urban treasure as it runs through the heart of their town.
The Poudre -- Colorado's only river with a designated wild and scenic stretch -- is also one of the few rivers in the state that has no main-stem dams. Yet it was named the third most endangered river in the United States by American Rivers in 2008, because, like all Western rivers, it is eyed greedily by water providers on the hunt for more acre-feet.
Currently, the developers of three reservoir projects want the Poudre's water. Gary Wockner of Save Our Poudre, a coalition of 15 organizations whose vision is to develop, implement, and monitor a community-based cooperative river restoration plan, said that these withdrawals "are designed in part or in whole to drown, divert, dry up, or destroy the Poudre River."
Conservationists were relieved when the city of Greeley, one of the reservoir developers, found itself recently blocked by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its effort to replace one segment of an aging pipeline. The agency, which has the contradictory mission of both permitting and protecting any new river development, said it needed to develop standards to evaluate the several projects.
The proposed projects include enlarging reservoirs owned by the cities of Greeley and Fort Collins, one from 5,000 acre-feet capacity to 53,000 acre-feet; the other from 6,400 acre-feet to 40,000 acre-feet. The third reservoir proposed for the Poudre is the goal of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and is strongly supported by a number of Colorado Front Range towns that are desperate for water. Interestingly, neither Greeley nor Fort Collins supports the conservancy district's project, which is called Glade. Then again, those two cities have their own reservoirs. Glade would be five miles long, 260 feet deep, and have a 17,000 acre-feet capacity. Its water would come straight from the Poudre River, and, according to opponents of the project, reduce the river to a trickle as it passes through Fort Collins during certain times of the year.
Save Our Poudre not only strongly opposes Glade, but recently sounded the alarm about the cumulative effect of these three proposed reservoirs, plus the Greeley pipeline. Greeley has been quietly replacing the old pipeline from its water treatment plant northwest of Fort Collins with a new one that will boost its carrying capacity by 5 million gallons a day. With little public involvement, the city chose a pipeline route that will cut through a narrow, thickly vegetated riparian corridor right beside the river. Laying the 60-inch pipe will destroy both the habitat for numerous plants and animals, including nesting birds rare to the area and possibly the endangered Preble's jumping mouse. It will also wipe out an historic railroad, complete with ties, rails and masterfully masoned bridges.
Property owners never even heard of the pipeline until spring 2007, four years after the project began. In an odd approach that Greeley officials claimed was necessary for budgeting, the city broke its project into five segments, gaining permits for, and starting construction of, one segment at a time. In 2007, when a property owner confronted a surveyor on her land, he claimed that Greeley was looking at 18 possible pipeline routes. A few months later, Greeley selected the route it deemed the least expensive and intrusive. Still, property owners were not contacted or informed about a public advisory committee meeting concerning the pipeline.
"They chose the route without consulting anyone in the community," landowner Mary Humstone said. "They did not want our input." Then this June, property owners were served with eminent domain papers to allow Greeley access to conduct surveys and seismic testing over the disputed route. For the time being, however, the pipeline must wait on the Army Corps' environmental review standards.
The fate of an historic resource, a century-old riparian habitat, and the health of a wild and scenic river remain up in the air. This battle for water in the face of intense demands seems all too familiar. Where do we stand? With the cities and their so-called "foresight" in tapping new water for future growth? Or on the side of a full-flowing Poudre, and a peaceful walk down an old railroad bed shaded by thick shrubs and towering cottonwoods?
Carol Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Fort Collins, Colorado.