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Thornton set to reverse Weld County’s denial of $450 million water pipeline

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Elected leaders in Thornton are likely to overrule a decision by Weld County to deny the suburb a permit to build part of a 72-mile-long water pipeline.

Tuesday’s city council vote is the latest in a long-running battle over Thornton wanting to transport water it has rights to in the Cache La Poudre River northwest of Fort Collins to nearly 150,000 residents in the sprawling and fast-growing Denver suburb.

Thornton needs the water badly enough that it warned developers in November that future home-building could be in jeopardy; the city currently has access to enough water to service 170,000 residents, but its long-term population target is 260,000.

“We have the obligation to do everything we can to make sure residents and businesses in Thornton receive the benefit of this water we own,” Mayor Jan Kulmann said Monday. “The effect of this resolution would be to allow Thornton to commence construction of our water pipeline through unincorporated parts of (Weld) county.”

Thornton is relying on a state statute that allows the reversal of a denial — in this case, by Weld County on May 5 — based on a city’s financing of and jurisdiction over a utility project even when it is outside its borders. Thornton has paid $578 million for 289 shares of water and storage rights in the Poudre River, beginning in the 1980s.

Thornton spokesman Todd Barnes said the city owns 98% of the easement it needs for its 42-inch diameter pipe in Weld County. In a letter sent to the city last week, Weld County Commissioner Steve Moreno acknowledged that “clearly, the Thornton City Council has statutory authority to override the Board’s decision to deny (the pipeline permit).”

Thornton has already laid seven miles of pipe through Windsor and Johnstown but was stymied from going further after Weld County issued its denial to bury pipe in unincorporated parts of the county. While overruling the denial should clear the way for pipeline construction in Weld County, completion of the $450 million project is far from certain because the city faces an even steeper hurdle in Larimer County.

In 2019, Larimer County denied Thornton a permit for the 26 miles of pipe the city needs to place there. Because the county used its state-sanctioned land-use powers to deny a permit for the pipeline, it is not subject to the same override threat. Thornton sued Larimer County over its denial and the case is with the Colorado Court of Appeals.

“We’re confident we’ll get the water in the long run,” Barnes said. “We have a property right to it.”

The advocacy group Save the Poudre has called on Thornton to leave the water in the river through Fort Collins and then pull it out in Windsor. Organization founder Gary Wockner said it would improve the health of the Poudre River and require less pipeline to be built. He added that the city “needs to learn how to work with stakeholders instead of against them.”

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