Court upholds Larimer County commissioners’ denial of Thornton pipeline

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A judge has upheld the Larimer County board of commissioners’ denial of a permit for the Thornton pipeline project.

In a Monday court decision, 8th Judicial District Judge Stephen Jouard sided with Larimer County in a lawsuit filed by Thornton officials contesting the commissioners’ decision to not grant a permit for the pipeline construction. 

In a February 2019 decision, Larimer County commissioners unanimously denied a 1041 application for the pipeline’s proposed path through Larimer County, saying the project did not meet seven of the 12 criteria for the permit. 

Jouard’s decision, released Monday, said Thornton officials did not meet three of the criteria required: The plan submitted was not consistent with the county’s Master Plan, did not provide reasonable design or siting alternatives, and did not provide an adequate mitigation plan to any adverse environmental effects of the land, according to court documents.  

“Thornton was hopeful to move forward in Larimer County with the process of bringing the quality water Thornton owns via pipeline to our residents,” Thornton’s Communications Director Todd Barnes said in an email statement. “We remain committed to ensuring the people of Thornton get the water they own and after taking sufficient time to review the judge’s decision, we will determine our next steps.”

Barnes did not say if Thornton officials plan to appeal this decision.

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The pipeline would have transported Poudre River water from reservoirs northeast of Fort Collins to a water treatment plant in Thornton to support the city’s growing population. 

“Thornton’s proposed pipeline violates Larimer County laws,” said Gary Wockner of Save The Poudre in an email statement. “Instead of appealing this case and throwing more good money after bad, Thornton needs to sit down with stakeholders in Larimer County and find a collaborative path forward — using the ‘Poudre River Option’ — to get their water while restoring the Poudre River and protecting homeowners’ private property.”

Thornton officials purchased about 100 farms in Larimer and Weld counties in the 1980s with plans to eventually use the farms’ valuable senior water rights for Thornton’s municipal water supply. The city converted the water rights for municipal use after a prolonged battle in Colorado’s water court. The practice, known as buy-and-dry, contributes to the dwindling of Colorado’s irrigated agricultural land and colored some pipeline opponents’ impression of the project.

Many Larimer County residents objected to the pipeline’s proposed path and argued Thornton should run the water through a portion of the Poudre River instead. 

“Thornton has already dried up thousands of acres of Northern Colorado farms, in a deceptive scheme to send Poudre River Water to suburban, bluegrass lawns,” said Karen Wagner of No Pipe Dream in an email statement. “Since the denied application is only the first of the 3-pipeline Thornton Northern Project, No Pipe Dream strongly recommends that Thornton resubmit an application that protects property owners rights, quality of life and preserves the Poudre River.”

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Larimer County commissioners included Thornton’s lack of consideration of the Poudre River alternative in their initial denial. In Monday’s court decision, Jouard found the commissioners had no authority to deny the permit because Thornton officials didn’t explore that specific alternate path for the pipeline. 

However, Jouard upheld their decision because the application failed to meet multiple criteria.

While disappointed with the court’s ruling, Barnes said Thornton agrees with the court’s decision that the county “exceeded their authority to require any consideration of a non-pipeline alternative such as sending Thornton’s water down the Poudre River.”

Larimer County’s rejection of Thornton’s permit application applies only to the proposed path through unincorporated parts of the county. Thornton has intergovernmental agreements with Windsor and Timnath allowing pipeline construction and is crafting an agreement with Johnstown, Barnes previously told the Coloradoan. 

Construction on those sections of the pipeline began in March 2020.

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Sady Swanson covers public safety, criminal justice, Larimer County government and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at sswanson@coloradoan.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.