Boulder County region thirsts for water

If any of the officials who manage water systems in the region felt that dealing with the effects of a changing climate was just a gradual concern, the Dec. 30 Marshall Fire was an eye-opener.

“There’s fire codes that determine how much water you need on hand to fight fires, but I’m sure fire codes don’t anticipate 350 homes on fire at the same time,” said Alex Ariniello, Superior’s public works and utilities director. “I know we’re not prepared for that.”

Water managers throughout the Boulder and St. Vrain valleys say planning for emergencies as well as residential and commercial growth rates that are projected to double in some areas are top of mind.

Boulder “has an adequate water supply to meet our current needs,” said Samantha Glavin, the city’s communications program manager. “However, we did conduct an analysis of projected water supply and demands under different climate-change scenarios in the future, looking at 2050 and 2070, specifically. According to this analysis, the city will not be able to reliably meet our projected water demands in the most extreme scenarios. We are in the process of determining how to address these future scenarios through our water-supply policies and programs, including things like whether we would need to increase our water supply, reduce demand through water conservation, or manage droughts through water-use restrictions.”

Some of Boulder’s drinking water reserve also is stored at the Boulder Reservoir. (Timothy Hurst/File)

Kim Hutton, Boulder’s water resources senior manager, said the periodic updates to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan — the next one is due in 2025 — provide projections for future population and employment growth, “and then we use those projections to calculate what future water demands will be. Most of the future population growth in Boulder will come through redevelopment and ‘densification.’

“The primary variable is climate change,” she said. “It all really depends on the direction we head with that.”

Dealing with emergencies such as the Marshall Fire required some much more immediate considerations — such as when the town of Superior ran out of water.

Superior gets its water through a line from a Louisville treatment plant, Ariniello said, “but on the night of the fire, our power had gone off. We lost our backup generators, so we had untreated water for two or three hours. When we got back up, we began treating it again. But then every fire department descended upon us and started fighting fires with our water. The hotel sprinkler system was going, The Target sprinkler system was going. We had a lot of water coming out throughout our network, so we drained the system at that point.”

One of Louisville’s plants lost power as well, said city spokeswoman Gloria Handyside, forcing its Public Works and Utilities Department to spend 18 hours ensuring that firefighters did not run out of water.

“When faced with dwindling water pressure and urgent calls from Incident Command Center and neighboring Superior, they said simply, ‘We gotta try something.’ That something,” she said, “involved driving into the fire, past downed and burning power poles, through hurricane-force winds, and working in the dark and through the night within the burn area to keep firefighters supplied with water and able to fight what is now considered the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.”

She described some heroic efforts from Louisville public works crewmen. As water pressure began to decrease, water plant operators Greg Venette and Jeff Owens drove into the fire area against evacuating traffic to connect Superior’s water to Louisville’s.

“Greg and Jeff had to physically visit water tanks in the fire area to check water levels because the lack of electricity meant they were unable to monitor water levels remotely,” she said. “This required Jeff to scale a 25-foot tower in hurricane-force winds and ‘army crawl’ to physically look inside the tank to check levels, which were low and draining quickly. … As firefighting efforts continued and water pressure got dangerously low, Greg made the difficult decision to release untreated reservoir water into the system, which is why Louisville ended up with a boil-water order.”

As the water pressure continued to dip dangerously low, she said, assistant operations manager Ben Francisco “suggested it was because as the fire destroyed homes, the water was draining from the mains. The team determined that water needed to be turned off individually at each destroyed property to allow firefighters to continue.”

In the wake of the fire and a continued smoky taste and odor to Superior’s drinking water, its Board of Trustees last week voted unanimously to rent and install a granular-activated carbon treatment system at the town’s water treatment plant.

In the wake of the fire and a continued smoky taste and odor to Superior’s drinking water, its Board of Trustees last week voted unanimously to rent and install a granular-activated carbon treatment system at the town’s water treatment plant.(Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

“We haven’t gone that far yet in terms of looking at additional storage tanks. I’m sure we’ll be doing that,” Ariniello said. “Right now we’re trying to improve the taste and odor for our residents, and then maybe stepping back and evaluating what happened and seeing, ‘Is there something we need to do from a capacity standpoint to provide for future emergencies like this?’”

Aside from planning for emergencies, the town already has “been on top of water planning modeling for a number of years,” he said, with officials projecting the municipality to grow 10-15% over the next five or six years.

“We acquired shares in the Windy Gap project to provide for our long-term needs,” he said. “Windy Gap will provide three years of firm yield, so we’ll have enough to survive a sustained drought over three years.”

Contrary to Boulder lore, Glavin said,  Arapahoe Glacier “contributes an insignificant amount of water to the city’s supply and has never been a significant source of water for the city.” Like most area communities, she said, Boulder relies on water from creeks and reservoirs east of the Continental Divide, as well as trans-mountain diversion from the Western Slope via the Colorado-Big Thompson and Windy Gap projects. That water, from the Colorado River as well as reservoirs in Grand County, is sent through the Alva B. Adams Tunnel under Rocky Mountain National Park and is stored in reservoirs on this side such as Carter Lake southwest of Loveland.

But planners with entities such as the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District have been working on some major new storage projects to meet what they project as burgeoning growth along the Front Range Urban Corridor by 2050.

One is the Windy Gap Firming Project — “firming” meaning to make firm or improve the reliability of water supplies from Windy Gap sources. It involves construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir, under construction just west of Carter Lake in Larimer County, which will provide dedicated storage to supply 30,000 acre-feet of water each year for future generations.

That project is a collaboration of 12 northeastern Colorado water providers, including Broomfield, by far its largest stakeholder in terms of dedicated water shares. It also includes Longmont, Erie, Superior, Louisville, Lafayette and the Central Weld County Water District, whose customers include the “Tri-Towns” of Firestone, Frederick and Dacono, many of whose residents commute to jobs in Longmont and Boulder.

The other, more-ambitious project is the Northern Integrated Supply Project, which would include two large reservoirs in Northern Colorado if it receives final federal approval this year.

Water managers say each acre foot of stored water is enough for approximately two families to meet their everyday needs.

New dams and lakes in general, and NISP especially, have run into fierce opposition from groups that want to keep the Cache la Poudre River and other streams free-flowing. The groups also stress conservation and growth controls as alternative solutions. Two environmental groups sued in June and September 2021 to stop NISP and have been campaigning against it for nearly a decade.

Despite vocal opposition from residents near Gross Reservoir east of Nederland, Boulder County Commissioners last fall approved a settlement allowing Denver Water to expand the dam and pool there.

Despite opposition from nearby residents, Denver Water recently won approval to expand the dam and capacity at Gross Reservoir in Boulder County. Environmentalists stress conservation and growth control as an alternative to reservoirs to meet water needs, with many noting that reservoirs lose a portion of the captured water to evaporation before the resource is allocated. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Others see underground water storage as a better option than new reservoirs, pointing out that an impoundment such as Carter Lake sees three feet of evaporation off the top per year.

If it survives legal challenges, NISP is planned for completion in 2028 and is designed to supply 13 billion gallons of water annually to 15 stakeholders, including Erie, which holds by far the largest shares, as well as the Tri-Towns, Lafayette, the Central Weld and Left Hand water districts. Left Hand has served customers in rural Boulder and Weld counties since the early 1960s; its service area is bounded by the cities of Longmont on the north and Boulder on the south, Interstate 25 on the east and the foothills on the west.

For both projects, “each participant pays a prorated share based on their level of participation,” said Jeff Stahla, public information officer for Northern Water. Of the 40,000 acre feet of water to be allocated annually from NISP, for example, Erie has been promised 6,500, the Left Hand district 4,900, Central Weld 3,500, Frederick 2,600, Lafayette 1,800, Firestone 1,300 and Dacono 1,250.

From Chimney Hollow, Broomfield has been promised an annual yield of 26,464 acre feet, which is about 29% of the total, said Brennan Middleton, water resources manager for that combined city and county. Longmont’s share is 7,500 acre feet, Erie 6,000, Superior 4,726, Louisville 2,835, Lafayette 900 and Central Weld 346.

For now, northern Front Range cities rely on existing reservoirs for storage. For Boulder, Glavin said, most city water comes from North and Middle Boulder creeks as well as from the Colorado-Big Thompson and Windy Gap projects, and is stored in impoundments such as Boulder Reservoir northeast of the city and Barker Reservoir near Nederland.

Middleton said about 60% of Broomfield’s water supply comes from the C-BT and Windy Gap projects, “and the rest we purchase from Denver Water. We’re storing about four and a half times the amount of units of volume of Windy Gap water that we own.”

Middleton said Broomfield’s current population is slightly more than 75,000, and its latest forecast for buildout by 2040 or 2050 is 115,000.

South Boulder Creek is one of Lafayette’s drinking water sources. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

In Lafayette, “right now we’re looking fine,” said city communications director Debbie Wilmot. “Some of our water rights go back to the 1800s, and our reservoirs are pretty full. We have a strong water portfolio, and it doesn’t look as though the drought predictions are super concerning in this point in time.”

Besides interests in Windy Gap and C-BT, she said, “we have ditch rights, some of it coming off of South Boulder Creek.”

Longmont subscribes to those major projects as well, but much of its supply is stored in such impoundments as Ralph Price Reservoir and Burch Lake that are fed by snowmelt and rainfall that drains from Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness into the St. Vrain River watersheds.

Erie’s primary source is the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, whose water comes via pipeline from Carter Lake to its Lynn R. Morgan Water Treatment Facility in Erie. Windy Gap is its secondary supplier, and its reservoirs also are filled through the South Boulder Canyon Ditch. In an emergency, it also can get water from Lafayette and the Left Hand district.

The Ralph Price Reservoir stores a portion of Longmont’s drinking water, which is sourced from snowmelt and rainfall in the St. Vrain watershed. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

In Weld County’s Tri-Towns, where more-affordable housing options are spurring forecasts of intense growth, the search for more water is a top priority.

In Frederick, residents east of I-25 are supplied by the town, while those to the west are customers of the Left Hand Water District. The Central Weld County Water District is under contract to deliver C-BT water to the town.

Plans call for installing a reservoir at a valley in chimney Hollow west of Loveland as part of the Windy Gap Firming Project. (Jenny Sparks / Loveland Reporter-Herald)

As part of Firestone’s multi-million-dollar investment plan to diversify its water supply, it will begin producing treated water this month from a new plant. Its plan also includes surface reservoirs, subsurface water in alluvial wells, conversion of irrigation water to municipal use and reuse of some water resources. It views the diversification as more cost-effective than just relying on Colorado-Big Thompson supplies.

The treatment plant at first will treat 1.5 million gallons of water a day, but after two planned expansions, it’s expected to have a capacity of 5 million gallons per day by 2050. Firestone uses 2.23 million gallons of treated water per day.

As part of its drive for cost savings, Firestone sued the Central Weld district last August, after it discovered that the district was charging the town for water using a fee structure that should have expired. A jury trial in that lawsuit scheduled for Nov. 28.

In neighboring Dacono, where C-BT and Windy Gap water has been treated by Central Weld since the 1980s, “we are actively looking for additional water supplies based on our growth projections,” said City Manager A.J. Euckert. The town currently has 2,221 residential units, he said, but “we could be between 35,000 and 40,000 residential units at buildout.

“We’re working hard to make sure we can sustain the growth we’re projecting,” Euckert said. “It should be no surprise there just aren’t a lot of supply options out there.”

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