I’ve made a career out of working to protect, restore and create opportunities to safely enjoy our nation’s rivers. After traveling to rivers across the world, I still relish coming home to the Poudre.
I found the Poudre River when the Mishawaka Amphitheater drew me from Denver into dancing on its banks in high school. I eventually settled with my family only a few blocks from its winding course through Fort Collins, the city I’ve now called home for over 25 years.
Living in Fort Collins makes it really easy to visit and enjoy the Poudre right out our front door, and with the new whitewater park downtown, it’s created even more opportunities for our friends, family and community to experience our river on a daily basis. Northern Colorado is blessed with a true gem.
It’s not a secret, though, that the Poudre below its 66-mile canyon is in trouble. It’s not uncommon in the spring for healthy flushing flows built off melting snowpack to be raging down its Wild and Scenic canyon, while as soon as the river spills out into the plains there’s so much water being diverted that there’s barely a trickle running through our cities and towns.
This downstream stretch of river is a National Heritage Area but it’s being treated like a tortured prisoner, the warden refusing to provide even the most basic nourishment. This malnourishment continues to get worse with our changing climate and the river faces even deeper cuts to its flows, despite the Poudre supporting a “$950,000-$2.7 million whitewater industry and a recreational fishing industry that brings $3-4 million per year into (Larimer) county.”
I earned an undergraduate and masters degree in natural resource management from Colorado State University. Because of that background and my love for the river, I’ve found myself engaged with the Northern Integrated Supply Project for more than 20 years. The supply project, as it currently stands, would fill two new reservoirs near the canyon mouth that, combined, would be larger than Horsetooth Reservoir, depriving the river of even more of its water, and pipe it to 15 Northern Colorado communities, many outside the river’s watershed.
Instead, we should forget the pipeline, and supply this water via the Poudre itself, restoring revitalizing flows to a river that’s already seen a decline and degradation in its historic flows of over 60%.
This nature-based vision could truly restore the river by conveying water destined for downstream users via this strange and unusual place for the water: in the actual river!
One of the main arguments against this option is that the water will become less clean as it travels down its natural corridor. However, the water filtration technology exists to clean the water from the Northern Integrated Supply Project, returning a beneficial flow regime to a huge segment of the Poudre, improving the ecological health of the river, increasing equitable and safe recreation opportunities on the river, and creating climate change resilience — while still delivering municipal water to project participants.
It’s a win-win-win, and would ease many of the major conflicts stemming from the project. It would eliminate the eminent-domain issues associated with building the pipeline; it would put water back into the river instead of draining it further; and it would cost the project participants less to deliver the same water. Instead, we’re being force-fed an antiquated plan that, any way you slice it, further harms our already deeply impacted river system.
The Northern Integrated Supply Project plan, though still being litigated across multiple court proceedings, is nearing the end of a clunky, two-decade long trudge towards full permitting approval. But even a well-intentioned and permitted project can be ill-conceived, and there’s still time for this project to change course and embrace a more holistic view of not only the health of our river but of the communities and regional economy that rely on it.
According to FEMA, nature-based solutions “weave natural features into the built environment to promote adaptation and resilience.” This solution would use natural processes to combat climate change, reduce flood risk, improve water quality, restore and protect wetlands, reduce urban heat, and add recreational space.
Isn’t this what we want for our communities? Wouldn’t it be amazing if a water development project in Colorado was truly a win for the river itself and the long-term health of the people who live around the river? This could be the largest river restoration project in Colorado history, while at the same time supplying municipal water to a huge amount of Northern Colorado’s citizens. Think of the statement that would make!
And think of the example it would set for the rest of the West as we all struggle with a future of altered and reduced water supplies.