EPA criticizes regional water project NISP | MyWindsorNow.com

EPA criticizes regional water project NISP

Catherine Sweeney
csweeney@greeleytribune.com

The Environmental Protection Agency has joined the small chorus of organizations scolding the environmental impact studies for a contentious regional water storage project.

The agency sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the permit process for the Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP. The EPA criticized the Corps' impact studies, saying they don't delve deep enough into the environmental risks NISP poses.

NISP is a collaborative effort to increase northern Colorado's water supply. The plan, which is headed by water provider Northern Water, would benefit 15 municipalities and water districts by diverting water from the Cache la Poudre River and storing it in two new reservoirs. One would be located near Fort Collins, the other north of Greeley near Ault.

The goal is to save water that would usually flow through Colorado into Nebraska. As Colorado's population continues to shoot up, water supply is becoming increasingly important.

Despite growing demand, the project has garnered varying levels of concern — from opposition groups claiming NISP will destroy the river to nearby municipalities suggesting further mitigation efforts.

Save the Poudre, the opposition group calling for the project's rejection, in a news release about the EPA's letter Thursday, highlighted the agency's water quality concerns.

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The letter gives background on the Poudre and South Platte rivers, saying the systems are already being strained by the numerous users drawing from them.

The 14-page report lists several concerns, including negative impacts on water flow and water quality.

During dry years, some areas of the Poudre River could see a water flow reduction of up to 78 percent, the report stated. Stark water reduction can harm a river in various ways. Smaller amounts of water are easier to warm, so cuts in flow can raise the river's temperature. The reduction also decreases dilution, which can harm water quality because of sedimentary and vegetation buildup.

"That is absolutely worst case," said Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner. "That's the worst case in the worst year."

The range in reductions the report lists, which bottoms out at 18 percent in some examples, is a result of rainfall variance throughout the year and from one year to another, Werner said.

He projected the reduction in water flows would probably average closer to 25 percent.

Other EPA complaints include too few alternatives listed in the study and too little information on mitigation plans.

Because of the list of concerns, the EPA concluded that the environmental impact study has not yet provided the information needed to prove it can comply with Clean Water Act standards.

Gary Wockner, spokesman for the Save the Poudre group, said that taking the time and money to bring the project up to compliance would be a waste.

"We encourage NISP participants to drop this project and focus on alternatives that are faster, cheaper and easier to implement," he said in the release.

The city of Fort Collins passed a resolution this month saying it couldn't support NISP.

That resolution is less harsh than they one the council passed in 2008, Werner said. Then, it was outright opposition.

The Corps released its first environmental impact study in 2008. After some backlash from the city of Fort Collins and various others, the agency decided to update the plan and undergo a second study, which was released this summer.

The staff members at the city of Greeley offered an even softer criticism. Although they voiced support for the project, they raised concerns that the current plan would cost Greeley millions in environmental damage, and that there isn't enough of a mitigation plan for the area. They said instead of sending a comment to the Corps asking for rejection, they hope to work with Northern to make improvements to the plan.

Amid the criticism, Northern Water continues to insist its goals are in sync with its more skeptical counterparts.

"We're all shooting for the same thing: a healthy, sustainable river," Werner said. "We certainly think we can do that in the context of the NISP project."

What’s next?

The Army Corps of Engineers released a second environmental impact study for the Northern Integrated Supply this summer. After the release, the agency held a public comment session, prompting government organizations, activists groups and residents to give their input about the project. That closed Sept. 3.

The Corps will now study all of those comments and implement them into its final environmental impact study. Officials believe this will take at least a year. Once that is finished and its public comment session closes, the Corps will take a year or so to make its final decision whether NISP will receive its permit.

The process has already been under way for 12 years.

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