Judge Stephen J. Jouard of Larimer County District Court ruled in favor of the Larimer County Board of Commissioners' decision to deny the city of Thornton's application to build a water pipeline in the county, a major blow to the city in its years-long effort to complete the Thornton Water Project by 2025.
The ruling forces Thornton to appeal the decision with the Colorado Court of Appeals or submit a new application, creating new problems for the 26-mile stretch of proposed pipeline in Larimer County.
Jouard's decision arrived after three years of back-and-forth conversations between Larimer County and its citizens to determine the least disruptive route for Thornton's pipeline, which the city has determined is necessary to adequately supply water to residents in the future.
“We are certainly disappointed and disagree with elements of the Larimer County District Court's decision,” said Thornton spokesperson Todd Barnes. “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.”
Decades ago, Thornton purchased water from the Water Supply and Storage Company from a reservoir north of Fort Collins. To successfully deliver it to Thornton, the city needs to complete a 75-mile-long pipeline that courses through Larimer and Weld counties.
Thornton filed its first application for the stretch in Larimer County on Jan. 5, 2018. The route in the application was one of four viable paths the pipeline could travel. Larimer County staff said the first application met all the criteria, according to the city's complaint in Larimer County District Court. However, the county planning commission recommended that the board of commissioners deny the application, which it ultimately did.
In subsequent months, the city revised its application several times over, proposing the alternate routes it initially identified. None of the alternative routes involved diverting water down the Poudre River in place of a pipeline, a suggestion the city has vehemently rejected. However, some citizens and county commissioners have endorsed the Poudre River alternative.
Ultimately, the board issued its final rejection of Thornton's application March 19, 2019 and said the city's application didn't meet seven of the 12 criteria required for approval. The board cited the Poudre River alternative as a reason for its denial. The city filed its civil case in Larimer County District Court April 16, 2019.
Though Jouard ultimately sided with the county commissioners, he didn't do so completely. He said three of the criteria the board used to deny the application were valid, such as the pipeline being inconsistent with the county master plan and that the pipeline would have “significant adverse effects on associated land without adequate mitigation.” Meanwhile, the judge said there wasn't enough evidence to support the other four criteria the board cited in its denial.
One of Jouard's big findings the city celebrated is that the board could not deny the application because of the Poudre River alternative. “We agree with the court's decision that the commissioners exceeded their authority to require any consideration of a non-pipeline alternative such as sending Thornton's water down the Poudre River,” Barnes said.
Barnes said the city doesn't anticipate delays in the overall timeline for the Thornton Water Project's, which the city plans to complete by 2025. “We've prioritized other sections of the project so we have time to work on the issues in Larimer County,” he said.
So far, the city has completed five miles of it in Johnstown and Windsor. Thornton will go before the Weld County Board of Commissioners May 5 for approval of the pipeline's other major section.