Water For Urban Development

Initial Fort Collins urban development in the nineteenth century relied on raw river water, small-scale farming, and quickly constructed wooden buildings. Implementing long-term solutions required time and money that the new town lacked. While the growing population used the various local ditches for irrigation water, residents also used the same ditches for sewage disposal and for domestic needs, which introduced the risk of disease. Two entrepreneurs capitalized on the lack of a city water supply and sold buckets of water, first from a horse-drawn travois in 1877 and later from a water wagon by the bucket- or barrel-full.1

Early Fort Collins residents voted to create a water works primarily in response to the need for improved fire protection. Two devastating fires in a two-year period galvanized the community to act. On February 3, 1880, a fire destroyed the Welch Block on the northwest corner of College and Mountain Avenues, killing two people. The community began to consider and vote on water delivery options, and another fire in 1882 burned the Keystone Block on the southwest corner of Jefferson and Linden Streets. With two more lives lost, Fort Collins committed to action and accepted a $77,000 proposal from Russell and Alexander of Colorado Springs to build a water works plant. The new water works began operating in June of 1883 and included a pumping system to create pressurized water for firefighting. The city constructed a supply canal that carried water from the river to the pump house to provide hydropower and to be sand-filtered and then pumped into town. The water used to power the wheels returned to the river through a tailrace while the spinning wheel pushed filtered water into wrought iron pipes that sent it to town for fire protection. Residents could pay to hook up to the city water system but this service got a slow start as the Cache la Poudre River and various ditches satisfied most residents’ needs. An 1889 city ordinance listed water service for a four-room private dwelling at ten dollars per year.2

Between 1900 and 1910, the population of Fort Collins more than doubled, from 3,053 to 8,210. The development of the sugar beet industry in northern Colorado increased the population and diversity of Fort Collins as Germans from Russia, African Americans, and Hispanics arrived to meet the labor needs in farms and factories. Residential development and expanding industry strained the original water system. In Fort Collins and across the state, population growth caused some officials, including Colorado water commissioner Hiram Prince, to consider solutions such as diverting water from the less-populated western slope. Prince requested that the Colorado Legislature provide funding to survey the Continental Divide in an effort to find a suitable route for a west- to east- slope diversion. In 1889, Prince used $20,000 provided by the legislature to survey a tunnel from Monarch Lake to St. Vrain Creek. However, the difficult terrain delayed several transmountain diversion attempts. The first ditch that diverted water from the western to the eastern slope was the Grand River Ditch, begun in 1890. Employed by the Larimer County Ditch Company, Japanese and Mexican laborers dug the ditch by hand to divert water from the Never Summer Mountain Range to the Poudre River.3

As development expanded in the region, the City Council passed an ordinance in 1924 allowing the creation of outside water districts in new development areas surrounding the city—a decision that would prove prescient as the urban growth area spread beyond the Utilities service area in the 1960s. The ordinance also stipulated that only tax-paying residents within the city limits should benefit from the city’s infrastructure. Developers created the water districts with consideration of where Fort Collins would expand and shouldered the costs of bringing water service to the new neighborhoods.4

The growing Northern Front Range population also received an influx of water supply through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado-Big Thompson project (C-BT), while taking advantage of the dams, rapidly running water, and gleaming reservoirs for hydroelectric production, recreation, and flood control. On July 5, 1938, the Colorado-Big Thompson project began with the signing of the contract between the United States and newly created Northern Colorado Water Conservation District to manage the project. Water for irrigation remained the highest priority in the project’s early years, while electric power production, recreation, and urban growth also benefited. However, C-BT water use changed over time. In 1974, 12 percent of C-BT water served municipal and domestic uses. By 2009, municipalities owned two-thirds of C-BT water units, leasing some units back to farmers and using 40 percent for municipal and domestic purposes.5

The Great Depression and World War II slowed life and development in Fort Collins, but postwar population growth brought many from the crowded eastern United States to look for new opportunities in the vast western landscape. The West had plenty of land, but it lacked sufficient water supply and infrastructure to accommodate rapid growth. Despite this limitation, the GI Bill, industrial growth, the baby boom, and expansion of the Colorado Agricultural & Mechanical College (Colorado A&M) into Colorado State University more than doubled the Fort Collins population from 12,251 residents in 1940 to 25,027 residents in 1960. Fort Collins was progressive in its attempts to secure water rights and storage for its growing community. The Fort Collins Water Utilities led crucial decisions related to growth, planning and infrastructure, water supply, delivery and treatment that affected the rate and distribution of city expansion.

The Bureau of Reclamation and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District completed Horsetooth Reservoir in 1949 with a capacity of 156,735 acre feet and the first water was stored in 1951. In 1958, the City of Fort Collins purchased 6,052 units in the Colorado-Big Thompson system, for delivery from Horsetooth. This acquisition provided a cushion for drought years and surplus water for summer irrigation. The Cache la Poudre River and Horsetooth Reservoir remain the city’s two main sources of water supply.6

The post-war population boom required quick decision making in water operations, which sometimes led to conflicts with other water users. In the 1950s, Fort Collins purchased 8 cubic feet per second (cfs) of priority number 13, or the Coy Ditch, and attempted to move the point of diversion thirteen miles upstream to the Poudre Canyon plant in order to satisfy the beneficial use requirement. The proposed change in diversion would affect many downriver water rights holders, particularly local farmers. This plan led Fort Collins and local farmers to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Because junior water users would be adversely affected by the change in diversion of eight cfs of the Coy Ditch, the Supreme Court questioned the plan. While water rights usage can legally change from agricultural to municipal, junior water users have the right to protect their property. Senior water right holders return excess water to the river as return flows, which junior water right holders can access. A change in diversion affects junior water rights if the amount of water historically returned to the river is decreased. In Conrad C. Green, et al., v. The Chaffee Ditch Company, et al., the court ruled that the location of the original diversion could not be detached from the right itself, as it would upset historic flows. Also, more junior appropriators had expectations for their flow to remain as it did at the time of appropriation and the rights that they held had to be considered. The farmers won because the city’s needs were not a sufficient claim to take away water from junior appropriations.7

The controversy led to a general understanding that the City of Fort Collins needed a stronger planning process to ensure enough quantity and distribution, and it also needed to repair relations with the local agricultural community and other downstream users. City Council member Harvey Johnson was elected mayor while also serving as president of the Water Supply and Storage Company. With expertise in resolving supply and delivery problems and connections in the water community, Johnson was the right person at the right time to address the city’s strategic planning needs. Johnson immediately created a Water Board to provide guidance to City Council. The board was comprised of knowledgeable members with a variety of backgrounds who could advise on thoughtful and strategic water development. Initially, it focused on distribution and how to balance the needs of the community with the needs of other basin users. Later, the Board refocused its attention from distribution to supply.8

The city’s acquisition of Colorado-Big Thompson units supplemented its water supply but did not totally meet the projected needs related to population growth. In 1971, to protect its current supplies and to plan for future water demands, the city acquired the Michigan Ditch and Joe Wright Reservoir near Cameron Pass. North Poudre Irrigation Company (NPIC) traded the historic ditch and reservoir for the city’s shares in the New Mercer, Larimer County No. 2, Josh Ames, and Arthur ditches. The Michigan Ditch system dated back to 1902 when William Rist and John McNabb diverted water from the Michigan River, a tributary of the North Platte, over Cameron Pass to Joe Wright Creek, a tributary of the Cache la Poudre River. The men later sold the ditch to Mountain Supply and Ditch Company, which then transferred it to NPIC in 1908. NPIC extended the ditch with 2,000 feet of wooden stave pipe in 1923 and it reached Lake Agnes in 1925. By 1971, when the utilities bought the ditch and reservoir system, it needed extensive renovations to reach its full potential, resulting in one of the largest projects the utilities had undertaken until then.

The Water Board, led by president Ward Fischer, and the Fort Collins City Council, under mayor Harvey Johnson, considered other options for meeting Fort Collins’ water supply demands, including investment in the Windy Gap project, purchasing more units of C-BT water, or expanding the Joe Wright reservoir to hold more water. After consultation with the Water Board, the City Council chose to acquire more water within the Michigan Ditch/Joe Wright system. The Board identified this as the preferred alternative because it was the “most cost-effective means of supplying the needs of Fort Collins,” as Water Board president Ward Fischer explained. It also gave the city freedom to manage its water supply more effectively through total utilization of the Michigan Ditch/Joe Wright system rather than merely overseeing portions of the Windy Gap or C-BT project.9

In 1980, the conclusion of the enlargement project at Joe Wright Reservoir and Michigan Ditch raised the storage capacity from 800 acre feet to 7,200 acre feet—an important contribution to the City’s raw water holdings increase of 182 percent between 1972 and 1982. The city also provided recreational opportunities at the scenic reservoir that met the Forest Service’s requirements for recreational use, including visitor facilities and a 600 acre-feet minimum level to maintain fish survival.10
From Fort Collins to Pueblo, the population along Colorado’s Front Range continued to boom in the 1970s. A 1975 Forest Service report on the Michigan Ditch/Joe Wright project explained that water planning and development would become “a growth facilitator rather than a growth inducement force.”11 Fort Collins relied on this very strategy. In a 1989 interview, Ward Fischer recalled that the city’s limited planning efforts in the mid-twentieth century created an opening for the Water Board to use water as a “planning tool” for urban development. For example, in 1978 when Hewlett-Packard (HP) constructed the facility on Harmony Road, many Fort Collins residents voiced concern about the city extending that far southeast. As a “matter of policy,” the Water Board recommended that the city provide water service to HP rather than allow surrounding water districts to provide the water. With the inevitability of Fort Collins’ southward growth, the city successfully anticipated the expansion and benefited from the relationship between water services and infrastructure development. The water and sanitation districts that developed to provide services beyond the city limits in the early 1960s, and that today serve 50 percent of the urban growth area, played an important complementary role. Known as the “Tri-Districts,” the East Larimer County Water District, the North Weld County Water District, and the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District also exchange water with the City of Fort Collins, but remain separate, quasi-municipal entities that are not governed by the Fort Collins City Council, even though many of the customers they serve now live within the Fort Collins city limits due to annexation.12

The city continued to emphasize an adequate and secure supply of water for its growing populace. The Halligan Reservoir, located northwest of Fort Collins was built in 1910 by the North Poudre Irrigation Company (NPIC) to store water for its shareholders. In 1993, Fort Collins Utilities acquired the rights to the reservoir and surrounding land, but not the water in the reservoir. To provide a reserve for drought years, Utilities aimed to enlarge the dam to store spring runoff water that the city owns but could not store. The city’s 2003 Water Supply and Demand Management Policy also pointed to the need for additional long-term water storage to capture surplus in wet years for use in periods of drought and high demand. As a key component of that strategy, the proposal to enlarge Halligan Reservoir required compliance with federal environmental law to determine its potential impact and suitability as the best alternative for meeting the required storage needs. That process began officially in 2006 when the cities of Fort Collins and Greeley sought permits with the intent to enlarge both Halligan Reservoir and Greeley’s Seaman Reservoir. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will be completed in 2016 and will determine the environmental effects of the two reservoir enlargement projects on the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River.13

Additionally, reservoirs not owned or used by the City of Fort Collins still influence its current operations. In 2007, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (NCWCD) proposed a water storage and distribution plan called the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP). A keystone of the proposed project requires damming the Cache la Poudre River to form Glade Reservoir northwest of Fort Collins. With a capacity of 170,000 acre-feet, Glade Reservoir would be twenty percent bigger than its neighboring Horsetooth Reservoir. Its purpose would be to store water that otherwise ran to downriver states for fifteen participating Northern Colorado water providers, including cities, towns and water districts. Proponents of NISP see the capture of water otherwise lost and recreational opportunities for Northern Colorado. Another advantage of the project is that it gives NCWCD the opportunity to exercise rights on the Cache la Poudre River that would prevent the City of Thornton from developing the conditional rights it owns. Thus, proponents believe that to main regional control of the river within Northern Colorado requires a development project such as NISP. Opponents of the project fear diverting water from the Cache la Poudre will degrade the river’s quality, compromising its habitats, and require more costly treatment for the City of Fort Collins.14

–Condensed and edited from Christy Dickinson with Maren Thompson Bzdek, “Growing Water: A History of the Fort Collins Water Utilities,” (Public Lands History Center, Colorado State University, 2013).

  1. Molly Nortier and Mike Smith, From Bucket to Basin: 100 Years of Water Service (Fort Collins Water Utilities, 1982), 4.
  2. Wayne C. Sundberg, Fort Collins’ First Water Works: Again a Work in Progress (Fort Collins: Poudre Landmarks Foundation, Inc., 2004), 59, 61; City of Fort Collins, Revised Ordinances of the City of Fort Collins (Fort Collins, 1905), 182.
  3. Material for Hiram Prince was provided by Thelma Bishopp, PhD. Prince is the ancestor of current Water Utilities employee Errin Henggeler. Ms. Henggeler is an Environmental Regulatory Specialist in the Regulatory and Government Affairs Division within Water Resources and Treatment Operations; Jean Miller, “Water From the Mountains: The Grand Ditch,” Grand Country History, http://www.grandcountyhistory.com/article/water-mountains-grand-ditch, (accessed October 6, 2012).
  4. “Combined Report of Commissioner of Works and City Engineer,” 6-8.
  5. Tyler, The Last Water Hole in the West, 346; James Pritchett, “Quantification Task: A Description of Agriculture Production and Water Transfers in the Colorado River Basin,” (Fort Collins: Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, 2011), 6.
  6. Rose Laflin, Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River,/i> (Fort Collins: Colorado Water Resources Research Institute, 2005), 80.
  7. Conrad C. Green, et al., v. The Chaffee Ditch Company, et al., 150 Colo. 91, (1962) http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/ (accessed August 10, 2012).
  8. Ward H. Fischer, “Letter for the Fort Collins ‘Water Progress and Projections Report to the Citizens,’” (Fort Collins: Fort Collins Water Utilities, 1980).
  9. Nortier and Smith, From Bucket to Basin: 100 Years of Water Service, 22; Fischer, “Letter for the Fort Collins ‘Water Progress and Projections Report to the Citizens”; Clyde Greenwood, Interviewed by Christy Dickinson and Nichelle Frank, Personal Interview, Fort Collins, June 25, 2012.
  10. Raymond L. Anderson, Expansion of Water Delivery by Municipalities and Special Water Districts in the Northern Front Range, Colorado, 1972-1982 (Fort Collins: Colorado Water Resources Research Institute, 1984), 41.
  11. Tom E. Bell, Joe Wright Reservoir-Michigan Ditch Municipal Water Storage Project by the City of Fort Collins (Red Feather: USDA Forest Service, 1975), 33.
  12. Fischer interview.
  13. Cliff Hoelscher, interviewed by Christy Dickinson and Nichelle Frank, Personal Interview and Tour of Halligan Reservoir, Fort Collins, June 18, 2012 and June 22, 2012; “Utilities: Water: Halligan Reservoir Enlargement,” http://www.fcgov.com/utilities/what-we-do/water/halligan-reservoir-enlargement-project, (accessed June 15, 2012).
  14. “City Comments on Latest NISP Environmental Report,” City of Fort Collins, http://www.fcgov.com/nispreview/ (accessed January 23, 2012); “NISP Overview,” Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, http://www.northernwater.org/WaterProjects/NISP.aspx (accessed January 23, 2012); “The Endangered Cache la Poudre River,” Save the Poudre, http://www.savethepoudre.org/the-nisp-glade-project.html (accessed January 23, 2012).

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