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Colorado to Feds: Turn on the water

With the worst drought in decades still hovering over the West, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is calling on President Obama and the Army Corps of Engineers to speed up the permit process on major new water projects in the state.

Supporters of those projects say they are mired in federal bureaucracy and time is running out for a region where population growth is among the fastest in the nation.

"More politicians like the governor are getting it these days and saying, look, we simply have to figure out the water piece," according to Brian Werner, spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District. "It has been decades since this state has really built the (water) infrastructure that is needed for the future."

In a recent letter to Obama, Gov. Hickenlooper wrote, "Colorado is at a critical juncture in forging a more secure future for the development and management of water supplies critical to both our economy and the natural environment that makes our state so great."

Not everyone is applauding the governor's stance, however. "If Colorado's population is going to continue to grow, we need to focus on alternatives to draining and destroying our rivers," says Gary Wockner, director of the Save the Poudre Coalition. He says those alternatives should include, "water recycling, water conservation, re-using water, better growth management and, especially, working cooperatively with farmers."

The Cache La Poudre River runs from its origins in Rocky Mountain National Park down a spectacular canyon designated under the federal Wild and Scenic Act. As it leaves the canyon, northwest of Fort Collins, Colo., it runs past a large valley that is the proposed site of a massive new reservoir to be filled with water diverted from the river.

"Well, it's been proposed in some form or another 20 years ago," according to Werner, whose agency has been shepherding the Northern Integrated Supply Project. "We've been in the environmental permitting process, the formal piece of this for the last 10 (years)."

It's that lengthy approval process that has the governor concerned. In a separate letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the environmental review, Hickenlooper writes, "Given the ongoing drought conditions in Colorado and the pressing need for water supplies in both communities and agriculture, we hope that the Corps is making this project a high priority."

Wockner, in an interview conducted in a peaceful, scenic spot next to the Poudre, worries that the NISP project will devastate the river. "Right now, about 60 percent of the water is already drained out before we get right here to downtown Fort Collins. And if that particular dam and reservoir are built, it will drain out about half of what's left. So we need to focus on alternatives, not further river destruction."

Supporters say conservation and recycling are important, but simply not enough to ensure a secure water supply for the future. Werner says opponents of dams and reservoirs need to understand that.

"I think they need to look real hard at how we're going to get through the future with doubling our population from 5 million people to 10 million people."

It's a debate that's been raging for more than 100 years in the American West, an area of desert and near-desert environments. It's a region where water that falls from the sky provides only a fraction of that needed to sustain life. The vast majority comes from melting snow in mountains, carried by rivers from which it is diverted for human needs.