BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — Boulder County is settling a nearly two-decades-long battle with Denver Water over its expansion of Gross Reservoir in the county.
For years, county leaders have said they don't like the project, which is expected to triple the size of the reservoir, but on Tuesday, county commissioners acknowledged the chances of winning a lawsuit to stop it were slim. They agreed to the settlement at a public meeting Tuesday.
As part of the settlement, Denver Water will provide more than $12.5 million to help mitigate the impacts of construction. This is a $2.5 million increase beyond what the utility company had previously said it would provide. In addition, Denver Water will transfer 70 acres of land to the county, which will be added to the Walker Ranch open space.
In exchange, Boulder County cannot dispute Denver Water’s claim that the project is exempt from review, the commissioners said.
Before the meeting, commissioners asked for a longer timeline, but Denver Water rejected the request.
According to Boulder County, the settlement addresses these four major points:
- Reducing impacts to residents: Denver Water initially proposed providing $2.5 million towards residents that will be most impacted by the project. However, after hearing from the community, the commissioners asked Denver Water to double this mitigation pool to $5 million. Denver Water also is required to reduce noise and dust from the project by using electric power rather than diesel generators and to limit the hours of truck traffic and road work.
- Reducing impacts to county roads: Denver Water will be required to meet the county’s Multimodal Transportation Standards related to intersection and road work and to leave Gross Dam Road in a better condition than before the project. Denver Water’s drivers need to complete bike awareness training and there will be some “truck free” days that benefit cyclists.
- Reducing impacts to county recreation areas: Denver Water will provide $5.1 million for open space funding to replace lands that will be inundated by the increased reservoir capacity and transfer 70 acres of land near Walker Ranch Open Space to Boulder County.
- Addressing impacts to the environment: Denver Water will provide $1.5 million to address the greenhouse gas emissions from the project and another $1 million for an important restoration project on the South St. Vrain Creek at the Hall Ranch Lyons Quarry to restore critical species habitat.
Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones said the commissioners wouldn't have agreed to a settlement if there was a chance of a better outcome.
“We faced an impossible choice between more litigation which we would almost certainly lose and agreeing to a settlement that mitigates some of the impacts of this project and provides meaningful benefits to the neighbors and the environment," Jones said.
Commissioner Marta Loachamin said the project represents outdated planning and thinking.
"Unfortunately, instead of using our land use process to review this project to address the concerns we heard from the public, we are faced with trying to address these issues in a legal arena with a large corporation that holds all the power within the legal framework. Being put in a position that does not allow us to stop the expansion of the Gross Reservoir and Dam is heart-wrenching and very unsatisfying to us as elected officials and as stewards of public health and safety,” she said.
She said she is asking others to put pressure on those responsible for the project.
Commissioner Claire Levy acknowledged that the settlement is not what many of Boulder County's constituents were hoping for. She said rejecting the offer would have come with far worse outcomes and by settling, at least some of the "destructive impacts" would be offset.
Denver Water CEO and Manager Jim Lochhead also issued a statement.
It reads: “We appreciate the County’s effort to work through the issues and come to an agreement that will help ease concerns about the project’s impact on nearby residents, bring benefits to Boulder County residents through enhancements to its trails and open spaces and allow Denver Water to proceed on an undertaking critical to the water security of 1.5 million people in the Denver region. Denver Water and Boulder County have shared values. We both believe deeply in the need to address climate change, conserve our water resources and protect the region’s precious environment. This agreement reflects those values through dedicated funding and actions on the ground.”
In 2019, Denver7 went 360 on the many opinions around the expansion, specifically how Boulder County residents are upset about the expansion, since it only benefits Denver Water.
"Boulder County is going to host this reservoir but gets no water from it. We derive no benefit from it. We only pay the price of having this thing in our county," Tim Guenthner said in 2019. He lived above the dam in a subdivision of about 1,000 people.
Environmentalists were also against the project.
Denver Water addressed the concerns, but said the project will increase water storage north of the city, which currently only provides 10% of Denver Water's flow.
"That's important because if we have a catastrophic event or a drought in one of the systems, it leaves us depending on the other system," Denver Water’s Gross Dam project manager, Jeff Martin, said in 2019. “What we want to do is create a little bit more balance and put more water in Gross Reservoir. This project is going to triple the size of the reservoir.”
In July 2021, Denver Water filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Boulder County officials were stalling on a local permit that was needed so the utility could begin the long-planned reservoir expansion. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, claimed that Denver Water made good-faith efforts over several years on a local-use land review needed to begin work on Gross Reservoir. It alleged the county used the process to delay the review, jeopardizing federal and other deadlines for the project, according to the Associated Press.
The lawsuit also alleges that the county does not have the authority to regulate the project because the project requires a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Following this filing, Boulder County announced that the Gross Reservoir Expansion proposal was on hold.
In an August 10, 2021 motion, Boulder County asked the federal court to dismiss Denver Water's lawsuit, stating the utility company "lost a state court case seeking to stop county review of the project."
A federal judge was prepared to hear arguments on Thursday if a settlement wasn't reached, according to The Denver Post.