Forty years ago, the Denver suburb of Thornton was trying to be forward-looking when it bought land and water rights 60 miles north of its location, near bucolic Fort Collins. But instead of being able to use that fairly and legally bought water, the city has run up against decades of small-town politics and NIMBYism—and now, Thornton really needs that water.
With business and residential development forced to slow, city officials are trying to change residents’ traditional American desire for a lush green lawn, which nearly triples the town’s water use in the summer months. Water reduction alone won’t solve the problem, though. The bigger question of who gets access to water—and how—is what David Gelles explores in this piece that’s part of the Times “Uncharted Water” series on the unfolding water crisis. It’s not just newsworthy, but prescient too: This type of municipal battle will become far too common across the American West in the years to come.
After years of legal rancor, most of Thornton’s neighbors grudgingly agree that the city has a legal right to the water from up north. But no one can agree on precisely how Thornton should access it, and a fight is raging over the city’s plans to move that water down to the Denver suburbs. With the pipeline stalled, Thornton is forced to limit its growth, with all kinds of negative fallout.
City officials recently told a fast-growing company that makes a meat alternative using mushrooms that it had to pause expansion plans for lack of water. A major affordable housing project is on hold for the same reason. In total, the city says 18,000 housing units, which could accommodate about 54,000 people, are not being built because the pipeline is tied up in red tape.