GREELEY, Colo. – "Go West, young man,'' Horace Greeley famously urged.
The problem for the northern Colorado town that bears the 19th-century newspaper editor's name: Too many people have heeded his advice.
By the tens of thousands newcomers have been streaming into Greeley — so much so that the city and surrounding Weld County grew by more than 30% from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.
And it's not just Greeley.
Figures released this month show that population growth continues unabated in the South and West, even as temperatures rise and droughts become more common. That in turn has set off a scramble of growing intensity in places like Greeley to find water for the current population, let alone those expected to arrive in coming years.
“Anything we can do to protect our safe water supply is so important,’’ said Dick Maxfield, who has lived in Greeley for nearly 60 years and watched the population nearly quadruple to nearly 110,000, as new arrivals attracted to relatively low housing prices flock to the city 55 miles (85 kilometers) north of Denver and its mix of jobs in energy, health care and agriculture, including a major meat-packing plant.
The dual challenges of population growth and water scarcity are made worse by climate change, said Lisa Dilling, an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado and director of the Western Water Assessment research program.
“Everybody looks at the population growth and says, ‘Where is the water going to come from?’” Dilling said. “We can still have growth, but we have to make sure we’re thinking ahead. We need to manage the water efficiently and mindfully.″
As a climate change-fueled megadrought engulfs the American West, some communities are going to extremes to protect their water supplies.
In Oakley, Utah, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of Salt Lake City, officials imposed a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the town’s overburdened water system.
Thornton, Colorado, meanwhile, is fighting legal challenges as it builds a 72-mile pipeline to bring water from a river near Fort Collins to the suburb north of Denver. Crews have started work in northern Colorado with no assurance it will ever be finished.
“If anything stops that burgeoning growth, it will be the lack of water. It’s a limited resource,″ said Dick Jefferies, leader of a northern Colorado chapter of the conservation group Trout Unlimited.
Water has long been a source of pride for Greeley, which was founded in 1870 at the confluence of two rivers, the Cache la Poudre and South Platte. The New York Tribune, Horace Greeley’s newspaper, played a key role in forming what was intended as a utopian, agrarian colony.
The city established its water rights in 1904 and completed its first water treatment facility near the Poudre River three years later, a system still largely in place.
Like other cities in Colorado's highly populated Front Range, Greeley gets its water in part from the Colorado River and other rivers that are drying up amid the prolonged drought. This week, federal officials declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado, triggering mandatory cuts from a river that serves 40 million people in the West.
In Greeley, the cost of new taps, or connections, to the city's water supply is rising exponentially. "It's like bitcoin,'' one official jokes — the city believes it has ensured its water supply for decades to come.
The City Council unanimously approved a deal this spring to acquire an aquifer 40 miles (64 kilometers) to the northwest, providing 1.2 million acre-feet of water. That's enough to meet the city's needs for generations, while offering storage opportunities for dry years. The water from the Terry Ranch aquifer near the Wyoming border will not become the primary source of drinking water, but will be a backup source in dry years.
In exchange for the aquifer — and a $125 million payment to the city for infrastructure — Greeley will issue the site's former owner, Wingfoot Water Resources, raw water credits that the firm can sell to developers to connect new homes to the city's water supply.
“In essence, Greeley is trading future revenue for water supplies today,'' Adam Jokerst, deputy director of the city’s Water and Sewer Department, said in an interview.
Wingfoot Vice President Kevin Ross called the deal “a great answer for the city of Greeley” to combat drought and ensure long-term water supply.
But opponents call the deal a giveaway to a local investment firm and charge that naturally occurring uranium in the aquifer poses a safety hazard. Save Greeley’s Water, a citizens group opposing the purchase, said uranium levels in the aquifer are significantly above federal safety standards.
The city counters that tests show it can remove uranium and other contaminants to levels well below federal drinking water standards. While he understands the concerns, Jokerst said uranium is commonly found — and removed — in water throughout the West.
"Greeley would never deliver unsafe drinking water to its residents, including any water that had detectable uranium,'' he said.
John Gauthiere, a former city water engineer who leads the citizens’ group opposed to the aquifer, is skeptical. “Maybe they’re as wrong as Flint, Michigan,” he said.
Gauthiere also worries that higher costs will be passed on to residents. “You should never sell water rights that belong to the people,” he said.
The citizens' group is petitioning for a ballot initiative that would require a citywide vote before a sale, exchange or use of municipal water resources. The city clerk’s office has until Aug. 23 to validate the 4,200 signatures submitted and force an election in November. While the ballot measure would not block the Terry Ranch deal, it could limit the city’s ability to use the ranch water or other groundwater resources, city officials said.
City residents are split on the project.
Aimee Hutson, owner of Aunt Helen’s Coffee House in downtown Greeley, favors the deal.
“Why would anybody on the water board do something that was dangerous for the citizens of Greeley?″ she asked. “They live here, too. They’re raising their families here, too.''
But Greeley resident Sandi Cummings said city officials had not done enough testing. “This is so upsetting that we are even considering this,″ she said.
The city had little choice but to pursue the aquifer deal after a long-planned expansion of its existing reservoir was abandoned several years ago, Jokerst and other officials said. The expansion would have required a new dam costing up to $500 million, and federal permits were difficult to obtain, in part because of concerns it would damage the habitat of the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, which lives in the area and is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
After spending $19 million over more than a decade, “we were basically told we would not be able to get the reservoir (expansion) permitted. It was just not going to be a viable option,″ said Roy Otto, Greeley’s longtime city manager until his retirement this month.
"I believe that providing a secure, safe drinking water source will be the key, not only to Greeley, but to Northern Colorado's future,'' Otto said.
“We know people are going to be coming to Greeley,″ Jokerst said. “We have a supply of land. Now we have water. We have all the ingredients for developers to build here.″
Jeff Lukas, a water and climate analyst in nearby Boulder County, said municipalities rarely use an underground water source so far from city limits. While confident that officials have "done their homework,'' Lukas said the project still poses a risk because of the distance from Greeley and possible contaminants in the aquifer, which extends 1,200 feet underground.
"Any aquifer estimate is an inexact science,'' Lukas said.
River hydrologist Jeff Crane is skeptical the aquifer will be the long-term solution Greeley expects. Having worked on water projects throughout Colorado, a state that has doubled in population since 1980 and tripled since 1960, he sees the prospects for meeting new water needs diminishing rapidly.
“They're trying to figure out how to continue to grow on the Front Range without more water,'' he said. “Something's gotta give.''
EDITOR'S NOTE — This is the first story in an occasional series looking at the impact of population growth on climate change.