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Campaign to fill Lake Loveland is full of hope, but is it feasible?

Erin Udell
Fort Collins Coloradoan
Fill the Love signs stick out of the muddy and empty shores of Lake Loveland near the lake's north shore swim beach.

As a nearly lifelong Loveland resident, Mat Dinsmore has fond childhood memories of riding bikes with his grandpa to Lake Loveland. 

When he and his wife got married in 2009, they did so on east side of the lake — exchanging vows while overlooking its peaceful waters and mountain views.

And when Fourth of July rolls around each year, he now brings their children — the fifth generation of Loveland Dinsmores — to watch fireworks careen through the night sky above the central Loveland lake. 

"Honestly, Lake Loveland is the crown jewel of Northern Colorado. It's beautiful," said Dinsmore, who owns Wilbur's Total Beverage in Fort Collins.

But if you drive around it any time beside its peak summer months, Dinsmore added, "it's a mud pit." 

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Last month, following years of low water levels at Lake Loveland, a group of Loveland business owners and residents — like Dinsmore — got together to launch the "Fill the Love" campaign. 

The campaign seeks to get Greeley and Loveland city leaders — as well as the operator of Lake Loveland and manager of its water rights, the Greeley-Loveland Irrigation Company — to sit down and find a way to keep the lake full year-round. 

"Fill the Love" organizers are circulating a petition they plan to present to Loveland City Council later this month. Heart-shaped "Fill the Love" signs poke out of lawns across the city. Earlier this month, a local 10-year-old girl led a charge to — in true Loveland fashion — send Valentine's Day cards to the city of Greeley and GLIC asking them to find a solution to Lake Loveland's low fall and winter levels. 

But, given the complexities of Colorado water laws, does the campaign stand a chance? 

"It's complicated," said Sean Chambers, Greeley's director of water and sewer. "... It's potentially possible if creativity and financial resources were aligned." 

"But if this were easy to solve," he added, "someone probably would have done it 40 years ago." 

In the fall of 1894 — when Lake Loveland was created as an agricultural reservoir to serve Northern Colorado farms — the problems of 2021 were probably not even fathomable. 

Back then, Loveland was less than 20 years old and Lake Loveland was located half a mile from the town's center. Over time, Loveland grew around the lake, surrounding it with more than 100 homes, city parks and a four-lane highway, U.S. Route 34.

Like its surroundings, Lake Loveland's use changed over time, too.

Lake Loveland is fed by ditch waters diverted from the Big Thompson River and since the formation of GLIC in 1900, the irrigation company has owned the land Lake Loveland sits on and managed the use of its water, historically using its stores each spring and summer to irrigate farmland east of Greeley. 

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Speedboats pull water skiers across Lake Loveland in 1959. The recreational rights for the lake would ultimately be secured by the homeowners association that surrounds Lake Loveland in 1983.

In 1961, Greeley made an agreement with the irrigation company to build a pipeline system to serve potable water to the rural residential houses and farms in GLIC's irrigation service area. At that time, Greeley acquired a little more than 50% of shares in the company. It currently owns 52%, according to Chambers. The city of Loveland owns less than 1% of the lake's water rights and uses its share to irrigate Loveland parks.

"We acquired the shares in the company to be able to serve Greeley," Chambers said, "So as Greeley's grown, it's grown over a huge piece of the company's irrigation service area." 

Now, residential subdivisions dot much of what was once farmland in GLIC's service area. As a result, many of the former GLIC shareholders that once owned those long-gone farms sold their water rights to Greeley, which now supplies these newer subdivisions with water.

Like it's done for more than a century, Lake Loveland — which can hold up to 12,000 acre-feet of water — fills each spring so water can be delivered to downstream shareholders, flushing out "non-native" water not associated with the lake's portfolio of water rights, Chambers said. 

"Then over the summer, mostly after the Fourth of July, that water starts to get used by agriculturists and the city of Greeley," Chambers said, adding that due to its recent investments made in the Poudre River, Greeley now only uses Lake Loveland as a supplemental water source. 

"One of the fundamentals of water law is you have to use that water for a beneficial use (like irrigation or municipal use)," Chambers explained. "When these reservoirs fill on their decreed legal right (each spring) it pushes out whatever non-native sources were in the water. If there's not a downstream user that can take advantage and use that water as defined in state laws then you're in essence wasting water simply for the aesthetics of a full lake." 

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"The real challenge is the time of year," Chambers added. " A farmer downriver doesn't need this water in March," when it would need to be emptied from Lake Loveland to make way for GLIC's decreed spring fill.

In response to emails about the Fill the Love campaign, GLIC General Manager Daniel Kammerzell directed the Coloradoan to a public statement posted to the company's website. 

In it, Kammerzell explained the history of Lake Loveland's ownership and use as an irrigation reservoir. He detailed how, starting in the mid-1980s, GLIC agreed to let Greeley store 5,000 acre feet of Colorado Big Thompson water in Lake Loveland each September and October, guaranteeing the lake was at least 40% full yearround and up to 80 to 90% full into the winter. 

In 2018, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District introduced a rule that restricts the Colorado-Big Thompson Project — a federally-owned water diversion project that supplies water to Colorado's Front Range and plains — from storing water that will be released without a beneficial use within the same water year it is delivered. A water year is the 12-month period starting Oct. 1 and ending Sept. 30. 

"This resulted in the City of Greeley not being able to bring the 5,000 acre feet into Lake Loveland Reservoir because that amount of water cannot be used in that same year," Kammerzell wrote. "Since 2018, Greeley has brought in CBT water to the GLIC system in much smaller amounts because it only stores as much as is needed that year. As a result, the water level in Lake Loveland Reservoir is much lower in the winter."

The city of Loveland has been in talks with Greeley and GLIC since 2018, after continued complaints from homeowners around the lake about windblown dust that comes from the lake's dry banks each winter, according to Loveland's city manager's office. 

Since 1983, Lake Loveland's recreational surface rights have been held by the Loveland Recreation Club, a homeowners association for the houses that surround its shores. Public points of entry include the Lake Loveland swim beach near North Lake Park and a sidewalk with fishing access off its south shore.  

The city looked into potential solutions to the dust produced off the lake's often-dry banks, but would have had to engage in an estimated 5-year and $1 million to $3 million process in Colorado Water Court. It would also have to secure prohibitively expensive water to fill the lake each fall and find someone to purchase and use that water for a beneficial use like irrigation each spring, according to a January memo issued by Loveland City Manager Steve Adams. 

"I think one of the things I've tried to emphasize is that it needs to be a win-win situation for everyone," said Sean Rutledge, a Loveland water rights attorney who's been serving in an advisory role for the Fill the Love campaign. 

Rutledge said he could envision a multipart solution to Lake Loveland's water levels, including diverting more water to the lake during especially wet years. But, again, a downstream user of that water would need to be found before GLIC refills Lake Loveland come spring.

"It's hard but achievable," Rutledge said of Fill the Love's goal. "It seems to me that everyone has an interest in having more water in the lake." 

Loveland's city managers office said it is awaiting the petition and a presentation by Fill the Love. Once that is presented, it will respond to the campaign's efforts, according to a statement emailed to the Coloradoan.

GLIC will also listen to the discussion around Fill the Love and any ideas regarding Lake Loveland's levels, Kammerzell told the Coloradoan in an email Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Dinsmore said he's hopeful that the campaign will kick off a conversation that could lead to Lake Loveland being full more than nine or ten months out of the year.

"What is the path to that? I don't know ... but if we don't start the conversation then what are we going to do?," Dinsmore said. "Just settle and say 'OK, this is the way it's going to be?' " 

"Loveland can do better."

Erin Udell reports on news, culture, history and more for the Coloradoan. Contact her at ErinUdell@coloradoan.com. The only way she can keep doing what she does is with your support. Thank you for being a subscriber.