Person working near large industrial steel tanks
This is part of the fermentation area at Meati’s Thornton plant, a large site designed to help the company meet rising demand for alternative protein sources. Credit: Courtesy of Meati

Spurred by companies like Meati, changes aim to rein in water use amid pipeline battle

Thornton remains in the midst of a protracted water battle, but has taken a step to better conserve what it has now. The water-needy city’s leaders don’t want to squander a drop and will now scrutinize what they dub “high water users.”

That’s according to regulations that will affect new non-residential water users adopted by the city council on Sept. 26.

The crackdown comes after Meati, a manufacturer of plant-based meat substitute products, opened a major production facility in the city this year. The Boulder-based company is growing fast and its 100,000-square “Mega Ranch” is key to its strategy. It is designed to dramatically expand company production to meet consumer demand for alternate, animal-free sources of protein. It produces at a scale that matches and often exceeds the country’s largest animal-based ranches. About 300 people work at the Thornton site.

A spokesperson for Meati said the city’s new water rules won’t impact its operations, or its future in the city.

“Meati’s Mega Ranch was designed to be really efficient; it’s a purpose-built facility designed to be sustainable,” said Christina Ra, Meati’s vice president of marketing and communications. “We have a ranch-wide water recycling system. So, long term, while we do use water, we’ve been long planning to use as little water as possible.

Ra added that the company often communicates with city officials. 

“There’s a real partnership here,” Ra added.

Meanwhile, the city council has taken aim at any newcomers hoping to tap into the city’s water supply for their operations. The new regulations are “necessary to protect the city’s limited access to raw water supplies,” according to city documents circulated to the council.

They aim to ensure sufficient water for current developments while setting parameters for new water users with an aim of striking a balance that makes room for future growth. The city will determine if an entity is a “high water user,” which is defined as any non-residential entity that uses or is expected to use more than 10-acre feet of water each year. An acre foot is approximately 326,000 gallons — enough water to cover an acre of land about 1-foot deep. 

Potential heavy water users must submit information to the city so that officials can determine if there is enough water for the development. The city can then decide to let the development move forward with no water restrictions, allow it with restrictions, or deny the application. The regulations also outline actions for those who exceed the water use indicated in their application, or who don’t seek the required water adequacy determination.

The regulations aren’t where Thornton envisioned itself a decade ago. The city had planned for its future growth, and the water that would propel it, decades ago. In 1986, it bought water rights 70 miles north of the city near Fort Collins, with plans to later divert it from the Cache la Poudre River via a pipeline. That pipeline would extend through Larimer, Weld and Adams counties to the city.

But the pipeline’s construction has been held up by multiple issues, including years of legal wrangling and multiple meetings to find an acceptable route for the pipeline. Many issues have been resolved, but full construction remains stalled. And that’s forced Thornton to limit growth.

A major snag is that the city has not obtained legal permission to build 10 miles of its planned 72-mile pipeline and is in the process of pushing more paperwork and processes in an effort to get it approved.

“We’re very hopeful,” said Thornton’s communications director Todd Barnes. “We’ve got permits and own all the easements and right-of-way for the other 62 miles. We’re hoping to have the whole pipeline operational by 2027, but until we get certainty about that water, we have to have these regulations in place for not only residential but business.”

While Meati was one of the triggers for creating the new regulations, Barnes said the changes emphasize a conservation-minded approach to water use..

“We knew Meati was one of the biggest water users, and we’ve been trying to figure out the best way to get them what they need,” he said. “But we also know that at some point, if we don’t get certainty on our water, we may have an issue.”

Barnes added: “From what Meati has told us, it’s not that they can’t physically expand. It’s more a function of how dense they can make their production process for the first phase. … We think there’s a possibility it might affect the volume of what they can do eventually, but Meati is confident in their ability to scale their operations.” 

Ra agreed.

“We are a food producer and logically, we use water — a fair amount in comparison to some other businesses,” she said. “We will soon begin commissioning the final phase of our Thornton facility. That growth has always been planned and is known by the city. The growth will allow Meati to further increase our national footprint with more retailers and food service partners.”

Ra said water has not driven any major business decision at Meati’s Thornton site, even its original decision to locate there.

“Water issues were either not well known or discussed when Thornton was selected as a location,” she said.

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