The push is on to carve a 100-foot-wide swath through prairies, farms and neighborhoods between Pueblo Reservoir and Colorado Springs, to make way for a 66-inch water pipeline.
The line, part of the $1.1 billion Southern Delivery System, is expected to deliver 78 million gallons a day by 2016, increasing the city's water supply by a third and driving up water bills by an average of 12 percent a year from 2011 to 2016.
City Council recently approved spending $916,000 to purchase 14 tracts, including four homes in Pueblo West, the first properties acquired in the pipeline's path. And it's only the start. Colorado Springs Utilities plans to pay $25 million for roughly 300 properties totaling 2,900 acres in Pueblo and El Paso counties within the next two years.
Not everyone is so willing.
Gary Walker loathes the idea of losing 93 of his 70,000 acres between Penrose and Interstate 25 for the pipeline. The 63-year-old rancher is still sore from dealing with Utilities in the 1970s, when he was forced through condemnation to provide land for the Fountain Valley Authority water line. Not only is the easement itself barren now, he says, but blowing dirt and sand "literally killed hundreds of acres" of his farm and ranch land. Moreover, he's perturbed the new line won't use the Fountain Valley line's easement, but instead will cut another gouge up to a mile away.
Walker claims his ranch boasts at least four rare plant species, including the Pueblo golden weed and a primrose variety; he fears they'd be destroyed by the pipeline project, as would several live springs. He also worries the project would invade a stand of native cactus that provide habitat and winter food for deer, antelope and quail.
Besides, Walker says, the pipeline is just a symptom of the "stupidity of this whole Front Range growth thing."
Walker says he'll force Utilities to condemn his land. By his reckoning, no amount of money will compensate him fairly.
"My ranch will never recover from what these people are getting ready to do," he says.
Utilities land acquisition manager Darlene Garcia says the city is working with Walker's attorney "to gain right of entry so we can do pre-engineering tasks and test spots to understand vegetative growth."
Dealings with others have been smoother: "We are really trying to communicate and work with everyone and address their concerns as we go," Garcia says. "We had a lot of success in Peaceful Valley [near Fountain], where we signed up all but two."
She says the route was designed to minimize impact to homes. Some parcels consist of only a few hundred feet, while the largest is 2,000 acres, the land east of Security for Upper Williams Creek, owned by Norris Properties.
The four Pueblo West homeowners agreed to sell for close to appraised value, from $102,300 to $310,000. That's an about-face from 2003 and 2004 when Utilities paid $6.1 million for 14 properties, including several homes, in northeast Colorado Springs where Jimmy Camp Creek Reservoir was envisioned. The city paid up to three times the homes' value and six figures ($340,000 in one case) to relocate, yet allowed some to rent their homes for $300 a month indefinitely.
Now the reservoir is iffy, because Utilities deems Upper Williams Creek a better option.
"We will retain the property we own at Jimmy Camp Creek until all the permitting, approvals and property acquisition for the Upper Williams Creek Reservoir site is complete," Utilities spokeswoman Janet Rummel writes in an e-mail.
Until then, residents at Jimmy Camp can keep renting.
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