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Muddy waters? 

Colorado Springs takes issue with "status quo" statewide water plan

click to enlarge Testing the SDS link to Pueblo Reservoir. - COURTESY CSU
  • Courtesy CSU
  • Testing the SDS link to Pueblo Reservoir.

The state's long-awaited water roadmap to assure adequate supplies decades into the future got a lot of coverage last week, with many cheering the plan.

In short, it strives to address quantity and quality of water in the face of drought, wildfires, flooding, climate change and unprecedented growth. To secure a water supply, the plan calls for protecting Colorado's interests in interstate river compacts, making water project permitting more efficient, and protecting environmental and recreational water uses — all while conserving water.

According to the Durango Herald coverage of the Nov. 19 unveiling, the state hopes to conserve 400,000 acre feet of municipal and industrial water annually by 2050.

"Now is the time when you rethink how you can be more efficient in the water you use," Gov. John Hickenlooper said at a report presentation ceremony, according to the Herald.

But Colorado Springs Utilities' managing engineer for water resource planning M. Patrick Wells, had harsh words for the plan.

In a Sept. 17 letter providing feedback on a draft version, Wells called the plan "a directionless recitation of guardrails without a road."

The plan fails to establish a common vision for the state's water supply future, and rather appears to be "a vehicle for managing growth," he says.

The plan also lacks baselines against which to judge water development in the future, Wells says. For example, water projects have been labeled harmful in some cases for recreation and the environment. But the contrary is often true, he writes. "In many cases, water development has resulted in more reliable flows, improved habitat, better water quality, and improved recreation for key stream reaches versus pre-development conditions."

Wells also objects to what he sees as the plan's "anti-growth" and "anti-City" stance.

Utilities spokesman Steve Berry says the water plan won't have a major impact on the city's plans, mainly because it has "no teeth" in imposing costs on water users. But if the water plan dictates changes in how water is appropriated from the four rivers that originate in Colorado, that could affect Springs water users.

Berry says the city owns undeveloped water rights in both the Colorado River and Arkansas River basins. The Colorado River, which supplies eight states, including Colorado, and Mexico, could become a point of contention in coming years as water users look for other sources.

After the city failed to win approval of its second trans-mountain system, called Homestake II, in the 1990s, Utilities turned to developing its Arkansas River rights and built the $829-million Southern Delivery System pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir, which goes online next year.

Utilities officials, Berry says, don't support a water plan that would impede the city from developing those rights. It's worth noting that the new water plan doesn't favor an additional trans-mountain water project to bring water from the Western Slope to the Front Range.

"We want to make sure through this water plan there are not unreasonable obstacles to developing our water rights in the future," Berry says.

Lastly, Berry says Utilities is concerned the plan unduly emphasizes conservation. Through rates adopted amid drought conditions over the last decade, Utilities' customers have dramatically cut usage — from 109 gallons per customer per day in 2006, to 85 gallons, he says. Of course CSU is in the business of selling water, and less usage could affect revenue.

Berry also notes Springs Utilities has long planned decades ahead for its water supply. SDS, for example, began in the 1990s.

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