The message Colorado Springs Utilities delivered to City Council last week was as clear as it was surprising: The city's water emergency is over and it's time to break out the lawn sprinklers.
This week City Council, which doubles as the city's utilities board, approved a request by CSU to increase the number of days citizens can water their lawns from two to three a week.
Water restrictions were put into effect three years ago during the height of Colorado's current multiyear drought. In March, the board rejected a Utilities request to loosen the restrictions.
Water or pay
Utilities officials say they need the revenues from increased residential watering to pay for a $4.5 million budget shortfall they would otherwise encounter. If city residents don't increase outdoor watering, the costs will be passed on to citizens next year in the form of higher utility rates. More watering will increase revenue for CSU by as much as $5 million.
"I don't like being put in the position where they say, 'Water your lawn or we'll raise your rates,'" said Councilman Tom Gallagher, who, along with Richard Skorman, opposed relaxing the residential watering schedule. The other seven council members approved the change.
The shortfall was created by two short-term water purchases that CSU made last winter when it signed leases with the Pueblo Board of Water Works and the High Line Canal Company to increase the city's available water supply by 5 percentage points. The city-owned utility spent more than $4 million for the additional water.
However, by year's end, CSU predicts that the water level in the city's reservoirs will be within normal range, even without the leases, leaving Gallagher, for one, questioning why CSU spent the additional $4 million.
"I question the wisdom of entering the leases to begin with," he said.
A presentation made to Council last week also indicated that the city's water situation was far worse in the late 1970s than it ever was over the last three years.
According to Utilities spokesman Steve Berry, council members aren't really in a position to complain because they are the ones who approved the leases last year. Furthermore, he said, the water restrictions are mandated only for emergency situations.
"We are no longer in an emergency," he said.
"We made a decision as a business ... to give our customers more flexibility," said Kevin Lusk, Utilities' principal engineer. Water leases are especially profitable in wet years such as 2005, he said, because there is a good chance of receiving a huge amount of water from them. At the time the leases were signed, there was no guarantee that the city's water situation would be as good as it is.
"To me [the leases] were the best of both worlds," said Councilman Scott Hente, referring to the ability to offer citizens more watering days and increase reservoir levels. He said most of his constituents are clambering for more watering days. "It was a no-brainer."
Spinning the data
Councilman Skorman said he would have been more skeptical about the leases if he had known they would force his hand this summer.
"Restrictions need to be the norm," he said, because the city is the only metropolis on the Front Range not fed by a direct water source, making its water future precarious. Due to projected water shortages, the city is poised to spend more than $1 billion on the Southern Delivery System pipeline project over the next few decades.
Other observers see a disturbing pattern by Utilities.
"They're spinning the data to sell the Council," said Dave Gardner, founder of Save the Springs, a local growth watchdog.
The lease situation may have confused Council, he said, and puts citizens in an uninformed position. "That's a result," he said, "of a lack of total candor about our situation."
-- Dan Wilcock
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