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City backpedals on controversial water pipeline project

click to enlarge City Councilman Tom Gallagher is glad now that - alternatives to the citys $1 billion pipe plan will be - considered.
  • City Councilman Tom Gallagher is glad now that alternatives to the citys $1 billion pipe plan will be considered.

Four months after colleagues threatened to boot City Councilman Tom Gallagher out of office for proposing a potentially self-serving alternative to Colorado Springs' $1 billion water pipe expansion plan, Council has reversed course and now backs the option as a possibility.

Colorado Springs Utilities regional project manager Gary Bostrom sent a letter last week to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency studying the city's official pipe plan, stating that not considering Gallagher's ideas might cause delays and flaws in the approval process. Mayor Lionel Rivera forwarded the same letter to Pueblo's city council.

That's a far cry from the tone last spring, when fellow Council members openly questioned Gallagher's credibility. Some city observers were struck by the change.

"They may have been a bit arrogant early on," says Dave Gardner, founder of local growth watchdog group Save the Springs. "That's gone away."

Pumping in the water

More than 10 years in development, the preferred pipe option, called the Southern Delivery System, or SDS, would double the city's available water supply.

Water would be pumped north from the Arkansas River, near Pueblo, along Interstate 25. The city already has spent more than $30 million on land, litigation, staff time and promotion of the project, but needs approval from the Bureau of Reclamation and Pueblo's County Commission to proceed.

And that may be tough. Prodded by Pueblo Chieftain publisher Bob Rawlings, who is a strong opponent of the SDS project, alliances against it are coalescing in Pueblo.

"We've run into obstacles with SDS," says Councilman Richard Skorman. "It's not clear if that's going to happen."

Skorman adds, however, that he still thinks SDS likely will be constructed. Considering Gallagher's option, he says, is just a prudent measure.

"We may need to look at options that are more expensive and involve less water," he says.

Destroyed credibility

Leaders of this fast-growing city have grappled for at least the past decade over the source of its future water supply. After losing an expensive legal battle to build a dam in the wilderness southeast of Vail, Colorado Springs leaders settled on the Southern Delivery System.

Several months ago, Gallagher angered his colleagues when he publicly discussed an alternative to SDS that would instead pipe water along Highway 115 from the Brush Hollow Reservoir near Penrose. He said the plan could cost $500 million less than SDS.

"I know you're insignificant and you're not going to make a difference," Councilman Larry Small said at an official meeting in March, looking directly at Gallagher. "You've destroyed your credibility with this council."

Small and Councilman Randy Purvis were particularly critical of Gallagher's conflict of interest in promoting the Highway 115 idea: If built, the project would require the city to purchase land from developers Mark and Jim Morley, who own the surveying company Gallagher works for. Gallagher has maintained that he would not personally profit from the plan and has vowed not to vote on it.

In a recent interview, Gallagher downplayed the tongue-lashing he was handed four months ago, maintaining that he's just glad the plan will finally see daylight.

"I'm a huge fan of bringing water to the city," he says. "I may have a difference of opinion on the mechanics.

"I found myself in the position of where being a team player and looking out for the best interests of the city were in conflict with each other."

His main interest, he says, is to propose viable alternatives.

"We should have Plan A through Plan Z, with contingencies," he says.

Someone will drink it

Despite their change in tune over the 115 plan, City Council, with the exception of Gallagher, remains staunchly pro-SDS. A sticking point for the elected body is the issue of where in the Arkansas River the city would be able to draw the water. Officials don't want to have to take recycled water that already has been used by Pueblo residents.

"Somebody's going to drink the water first," Skorman says. "Why shouldn't it be us?"

But recent political developments may represent hairline fractures to the SDS juggernaut.

"SDS is looking less and less certain, and I'm sure that's apparent to City Council," says Gardner, adding that the massive water project "doesn't add up."

He says he is curious as to why Utilities CEO Phil Tollefson, who announced his retirement in June at age 54, is leaving his post at such an early age without guiding the $1 billion pipe project to completion. It may be, Gardner says, a sign of a tough fight ahead.

If the Bureau of Reclamation comes back with a recommendation favorable to the 115 plan, Gallagher says the city's pathway should be clear.

"I'd say, let's start laying pipe," he says.

-- Dan Wilcock

  • City backpedals on controversial water pipeline project

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