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The giant sucking sound

Remember those first few days in high school and the kid who kept asking dumb questions? He didn't seem to understand the most obvious things, and he just wouldn't shut up.

And remember how he seemed to study all the time, and how, after a few months, he seemed to know more than anybody else in class, and even the smart kids still made fun of him? Plodding, careful, detail-oriented. What happened to him, anyway?

I'll tell you. He moved to Colorado Springs 15 years ago, broke and homeless, and in his plodding, careful way, became a City Council member. His name is Tom Gallagher.

Tom's not pretentious. When we met last week in a downtown coffee shop, he was dressed for work -- not in a suit, but a flannel shirt, rubber boots, workman's pants. Tom's a surveyor, and his day would be spent in the mud and snow of some desolate piece of ground out east.

Tom, as you may know, doesn't think much of the Southern Delivery System, which, in an article a couple of weeks ago, Rich Tosches and Dan Wilcock comprehensively described. Before reading their article, and before talking to Tom, I was pretty sure that the city was on the right track.

Now, I'm not sure. Tom's grasp of the project and of its potential perils and pitfalls is impressive; and so, on the other side of the fence, is that of his colleague, Margaret Radford. And if you want to get a sense of just how inadequate you really are, study Colorado water law. It's bewildering, complex, tangled and arcane. So who do we believe: Tom and others who say that SDS is an expensive boondoggle or the Colorado Springs Utilities, who, patting us on the head, say, "Children, don't worry your pretty little heads about this ... just trust us"?

There is a solution. Twelve years ago, Utilities proposed building a new water treatment plant at the entrance of North Cheyenne Canyon, thereby marring one of our city's most beautiful spots with a massive industrial facility. Water bosses told Council that there was no alternative. We didn't buy their story, but neither did we know enough to demand changes. So we hired a panel of experts, none of whom had a dog in that particular fight, to evaluate the project and suggest alternatives.

After a few weeks, the experts came up with a number of preferred options. None of them involved building a treatment plant in the canyon; in fact, Utilities' proposal ranked as the least desirable. We directed accordingly -- and the canyon was, and is, preserved.

The cost of the water treatment plant was, as I recall, less that $40 million; a rounding error compared to the $1.2 billion estimated cost of SDS. Yet this is a project conceived, created, engineered and vetted by ... the water bosses! And let's be frank; from a disastrous coal contract of the '80s that locked us into paying above-market prices for coal for two decades to the stillborn Homestake II water project, Utilities has made some big mistakes. If SDS is another screw-up, the cost is simply too great. Brave words aside, there's no soft landing here.

So here's a proposal for Council: Hire a panel of experts and ask them to evaluate the project. Put 'em on a fast track -- and don't hire a bunch of hacks who'll simply rubber-stamp the deal. For a couple of hundred grand, you'll know a lot more that you know now, and so will we, the hapless citizens, whose soaring utility bills will have to finance this big honkin' beast.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the admirable Rep. Mike Merrifield has abandoned his effort to forbid the state to contract with service providers who outsource labor. Dems tend to see protectionism as good -- a way to keep jobs and money in Colorado. But maybe that's not such a good idea. On my desk I have a coin, struck in 1906 by the Colorado Manufacturer's Association. On the obverse, circled by a laurel wreath, are the words "Keep Your Money in Colorado."

Wonder if those manufacturers, a century ago, stopped to consider that if the English bankers who financed the Western railways had kept their money in England, there wouldn't have been a Colorado ...

But, come to think of it, Dems ought to like SDS. Our money is sure going to stay in Colorado; it just won't be in our pockets.

-- johnhazlehurst@earthlink.net

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