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Colorado Springs Utilities says it has enough water to share 

Water, water everywhere

click to enlarge Utility sales to other communities could fund projects, pay debt. - COURTESY COLORADO SPRINGS UTILITIES
  • Courtesy Colorado Springs Utilities
  • Utility sales to other communities could fund projects, pay debt.
Colorado Springs is flush with water supplies, thanks to decades of planning and construction that tap mountain lakes to serve a growing population on the arid Front Range. But thousands of residents who live just across the city’s borders face water shortages due to depleting water tables and contamination caused by the federal government.

Should the city be a good neighbor and share its water with those who don’t live within its boundaries?

Yes, says the Colorado Springs Utilities Policy Advisory Committee, which after a year of study has formed draft recommendations that call for removing barriers for bedroom communities to hook up to city water and wastewater systems. The recommendations — due for delivery to the Utilities Board, composed of City Council members, on March 21 — would lower the cost of hookups by up to 26 percent while opening the door to long-term agreements.

So what’s in it for city ratepayers? Plenty, according to Dave Grossman, Utilities strategic planning and government supervisor. New sales could help pay off debt for the $825 million Southern Delivery System (SDS) pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir, erase headlines that give the city a bad name and help outside water providers’ groundwater supplies last longer.

“The right thing to do for the region is to work and collaborate with our neighbors,” Grossman says.

Still, the move raises a lot of questions. Why should city ratepayers share their resources with those who chose to live outside city limits, didn’t pay the costs of major Utilities projects and don’t pay city property taxes? Why allow outsiders to become dependent on city water, when the city will likely need that water for its own population in the future? And, at a time when the city is trying to attract more development within city limits, why give away one of the city’s best bargaining chips?

It seems logical to assume that extending service outside the city could undermine development of the 20,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch. Not much has happened there since it was annexed 30 years ago, because developers have “leapfrogged” into the county to avoid high development costs. That could change under a proposal from Mayor John Suthers to ease developer requirements, due for a City Council vote in late April. Meanwhile, oddly, Utilities appears to be ready to consider giving the “leapfroggers” a longed-for gift.

How those two strategies square isn’t fully understood, but Suthers says, “I don’t know that they’re totally contradictory.”

Until 2010, the city didn’t sell water outside its limits. The policy changed to accommodate sales for three years or less to districts that experienced water shortages or other problems. But they paid 150 percent of city customer charges. There are 11 water districts, six water and wastewater districts and four wastewater districts in El Paso County. Not all would necessarily want to buy city services, but some would.

Many rely largely on groundwater from the Denver Basin, which is rapidly depleting. Despite state and county measures to assure supplies last, the water table continues to drop.

Utilities has had outside deals with Cherokee Metropolitan District east of Powers Boulevard and Donala Water & Sanitation District east of the Air Force Academy. Cherokee needed water temporarily after court decisions prevented its use of some wells, while Donala uses the city’s pipes to convey water it obtained from Pueblo Board of Water Works.

Water districts form such a patchwork that Sean Chambers, who’s worked for several districts and now runs Chambers Econ & Analytics, has teamed with Peak Spatial Enterprises to create an online tool to compile district information in seven counties from Denver to Pueblo. Funded in part by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, it will feature maps, water rates, sources, conservation practices, water quality reports, consumption and the like, listed by address, for use by the public and the real estate industry.

But what if those districts had access to Springs Utilities’ supply? The city’s roughly 140,000 water customers use about 40 million gallons a day during the winter and more than 100 million gallons a day in the summer, Grossman says. If pressed, the city could provide well over that amount short term, he says.

Besides completing SDS in 2016, which increased the city’s water supply by a third, the city’s abundant supply is linked to conservation measures taken since 2001 that reduced per-person consumption from 130 gallons a day to 82. The city’s system also has capacity; the Bailey Water Treatment Plant, part of SDS, runs at about 10 percent capacity.

As for wastewater, the city has plenty of capacity, Grossman reports, for the next 30-plus years.

More than a year ago, Utilities began looking into whether extending service could benefit everyone. For one thing, the Advisory Committee found, water issues anywhere in the Pikes Peak region impact the city’s reputation and the region’s economy.

For example, in 2016, it was found that groundwater wells had been contaminated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) from firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base. The chemicals fouled wells serving Fountain, Widefield/Security and other areas.

“It was not Colorado Springs that had that issue,” Grossman says, “but the headlines around the country would have you think so.” Those types of messages could discourage businesses from locating here, he says.

Under the committee’s recommendation, outside users would still pay more than city customers — 120 percent of the normal charge for water and 110 percent for wastewater. Currently, the city charges 150 percent for both.

“These potential customers would have to pay costs to connect to the system,” Grossman says, including development charges and tap fees. “The multiplier recognizes the citizens’ investment in the system over time and would represent that return for them.”

The typical monthly residential bill in Colorado Springs is $66 a month for water; under an extension contract that bill would be $99 under the current policy, and $79 under the proposed one.

Districts aren’t apt to buy their entire supplies from the city, however, Chambers says. That’s because their goal is conjunctive use — a combination of wells and surface water; if districts can buy water during wet years and pump from their wells in dry years, the aquifer gets a rest and a chance to recharge, he says.

That’s the concept behind WISE (Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency), a coalition of 12 entities, including Denver Water, Aurora Water and the South Metro Water Supply Authority created after the 2002 drought.

Chambers notes that outside sales could help the city retire debt and fund maintenance and operations. Having attended most of the committee’s meetings, Chambers attests the city’s top goal is to serve existing customers. “Utilities has been very protective,” he says, “saying regionalization will not happen unless it’s a benefit to the citizen owners and ratepayers.”

For example, Grossman notes the committee wants to include options for conveying and treating water, but that no outside contracts would be executed if they’d erode the city’s targeted storage benchmarks.

Although the city claims SDS was built for future growth and redundancy for the city’s Homestake transmountain system, now more than 50 years old, a chief purpose was to serve Banning Lewis Ranch.

Suthers is pushing to ease development requirements to stop growth from bypassing the ranch, telling the Independent a new contract water policy won’t exacerbate that problem, adding, “I feel very strongly if we don’t develop Banning Lewis Ranch pretty quickly, that will encourage sprawl from Falcon to Calhan.”

Utilities Board Vice Chair Andy Pico agrees, and calls outside contracts an opportunity for “mutual advantage.” Extra money, he says, could defray operational costs and even help build the Gary Bostrom Reservoir, SDS’ Phase 2 component.

But both Suthers and Pico say any such deals should allow the city to interrupt service, if need be, such as during severe drought.

For Dave Gardner, a sustainability advocate and director of GrowthBusters public education project, it seems the city might be biting off more than it can chew. “If they do that [outside sales],” he says, “I don’t think they can also provide water to 80,000 residents of Banning Lewis over the next 50 years.”

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