Fearing clogs in the pipeline 

City Sage

Let's consider the Southern Delivery System, which, according to a 2013 white paper from Colorado Springs Utilities, will cure our water worries.

"SDS is more than a pipeline," wrote CEO Jerry Forte. "SDS will serve as an engine driving more efficiency, effectiveness and reliability in our system, while protecting water rights from future threats. SDS makes our entire water system more than the sum of its parts."

And if SDS isn't available? Forte predicted higher rates, permanent watering restrictions and, as other systems age, the risk of long-term outages.

"A future without SDS," Forte concluded, "could jeopardize our ability to meet future water demand, the reliability of our system, our valuable permits and approvals, and our community's economic stability."

There's a tiny little cloud on the horizon — the lawsuit Pueblo County may be preparing to file over Colorado Springs' inability to fund reliable flood control in Fountain Creek. And that's to say nothing of a similar lawsuit threat from the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, which isn't related to SDS directly but still could imperil the project.

CSU has issued a harrumphing press release, claiming a lawsuit from Pueblo would be without merit. But is it possible that Pueblo, and/or its ally, could prevail?

I'm not a distinguished attorney (you've confused me with my daughter, Melanie Hazlehurst Gavisk). But although the law's nuances may elude me, I'm not encouraged by CSU's (or the city's) track record in litigation.

• In the 1970s, CSU began planning the Homestake II collection system, diverting water from the Holy Cross Wilderness through existing pipelines to Colorado Springs. But Homestake II was shut down by an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, ski area operators and state legislators. A unanimous vote of Eagle County commissioners denying a construction permit was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which denied certiorari.

• The Homestake II episode led to proposals for alternate collection systems downstream on the main stem of the Arkansas, involving new reservoirs at Elephant Rock or Mount Princeton. Those plans were thwarted by another unlikely coalition among anglers, rafting companies and an apparent majority of Chaffee County residents. Never mind that Chaffee County even today has a population of only 18,150 — David kicked Goliath's ass.

• In the early '90s, CSU tried to weasel out of a long-term coal-purchase contract with Colowyo Coal. CSU had agreed to pay $20 a ton, but the spot price of coal plummeted. Our city enterprise disingenuously argued that the contract wasn't a contract, that the municipally owned utility wasn't bound by the mundane laws that govern lesser entities. A judge ruled otherwise.

• More recently, the city spent millions trying to escape its $180 million obligation to the Colorado Public Employees' Retirement Association. PERA refused to settle, won a court ruling, and the city caved — paying $190 million.

In each case, city officials sounded absolutely certain of victory. Discussing PERA in a closed legal session, City Attorney Chris Melcher told Councilmembers the suit was "a slam dunk." Similarly, a senior city official advised Council 23 years ago that "the law and the facts are with us" on Homestake II, and that "there is no chance that we won't prevail."

So here we are again. What happens if we lose, and local voters refuse once again to fund stormwater infrastructure?

So far, we've spent about $600 million on SDS, most of it borrowed. We'll still have to pay it back. Worst-case scenario: Drought intensifies in California and the entire Colorado River Basin, our existing sources of supply are threatened, and we have to fund a reuse/recycle system. Desirable as that may sound to some environmentalists, it'd be hugely expensive, and would drive water rates into the stratosphere. Lawns? Gardens? Trees? Forget 'em.

There's a solution at hand, though. If Council agrees to refer to the ballot Mayor Steve Bach's proposal to issue $160 million in capital improvement bonds to fund stormwater and other infrastructure for the next five years, and our flighty voters approve — problem solved for now.

SDS can plod along, the lawsuits will never be filed, City Attorney Wynetta Massey won't have to make a "slam dunk" speech, and we can keep on taking long showers.

Not too hot, though — natural gas prices are going through the roof.

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