Gone with the flow 

Springs water supply crisis looms

click to enlarge The Pueblo Reservoir is currently less than half full. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • The Pueblo Reservoir is currently less than half full.

Colorado Springs has a water problem. The only major city on the Front Range without direct access to a significant water source, it has for decades been diverting vast quantities of the vital resource from Colorado's Western Slope to support its booming population.

The security blanket that water from the upper Colorado River basin has provided the Front Range, however, is now being called into serious question. Recent reports indicate that Lake Powell, the 187-mile-long federal reservoir on the border of Utah and Arizona, could be drained by 2007.

"It is not likely that we will drain Lake Powell, but the scenario is easy enough to draw," said Chris Treese, spokesperson for the Colorado River Conservation District.

Disastrous consequences

Although the draining of Lake Powell represents a worst-case scenario, it could have disastrous consequences for cities like Colorado Springs.

That's because the Colorado River Compact of 1922 mandates that, over any 10-year period, the upper Colorado River basin states -- Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming -- must allow 75 million acre feet of water to reach the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. During the past several years of drought, the upper basin states have relied on the storage capacity of Lake Powell to fulfill the water needs of the lower basin. But Lake Powell is now only 42 percent full, the lowest water level since it was filled in the early 1970s. And with a below-average winter this year, its water levels will continue to fall.

If the current drought persists long enough and Powell's supplies are exhausted, the lower basin states could "put in a call" for their share of Colorado River water. In that event, Colorado Springs could count itself as one of the many cities forced to decrease the amount of Western Slope water it diverts to its reservoirs.

At present, the city of Colorado Springs receives 80 percent of its water from Western Slope diversions.

"It would be very serious," said Wayne Vanderschuere, resource supply manager of Colorado Springs Utilities. "It's a situation we are watching very closely."

If the drought continues

As Colorado Springs' population continues to rise, Colorado Springs Utilities is pinning the future of its water development on a new $900 million project called the Southern Delivery System, which will fulfill the city's water needs through 2040 and eventually deliver up to 78 million gallons of water per day through a 43-mile pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir.

Pueblo Reservoir, however, faces the same problems associated with Western Slope water diversion. The reservoir was built by the Bureau of Reclamation as a part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project in the 1970s and, according to the Bureau, contains almost 75 percent Western Slope water.

If the drought continues and a call is put in from the lower basin states, the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project could potentially be unable to divert Western Slope water to Pueblo Reservoir.

"If that source of water goes away, that would be devastating for the Pueblo Reservoir," said Paul Fanning, spokesman for the Pueblo Board of Water Works. "It would have dire implications for the Southern Delivery System."

Like Lake Powell, the Pueblo Reservoir in recent years has been relied upon to pick up the slack during the drought. And like Lake Powell, the Pueblo Reservoir has experienced a decrease in water levels. Pueblo Reservoir is now at less than 44 percent capacity, and according to the Colorado Springs Utilities 2004 Water Outlook, the Arkansas and Colorado river basins that fill the reservoir are both well below normal snowpack levels.

Gary Bostrom, project manager for the Southern Delivery System for Colorado Springs Utilities, maintains the pipeline will utilize both Fryingpan-Arkansas water as well as other Eastern Slope water owned by Colorado Springs, although it is not known in what percentage or what amounts.

"When you build a big project like this, you want as much flexibility as possible," said Bostrom.

Some wicked things

If a call on Colorado River water does eventually come from the lower basin, which has never happened before, it is not known exactly what would happen.

"We don't really know how we would administer a water call," said Treese of the Colorado River Conservation District.

Kara Lamb, public information coordinator for the eastern Colorado office of the Bureau of Reclamation, remains guardedly optimistic that a political solution to the looming crisis could be found.

"The history of Colorado water law is based on politics, negotiations and compromise," said Lamb. "When supply gets low, people find a way to curb their needs and use less water."

But, she says, if the drought continues to worsen, affecting perhaps both Pueblo Reservoir and the Southern Delivery System, "clearly the project would have to be modified."

Treese, for his part, doesn't want to raise the specter that the worst-case scenario is imminent, or even likely. Still, he says, the risk does exist.

"A call on the Colorado would effect all users of Colorado River water," Treese said. "There's a risk -- there's the same risk to the Southern Delivery System that there is to every other user of Colorado River water."

This risk, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, is significant enough to classify the entire Colorado Front Range as "highly likely" to experience a water supply crisis by the year 2025 due to a combination of water shortages and steep population increase.

"Mother Nature can do some wicked things to us," said Fanning of the Pueblo Board of Water Works. "It would be very, very silly to say this is not a big issue."


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