A grand illusion

Two related items in the Aug. 18 Independent were thought-provoking: First, Colorado Springs' desperate quest for water to supply the 75,000 homes planned for Banning Lewis Ranch ("Water woes may freeze growth"). Second, John Hazlehurst's column about Colorado Springs Utilities' concurrent water and CEO searches ("We need a superstar"). Hazlehurst's words about the tenuous nature of our city's water-grab plans haunt me:

"This city's growth disorderly, cancerous, unsustainable has to stop sooner or later, so why not now? Maybe we could become a model of conservation, sustainability and appropriate resource use. Maybe but probably not."

Such inspiration! The last sentence an opportunity lost for vision and leadership. Alas, Hazlehurst has joined the many in our fine city who've given up hope for responsible stewardship in the face of well-funded growth industry opposition. Why?

There must be something in the water at City Hall and the County Commissioners court, because elected officials year after year continue to buy the growth-frenzy load of crap fed to them by the Housing & Building Association, Economic Development Corporation and Chamber of Commerce. After all, the easiest, most brain-free way to achieve revenue growth is to ride the wave of a growing market. Sadly, even maverick John Hazlehurst drank that water at one time, so he continues in his column:

"... we have an economy that depends upon continued growth ... If, because of the failure of CSU and our elected officials to bring new water to Colorado Springs, we have to adapt overnight to a new reality, it won't be pretty."

Like many, Hazlehurst mistakes the flurry of money changing hands, concrete pouring and nails flying for profit. When he assumes our community's economy benefits somehow from rampant expansion, it's because he hasn't looked at an honest profit-and-loss statement for community growth. The tax base doesn't even cover the cost of providing services. Look at police, fire, schools, snow removal, street repair, road network expansion and, now, storm water drainage. In every case, the bigger we get, the farther behind we fall.

Subtract from the bottom line the billion-dollar price tag of the next big pipeline to water the lawns of Banning Lewis Ranch. And another billion dollars in interest on top of that. Next, subtract a billion dollars-plus for construction and debt service on a new power plant that development of Banning Lewis will require.

The growth-industry spin on all this will be, "This is for our children." They'll say, "New residents will pay for much of this through their taxes and utility bills."

But they won't do the math and give you a spreadsheet showing what percentage you'll pay (over 50 percent) versus what will be paid by new residents. They'll tell you our rampant growth is due to the growth of our own families, even though our county's population growth, in fact, has been 85 percent newcomers moving in, and only 15 percent local births.

Growth imposes many other costs on our families and our community -- some easy to quantify, others intangible. But the bottom line for our community is that prosperity based on growth is an illusion. It only looks profitable because we hide the costs -- in declining levels of service, in our utility bills, in special fees and taxes, and in record debt for our children.

No one is holding a gun to our heads and requiring us to incur that debt to pipe in more water to feed more unprofitable, destructive growth.

Today we squander resources on foolhardy growth subsidies and the deception and denial that perpetuate them. If instead we invested this energy into true, sustainable economic development and responsible stewardship of our many blessings, our town could be as wonderful a place to live in 20 years as it is today.

The truth is, we don't have to spend billions of dollars on risky water-diversion monstrosities in order to have jobs, food on the table and a very comfortable life.

In fact, we could end our ill-fated growth-based prosperity quest today, and tomorrow we'd actually have more prosperity and better quality of life -- if only we had the guts, the vision and the inspiration.

Dave Gardner is founder of Save The Springs, which promotes smart growth, sustainable economic development and responsible approaches to growth. The organization's Web site is savethesprings.org.


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