The drought continues. As we debate ever more draconian regulations to curtail water use, it's fair to ask whether this particular debacle could have been avoided.

Our municipal government, in common with every other Front Range municipality, would prefer that we believe that this is a simple natural disaster, unpredictable and therefore unavoidable. Of course, the official line goes, if it hadn't been for those pesky environmentalists, who stopped us from building dams, things would be a lot better.

I don't know about other municipalities, but I do know that our problems are largely of our own making. And I know who's to blame: I am, along with everyone else who served on City Council from 1980 on, as well as municipal officials, business leaders, and newspaper editors and reporters who have blithely looked the other way.

For at least 25 years, the city has had four basic policies: 1) Maintain a business-friendly environment by keeping taxes low and minimizing regulation. 2) Encourage growth and development, with subsidies both overt and covert. 3) Keep utility rates low, thereby helping to meet the first two goals. 4) Don't let the politicians meddle with the supremely competent bureaucrats who run Colorado Springs Utilities.

In the late 1970s, when it became clear that Colorado Springs would need to develop new water storage and delivery systems, politicians and utility executives chose alternatives that offered the highest, most secure yield for the least money.

The project that met those criteria was the so-called Homestake II system, a lunatic scheme that involved diverting water from the Holy Cross Wilderness Area southeast of Vail. Anyone familiar with lefty politics in Colorado could have told them that the ski areas would join forces with Western Slope pols and environmentalists to kill the deal. But, insulated from political realities, our Utilities honchos paid no attention to such considerations.

By the early '90s and millions in legal fees later, Homestake II was dead, so Utilities considered building a dam on the main stem of the Arkansas north of Buena Vista.

The entire upper valley mobilized to oppose the idea -- you can still see a few faded signs as you drive up Highway 24 -- "Don't Let Colorado Springs Drown This Valley!"

Once again, we'd ignored the politics -- everyone from Buena Vista to Cañon City assumed (probably correctly) that a dam would kill the rafting industry.

So we wasted 10 or 15 years chasing mirages, seeing gleaming reservoirs of water that were perpetually just out of our grasp.

Strangely, Utilities had so cowed otherwise sensible Council members that they were literally above criticism or reproach. An example: when Phil Tollefson was made Utility Director in 1995, he announced that the department was writing off its entire investment ($9 million-plus) in a specially-designed customer information system that didn't work.

No one on Council (myself included!) asked the obvious questions ("Why? Who made those decisions? Why didn't you buy an off-the-shelf system and adapt it to your own uses, instead of trying to re-invent the wheel?").

Instead, led by the usually irascible then-councilwoman Cheryl Gillaspie, we simply applauded Phil for biting the bullet and moving on.

So now, at last, we're trying to put together a deal to expand the Pueblo Reservoir and pump the additional water north to Colorado Springs. Utilities never much liked this alternative, because of the added cost of pumping.

Given our self-imposed financial constraints (keep those rates low!), we pursued alternatives, like Homestake II, that allowed gravity to bring the water to us.

Environmentally and practically, Pueblo's the best alternative. But the deal is being blocked, for the time being, by the Pueblo City Council, who are afraid that Colorado Springs will transform the Arkansas below the reservoir into a muddy, seasonal stream. Given that Pueblo has made a major investment into revitalizing their riverfront, you can understand their concern.

And so what are we doing to alleviate their concerns? Nothing; with our usual political sensitivity, we're accusing them (through our mouthpiece at the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy) of wanting water for a kayak run. Meanwhile, we're showing them how much we care about maintaining streamflows generally by drying up both Ruxton Creek in Manitou and the lower reaches of Fountain Creek.

And we still insist on keeping rates low ...

So here we are, hoist with our own petard. By trying to both do it on the cheap and have hyper-growth, we've got a full-fledged crisis.

Maybe it's time for our pols to stop pretending that it's all nature's fault and take a look in the mirror.

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com


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