Dying of thirst

Let's talk about water. Simple, ain't it? You turn the faucet, and out it comes. Pretty good stuff, too, if you live within the city limits.

Thanks to the foresight of long-gone city officials, most of our water comes from pristine Western Slope snowmelt. We store it in a handful of reservoirs, and pipe it as needed to state-of-the-art treatment plants here in Colorado Springs. It's good water -- certainly as good or better than the expensive bottled kind. A gallon of tap water costs almost nothing, while a gallon of the store-bought stuff (complete with its characteristic plastic-y taste) costs about as much as a gallon of gas. Guess you'd have to be pretty dumb to buy bottled water, right?

If so, there are a lot of dumbos here in River City, since, according to International Demographics, a Texas-based media research firm, 150,000 of us typically buy bottled water in any given four-week period.

That's not stupidity; that's brilliant marketing, capitalizing on peoples' concern for their health and well-being to persuade them to pay good money for something they can get for free.

But although a gallon of treated water is essentially free, water on a municipal scale is extraordinarily expensive. To duplicate our existing water infrastructure would cost billions of dollars and scores of years. And just adding capacity (e.g., the proposed pipeline from the Pueblo Reservoir), will cost hundreds of millions and take close to a decade.

So let's take a look at Referendum A, a ballot measure that would empower the so-called Colorado Water Conservation Board to issue up to $2 billion in state-guaranteed revenue bonds to build as-yet unspecified water projects. If it sounds like a blank check, it is, and whoever happens to be governor is the sole signatory on the account. You see, not only does the governor appoint all of the voting members of the board, he also has final say on which of its proposed projects will be funded.

That's not the only peculiar feature of Referendum A. Most of the state's major water providers -- including the Denver Water Board and Colorado Springs Utilities -- aren't interested in participating in the program. That leaves very few identifiable projects of the kind that the issue's backers pretend to be interested in; repairing small reservoirs, encouraging small-scale conservation projects, etc., etc. So just what is this potentially vast resource pool going to be used for?

Jump in your car, and drive to Denver. What do you see, as you go from northern El Paso County through Douglas County and up to Denver? You see houses -- lots of 'em. In the past couple of decades, explosive development has utterly transformed this once-rural stretch of the Front Range. And where do all of these prosperous folks get their water? From wells.

And that's a problem. All of these users rely upon aquifers that are being rapidly depleted. How rapidly is a subject for debate, but the plain fact is that nobody knows. The vast Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies portions of several states, including much of eastern Colorado, is being drained by tens of thousands of wells. And much of that is fossil water, deposited millions of years ago, and not recharged by today's rainfall.

Closer to home, estimates of the longevity of our local aquifers vary wildly. The Pollyannas among us claim that we have nothing to worry about; the doomsayers predict a dried-up Front Range within a decade or two.

If the doomsayers are right, we'd better do something about it right now. Consider the economic implications for Colorado Springs, and for the entire state, if the booming suburbs from the Black Forest to Castle Rock and points north were to suddenly lose their water supplies. It'd be catastrophic for the entire region.

That's why Gov. Bill Owens, who's no slouch as a politician, is following a kind of reverse Iraq policy. Rather than deliberately magnifying a small problem, he's deliberately minimizing a potentially enormous problem. He's concluded that by presenting Referendum A as a sensible solution to statewide water supply/delivery problems, and one which will benefit everyone -- farmers, ranchers, city-dwellers, environmentalists -- it's likely to pass.

But if it were presented differently, as a state-subsidized bailout of wealthy suburbanites, developers and Front Range water buffaloes, then the result might not be to the governor's liking.

So much as it pains me to admit this, it may be very much in our own selfish interests to vote for this particular multibillion-dollar boondoggle. So I guess I'll just hold my nose, vote yes and celebrate my suckerdom in the most appropriate way possible.

With a hearty swig of my favorite brand of bottled water ...

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com


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