Pipe dreams 

Colorado Springs latest quest for water is a draining exercise

click to enlarge d46e_cover-16754.gif

The monster would stretch along Interstate 25 from Pueblo to Colorado Springs, a massive, 66-inch diameter underground pipe connected to as many as two dozen 3,000-horsepower, earth-rattling pumps along its path. It would suck up to 78 million gallons of water from the Arkansas River every day and send it roaring northward to quench the thirst of a sprawling city.

It's called the Southern Delivery System (SDS). Colorado Springs Utilities and most of the City Council believe that by 2009 it will deliver enough water to grow us into the next 40 years -- enough to run our high-tech microchip plants, fill our toilets and make our Kentucky bluegrass lawns long and lush. The enormous steel snake, they say, is not only inevitable, but a way to cash in on the city's unused water rights.

Today, Colorado Springs' trophy chest of water rights contains more than 180,000 acre-feet of water annually -- one acre-foot can supply two typical households with water for a year. The city, however, only has the capability to deliver roughly 55 percent of it.

"Sooner or later, you gotta have a pipe," said Phil Tollefson, CEO of the city-owned utilities agency.

But water salvation, of course, doesn't come cheap. The proposed Southern Delivery System would cost Colorado Springs Utilities customers more than $1 billion -- paid by homeowners and business owners through tap fees and rate hikes. That cost translates to roughly $8,230 for each of CSU's 121,501 current water customers -- though the utility expects major population increases in the decades to come. The cost of the project will carry over to our children and grandchildren, with the final bill installment paid in 2051. CSU hopes to begin construction on the project by 2007.

"Most people will be priced out of green lawns," said local anti-growth activist Dave Gardner. "I'm afraid that SDS will be taken as a ticket for the growth industry to bulldoze the rest of the county."

Battling nature

Despite being the only major city along the Front Range with no direct access to a major water source, Colorado Springs has experienced a growth boom over the past 15 years; indeed the city is now one of the 100 largest cities in the United States.

Today, 75 percent of the water that fuels the growth of Colorado Springs originates in creeks and streams hundreds of miles away, along the Western Slope of the Rockies. It's piped through a complicated series of diversions and reservoirs. That it gushes from our faucets and erupts from our lawn sprinklers proves that Colorado Springs knows how to battle nature.

Largely because of the lack of direct access, in its recent history the city has relentlessly searched for its first successful major new water project since the Fountain Valley pipeline was completed in 1985, looking for new ways to bring more liquid gold to the doorsteps of the county's 550,000-and-growing residents.

The Southern Delivery System project is Colorado Springs' latest grand ambition -- to boost the city's available water supply by 50 percent and provide enough water to feed at least 200,000 more people by 2030. The city-owned utility company has already spent more than $32 million purchasing land, litigating, planning and touting the pipeline from Pueblo as the best option.

It could be money that joins the wastewater flowing down Fountain Creek to Pueblo.

High and dry

click to enlarge Colorado Springs is growing fast and is mighty thirsty.
  • Colorado Springs is growing fast and is mighty thirsty.

Colorado Springs has stood on this threshold before. In the late 1980s, city officials promised residents that another ambitious water project, Homestake II, would quench this fast-growing city well into the 21st century. It would have piped 20,000 acre-feet of water from a reservoir in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area near Vail into Colorado Springs and to Aurora, east of Denver.

It was a disaster.

After an expensive, rancorous multiyear-long legal battle that pitted Front Range and Western Slope communities against each other -- and cost Springs taxpayers millions in litigation costs -- the city found itself high and dry. Specifically, Eagle County, in the central Rockies, denied Colorado Springs' application for a permit to build the reservoir; this city's lawyers tried to argue its case to build Homestake II to the U.S. Supreme Court -- and lost.

Many Colorado Springs officials, notably Tollefson, Mayor Lionel Rivera, council members Margaret Radford, Jerry Heimlicher and Richard Skorman, are optimistic the Pueblo project will work.

But critics, including Pueblo environmentalists and longtime observers of Colorado water wars, warn that same fate that befell Homestake II could await the Southern Delivery System, which faces a similar land-use permit showdown in Pueblo County.

But Pueblo County commissioners, who hold the power to kill the latest pipeline project, have given no indication that they will approve -- or reject -- the project.

None of the three elected Pueblo County commissioners returned calls seeking comment for this story. But one of the commissioners, Loretta Kennedy, also sits on the board of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. The conservation district's mission is to "acquire, retain and conserve water flowing in the Arkansas River and its tributaries (and) to ensure that all water will remain in the valley." In other words, their mission is to protect the water flowing away from Colorado Springs -- not toward it.

Also standing between Colorado Springs' hope that the SDS will become reality are a myriad of other federal hurdles; the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, for example, is currently conducting an environmental impact study in order to determine its feasibility. Initial results from that study are expected in spring 2006.

And in recent months, opposition from activists south of Colorado Springs has increased, fueled in large part by the person who some call the most powerful man in Pueblo -- a man who buys ink by the barrel.

Bob Rawlings, publisher of the Pueblo Chieftain, worries that the pipeline would replace fertile Arkansas Valley farms in southern Colorado with a dry wasteland.

And he -- and others -- is offended because the prospect could result in a trade of fresh water for wastewater. The Southern Delivery System, would, they argue, take the fresh water currently flowing down the Arkansas River and divert it to Colorado Springs. After we are done using that fresh water, all the waste would then flow back downhill via Fountain Creek back into the Arkansas, an already threatened river.

Slurping the big straw

Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Tollefson says that after more than a decade of study, SDS is "the most cost-effective, least environmentally damaging and [the plan with] the fewest socio-economic impacts" of the city's water options.

For starters, according to Tollefson and consultants hired by the city-owned utility, Colorado Springs already owns the water rights for the SDS project. Those rights were part of a 1987 decree that allows the city to exchange wastewater flowing down Fountain Creek for fresh water in Pueblo Reservoir.

click to enlarge Colorado Springs water is piped to this city from the - Western Slope and south of Pueblo through a labyrinth - system. To put some perspective on acre feet, one - acre - feet equals 325,851 gallons; an average Colorado - Springs household uses 125,000 gallons of water - every year.
  • Colorado Springs water is piped to this city from the Western Slope and south of Pueblo through a labyrinth system. To put some perspective on acre feet, one acre feet equals 325,851 gallons; an average Colorado Springs household uses 125,000 gallons of water every year.

For Colorado Springs developers and businesses whose growth is partially subsidized by ratepayers, the pipe could be a dream come true. Plentiful water translates into profit, expansion, lawns planted with non-native, water-slurping bluegrass in a semi-arid environment -- and it's needed to feed this city's growing high-tech industry, which requires a flood of water for microchip production.

New growth, such as the 23,000-acre Banning-Lewis Ranch that is expected to eventually have 50,000 new homes in northeast Colorado Springs, is a reality utilities planners must deal with. Construction of single-family homes throughout region is skyrocketing, according to the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, and 2005 development could be the busiest in the city's history.

The pipe, according to Tollefson, serves merely a big straw for water Colorado Springs already owns.

And, as Tollefson and others point out, because of deals that have been struck between Pueblo and Colorado Springs' politicians, SDS will result in huge benefits to Pueblo as well. The pacts ensure that water will flow through Pueblo's new kayak run -- a popular attraction that runs through that city's downtown core.

'A long time ago'

The saga over SDS is the latest in Colorado Springs' long and fluid quest for water.

Tollefson became what he called a "hired gun" for the city in 1982, when he became superintendent of water resources. He learned at the knee of Colorado Springs' past water baron, Harold Miskel, the former utilities services director. In the 1970s, Miskel gained the reputation as a sort of a modern-day Attila the Hun. Then, during the city's last water-crisis emergency, Miskel was charged with securing water rights across Colorado for future growth. Now the challenge is in developing them.

After Homestake II was ultimately shot down, Colorado Springs identified, based on the water rights that Miskel had secured, five alternatives to deliver big water to the big city. In addition to the SDS, they included:

Elephant Rock, 100 miles west of Colorado Springs near Buena Vista. The controversial plan would have created a reservoir that would have, among other things, flooded a scenic valley. Nearby residents were so outraged they planted signs along the highway that begged, "Don't let Colorado Springs flood this valley."

Piping water from Lake Meredith, east of Pueblo.

Developing, in conjunction with the Eagle River compact, a reservoir outside of the Holy Cross Wilderness, that would store water that could be used by Western Slope communities as well as Colorado Springs.

Recycling and reusing our water. Colorado Springs' Utilities officials -- who are used to bragging that its customers literally drink pure melted snow -- cringe at this idea. While communities downstream of every river in this country already reuse water flowing from folks upstream, the idea to do so here has been the least favored option by city officials, In fact, CSU officials present such a notion on promotional materials as "irresponsible, inefficient, risky, costly, environmentally challenging and incomplete."

Ultimately, Colorado Springs' officials settled on the Southern Delivery System to expand the Pueblo Reservoir and pipe water 40 miles uphill. Though this was an expensive option, city officials -- still reeling from the Homestake II debacle -- considered it the most feasible.

Colorado Springs water officials obtained the water rights to develop the Southern Delivery System in 1987.

click to enlarge Pueblo Chieftain Publisher Bob Rawlings has - become the - most vocal opponent of the Southern Delivery System.
  • Pueblo Chieftain Publisher Bob Rawlings has become the most vocal opponent of the Southern Delivery System.

Now 54, Tollefson admits that sometimes, in their zeal to secure a healthy water future, dire predictions are sometimes made.

"Back then," he said, "we thought we'd be out of water by 1995 if we didn't build [Homestake II]. And we never built it. And now I'm old and I look back and 1995 seems like a long time ago."

But it was not so long ago that water officials elsewhere -- notably on the Western Slope -- cannot immediately identify the mistake that Colorado Springs, and Aurora, made while pursuing Homestake II. It was a mistake of arrogance.

"The Homestake partners came in to Eagle County and said, 'We have the permits and this is our project, take it or leave it,' " said Chris Treese, spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. "The commissioners, faced with that decision, said, 'Well, no, that's unacceptable.'"

The lesson was clear, he said. "You've got to work with the affected communities."

Shortly after the failure of Homestake II, and in the midst of the subsequent move toward developing the Southern Delivery System, another wake-up alarm sounded: drought.

Turning off the faucet

Beginning in 1999, drought seized the West -- parching the increasingly over-tapped rivers in Colorado's headwaters. It deepened with each successive year; by the summer of 2004, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey were calling it the West's worst water shortage in 500 years. Across Colorado's water map, the blue lines began to shrink and recede and reservoirs shrunk. Pueblo Reservoir dipped below half-full.

"The bottom fell out," said Gary Bostrom, a regional projects manager for Colorado Springs Utilities and a 25-year city utilities veteran. "The faucet was turned off."

In response, CSU implemented a water plan in 1996 that called for more water conservation and water recycling for parks and golf courses. The plan also called for expansion and improvements in existing pipeline systems. CSU has spent $16 million since then on wastewater system upgrades.

As the drought continued, Pueblo Chieftain publisher Rawlings was spurred into action. Rawlings, now 80, grew up in Las Animas, east of Pueblo, and his memories of the Dust Bowl fuel his fear for the valley's future if Colorado Springs builds its big pipe.

"We had the terrible drought," he said of his 1930s childhood. "The dust would come in two or three thousand feet high. It was a wall of dirt, churning with debris of all kinds, and it would just envelop the schools and the homes and come through the windows. It was scary, not to say how devastating it was to the land."

Beginning in the 1950s, seeking to put the drought behind, Pueblo worked hand-in-hand with Colorado Springs to build the federal Fryingpan-Arkansas project -- filling the river with abundant water from the Western Slope. But as population growth in Colorado Springs began to exponentially outstrip growth in Pueblo in the 1960s, the city to the north began dominating in the water wars.

While the SDS plan had been on the drawing board since the 1980s, it didn't catch Rawlings' attention. But after the demise of Homestake II and the ensuing drought, Colorado Springs kicked its latest plan into gear. Three years ago, Rawlings launched his crusade against the pipe.

click to enlarge Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Phil Tollefson says - that - sooner or later, you gotta have a pipe.
  • Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Phil Tollefson says that sooner or later, you gotta have a pipe.

The Pueblo Chieftain has published what Rawlings describes as "hundreds" of editorials railing against SDS. He has proven, to Colorado Springs Utilities' dismay, to be one of the most influential voices in the debate, stirring up environmentalists and public outcry over the proposal.

"All water negotiations are conducted in secret," he charged in a recent interview. "And the public doesn't really understand what's going on. That's what Colorado Springs Utilities and Aurora have been doing for several decades."

Ultimately, Rawlings' beef with the pipe boils down to one thing: growth. "[Colorado Springs is] buying this for the benefit of the 500,000 people who they hope, for some ungodly dumb reason in my view, to increase their city to a million people."

"What [Colorado Springs] should be doing first is reusing what they've got now," said Rawlings, "then worry about if they need pipeline for those 500,000 more people that CSU wants up there."

Wheeling and dealing

With support for the project in Pueblo uncertain, Colorado Springs City Council realized two years ago that something needed to be done.

"We were told by CSU staff that things were bad with Pueblo," said City Councilwoman Radford.

"There are some in Pueblo who would like to see the Springs wither on the vine," she said, referring to Rawlings. "I'd like to say I don't."

Failing to take a good-neighbor approach had doomed Homestake II, and so CSU and the city council decided to build a relationship with Pueblo's city council.

That March, at a conference in Washington D.C., Radford and then-Councilwoman Sallie Clark met with Pueblo City Council members Randy Thurston and Ted Lopez. Radford described the meeting as "double top-secret."

Their conversation "got the ball rolling" with regard to gleaning support from Pueblo officials for the Colorado Springs project, Radford said.

In the spring of 2004, Colorado Springs and Aurora forged a pair of intergovernmental agreements (IGA) with Pueblo. Together, the agreements gave Pueblo additional water rights along the Arkansas.

As Pueblo water attorney Ann Castle noted at a City Council work session there on Nov. 8, 2004, the agreement would, in an average rainfall year, give Pueblo a guarantee of 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) into the Arkansas River through its kayak course during winter, and 500 cfs during the summer. The amounts represent approximately 37 percent more water than has typically flowed through that stretch of the Arkansas River, Castle told the Pueblo Council.

Even though SDS did not need the approval of any Pueblo city official, Castle said Colorado Springs gave up an estimated 1,475 acre feet of its water per year to Pueblo -- enough to provide water to 2,950 homes for a year.

click to enlarge Colorado Springs officials agreed to give up some of - the - citys water rights to Pueblo to help feed the kayak run - on the Arkansas River. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Colorado Springs officials agreed to give up some of the citys water rights to Pueblo to help feed the kayak run on the Arkansas River.

"That benefit is something we could not have obtained by any other means," said Pueblo City Councilman Gil Ortiz, pleased with the agreement.

Even as the Pueblo Council thinks it got a good deal, leaks have begun to spring. A paragraph in the agreement says no guarantees apply in drought years, potentially leaving Pueblo's kayak run with only a trickle of water.

Springs' Councilwoman Radford and Mayor Rivera have touted their roles in securing support from Pueblo officials for the project. "Next time you use water, think of me because I was thinking of you" was Radford's oft-delivered slogan during her failed bid last fall to become an El Paso County commissioner. She lost the election to anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce.

Making the kids pay

But should SDS become reality, Radford, who is now seeking a second term on Council in the April 5 election, might not want her constituents to think of her when they receive their utility bills.

In addition to giving up some water rights to create what Colorado Springs believes is smoother sailing for SDS, the pipeline could also come with another cost. Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Council president Robert "Rocky" Scott points out that under terms of the SDS proposal, tap fees will increase a staggering 1,000 percent in five years, when construction of the pipeline would be underway.

"Say you've got kids here and they grow up, want to stay and want to buy a house here," Scott said. "Well, the new tap fee might increase the cost of that house by $60,000. The other alternative for SDS is to balance an increased tap fee with higher utility rates for the next 20 years."

And, Scott said, the effect of higher tap fees and higher utility rates will show up in an even more ominous arena: jobs.

"The consequences," he said, "will be the businesses that see a million-dollar tap fee and say, 'Well, we're not interested. We'll go to Pueblo or Oklahoma City or any other city with more reasonable tap fees and utility rates.

"And then we lose jobs. And then it's not fine."

While Scott describes SDS as "the best option that's been provided so far," he says that alternatives should be in place "in cases SDS runs into a snag."

"If something comes up that's better than SDS, we ought to take a serious look at it."

When public hearings over the project were being conducted last year, utilities customers appeared to show little interest. "Very few people came to the hearings," said Colorado Springs Councilman Heimlicher, 63. "I think they have delegated that authority to make these decisions to the people they elected. They expect water and they expect that we'll take care of it.

"If they don't like what we're doing, they have the option of kicking us out of office every two or four years."

click to enlarge City Councilwoman Margaret Radford has long touted - her role in the yet-to-be-built Southern Delivery - System.
  • City Councilwoman Margaret Radford has long touted her role in the yet-to-be-built Southern Delivery System.

Of the nine-member City Council, only Tom Gallagher has spoken out against SDS. He thinks the city should explore other options.

Quality counts

Despite Colorado Springs' officials overwhelming optimism that SDS is moving forward, some water experts see choppier waters ahead. After all, the city must still clear federal and county reviews and approval.

"There's a difference between state water rights [which Colorado Springs owns] and the federal permitting authority," said Melinda Kassen, director of Trout Unlimited's Colorado Water Project.

Kassen, a 20-year veteran of Colorado water wars, said federal approval could be a problem because "Fountain Creek is already degraded" by runoff and pollution and much of the Arkansas below the confluence is considered impaired because of high levels of selenium, an element that's toxic in high concentrations. The lower Arkansas also contains high levels of salt and sediment.

"The more water taken away [by SDS]," said SeEtta Moss, a Cañon City resident and chairwoman of the Audubon Society's Colorado Board of Directors, "the less water to dilute the already high selenium and salt" content ruining the river's ecosystem south of Pueblo.

And then there's the issue of how much water can be taken out of the Arkansas River before the region's ecosystem goes into shock.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is currently moving forward with an environmental impact statement as part of the permitting process. However, it is not considering a major component of Colorado Springs' proposal: expanding the Pueblo Reservoir. To do so would require congressional approval for a feasibility study. Though CSU maintains the expansion is necessary, so far efforts to do so have languished in Washington DC. Some say the expansion would never be OK'd because the Pueblo dam sits directly above that city.

Also at stake is whether SDS will restrict Colorado's legal requirement to provide a certain amount of clean water to Kansas each year. "Kansas thinks both SDS and [the reservoir expansion] are going to result in lousy water quality," Kassen said. "And they're already getting lousy water quality.

"[The Southern Delivery System] is not getting built fast [and] it's not getting built cheap because it's not a collaborative project at this point."

Banking on a dream

In recent months, talk has shifted from SDS to other possibilities. One plan currently being floated by Colorado Springs developer Mark Morley would run the pipeline along state highway 115, just east of Cañon City, instead of along Interstate 25. Morley has claimed he could bring the same amount of new water to the city at less than half the price. However, when pressed for specifics, Morley declined to provide details. Some city officials suggest his motives are driven by profit -- not, as Springs Councilman Skorman put it, what is "good for Colorado Springs."

Skorman and the rest of the council were told by CSU-hired consultants that the Morley plan would never work, in part, the consultants said, because the Springs doesn't have the right to take water from the Arkansas River at the point designated in that plan.

Another developer-backed plan calls for a high-altitude reservoir that would pump massive quantities of water from the Gunnison basin. Dave Miller, the developer who admits the project would be self-serving, calls it the Union Park plan. CSU CEO Tollefson calls it "the opportunity to go and fight everybody on the Western Slope, everybody in the Gunnison river valley, every farmer downstream and all the water districts."

As much as Colorado Springs officials want the SDS built, Tollefson concedes that life in Colorado Springs won't come to an end if the pipe isn't built. If that happens, the utilities chief says the city will ultimately take it in stride.

"I hear people say, 'Oh, woe is me, Colorado Springs is running out of water and there'll be tumbleweeds blowing down the streets in 10 years or something,' " he said. "They said exactly the same thing in 1910, 1930, 1950, 1960, 1970. There's always been the ability to build something, to buy something, to extend the water supply. If you look around the West, the exact same story has played out. Water is not the kind of break or control on growth that people think it is. If it was, Los Angeles would still be 700,000 people."

Yet because CSU has invested so much in its pipe plan, the immediate alternative might not be pleasant. "We'd have to look at direct reuse of our wastewater," Tollefson said. The city would eventually pursue another pipe and, in the meantime, buy time with more stringent conservation and mining for water underground.

But if the city heads into a drastic water crunch without SDS, the behavior of developers and politicians may need to change. For example, near the end of February, City Council voted 7-2 to ease watering restrictions.

So while developers put up frames on the next colossal subdivision and residents cultivate healthy plots of Kentucky bluegrass this spring, the city may be banking on a dream.

Cara DeGette contributed to this report.

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