August 21, 2019 News » Cover Story

Regional agencies struggle to find water for a growing population 

Every last drop

click to enlarge The northeast corner of Wolf Ranch in Colorado Springs will soon be developed. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The northeast corner of Wolf Ranch in Colorado Springs will soon be developed.

Judy von Ahlefeldt gazes out over a wide expanse of grasslands that roll like a green carpet to the edge of Colorado Springs’ northeast city limit.

She predicts that within a year or two, those 750 acres where cattle and antelope graze just south of Black Forest could host thousands of rooftops and busy city streets.

“Enjoy this,” von Ahlefeldt says, “because it won’t be here much longer.”

Because Wolf Ranch lies within the city, and has since 1982, Colorado Springs Utilities will deliver water and other services to those homes.

But just across the city’s border to the northeast and east, thousands of homes built in urban densities over the last 40 to 50 years don’t enjoy that luxury.

Instead, they rely on nonrenewable underground formations where water has accumulated over millions of years, and those supplies are dwindling.

What happens if and when those wells run dry? Will Springs Utilities ride to the rescue? Or will the city be choked for adequate supplies for its own customers?

Water, a precious commodity in semi-arid climates, could be the determining factor in future development, given the finite supply contained in fragile underground aquifers and the scarcity of rights to renewable water from mountain streams.

City Council, acting as the Utilities Board, takes up a discussion on Aug. 21 about what role Springs Utilities will play in the region’s growth.

That review could lead to new city boundaries, change how water is used and conserved, alter the cost of service and, perhaps, lead to adoption of new rules for construction and landscaping.

Council will look to regional cooperation, including from El Paso County leaders, who some complain rubber-stamp high density enclaves that inevitably will come begging for city water someday.

“This is the issue of our time,” says Utilities Board Chair Jill Gaebler, stressing county leaders need to be involved.

No argument there, county officials say, offering the recently adopted Water Master Plan as Exhibit A in the county’s commitment to resolve the water dilemma.

“This is not a county or city issue. This is a Pikes Peak region issue,” says Craig Dossey, the county’s Planning and Community Development executive director. “We should all be concerned about long-term sustainability, particularly about water.”

click to enlarge feature1-2.jpg
click to enlarge Gaps exist between the region’s current water supply and the demand amounts projected in 2060. Colorado Springs and the Fountain area show the biggest gaps.
  • Gaps exist between the region’s current water supply and the demand amounts projected in 2060. Colorado Springs and the Fountain area show the biggest gaps.

Unlike many other
large cities, Colorado Springs isn’t located on a river. Thus, the city relies on transmountain diversions and runoff from Pikes Peak. (Though the city owns many groundwater wells, they’re not routinely used to serve customers day to day.)

A series of mountain reservoirs and pipelines deliver water from the Western Slope to Pueblo Reservoir and through the Homestake Pipeline to the city for treatment. From the reservoir, pumps push water through the Fountain Valley Authority line, and the Southern Delivery System pipeline.

(Utilities owns the rights to about 50 groundwater wells, many of which are inactive. No groundwater is used for its potable system, but it is used for irrigation and electric generation at Nixon Power Plant’s cooling towers.)

For now, the city has ample supplies, with about 95,000 acre feet of water to serve a population of 465,000. (An acre foot equates to a foot of water covering one acre, or 326,000 gallons, which can sustain two to three households for a year.)

By 2070, Utilities says, the city will need about 136,000 acre feet to sustain 720,000 people. That means the city must grow its water supply by 40 percent.

To do that, the city hopes to:

• Continue to encourage conservation through rates and education;

• “Perfect,” in water-law parlance, its remaining water rights in the transmountain system by building Whitney Creek Reservoir on Eagle River tributaries, adding 10,000 acre feet within 20 years;

• Double storage at Montgomery Reservoir on Hoosier Pass, adding 3,500 acre feet by 2037; and

• Buy water from farms in the lower Arkansas Valley and ditch companies. The city sealed a water-sharing deal in 2018 with the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association (LAWMA) that gives the city use of the water for five years in each 10-year cycle. Combined with deals in 2014 and 2015 with a ditch company, the agreements add access to about 2,325 acre feet.

But water production isn’t always reliable, so owning a set number of acre feet might not yield that much in any given year, depending on rainfall and temperatures, Utilities officials say.

“For instance,” Abby Ortega, Utilities manager of water resources, explains, “if it’s a really hot May, and you see that snowmelt come off super fast, we probably don’t have the infrastructure to divert all of that. Where if it’s a year, like this year, where you get a really cool May, where it’s still actually snowing in May, and a cooler June, that water comes off slow. We have the infrastructure. We can capture all of that. And then we can store what we need for our community, and some of that goes downstream. The sweet spot [is] where we have the legal ability to use the water, Mother Nature generates the water, and we have the infrastructure to pick it up.”

click to enlarge Utilities Water Manager Abby Ortega. - COURTESY CSBJ
  • Courtesy CSBJ
  • Utilities Water Manager Abby Ortega.
In years when water is plentiful, Utilities searches for buyers for its surplus water for recreation, to augment well pumping or for storage.

“We see that as a really good thing that benefits the region if anybody can store water for a future year,” Ortega says, “because you never know what next year is going to bring.”

Utilities tries to keep a three-year supply in storage and maximizes its rights through a complicated accounting system that allows the city to use and reuse water several times as it flows through pipes and channels and, eventually, into the Arkansas River.

All that said,
Utilities faces a supply gap, and with most water rights spoken for, they’ve turned to farmland, which soaks up 86 percent of the state’s water supply.

That’s a controversial strategy, considering the aftermath of Colorado Springs’ and Aurora’s water purchases from Crowley County decades ago left a dust bowl behind, giving rise to the term “buy and dry.”

And that’s not a preferred option for anybody, Ortega says.

“It’s not good for our state, it’s not good for the farmers, it’s not good for our community,” she says. “We’re looking at new ways to partner with agriculture, and people across the state are looking at how to partner with agriculture.”

Under the LAWMA deal, the idea is for farmers to rely on stored water during the years Springs Utilities takes its water from them, and vice versa.

Pat Wells, Utilities’ general manager of water resources and demand management, notes the 2015 Colorado Water Plan promotes such partnerships, calling for farms to share 50,000 acre feet of water with municipalities, while also envisioning that farms’ productivity will keep pace with food demands.

It’s one way the state plan seeks to close an expected 560,000-acre-foot supply gap for cities and industry by 2030, the other ways being conservation, storage, land use changes and reuse.

“What is the responsible way to reallocate a small percentage of agricultural water use in certain years to meet municipal uses in a way that protects the environment, that has responsible revegetation plans, maintains the economic vitality of not just the community where the water is coming from, but also our community?” says Wells.

  • Graphics by Dustin Glatz
Those efforts to export water could run into opposition, however. The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District has historically opposed cities buying water from agriculture. The district’s Executive Director Jay Winner didn’t respond to requests for comment, but the district ran a series of ads in the Independent last year, one of which said, “Taking water from Lamar? That’s taking things too far. Colorado Springs harms Lower Arkansas Valley farms.”

Winner previously expressed skepticism of Utilities’ plan, which he said would “dry up ... land in the Arkansas basin,” noting there’s no such thing as surplus water in the valley.

Utilities won’t be the only ones knocking on farmers’ doors. Others, too, need to find additional supplies. But are they equipped to compete with Colorado Springs’ billion-dollar enterprise? Should they even try?

El Paso County officials sow seeds of growth by approving subdivisions submitted by developers, then leaving others to provide water.

But in the 1980s, county commissioners recognized groundwater as a finite resource whose recharge rates are poorly understood. To slow depletions of water tables, commissioners adopted a rule that requires developers to document a 300-year water supply for proposed developments.

The state’s rule then, and now, requires proof of only a 100-year supply. Dossey says after the state water engineer signs off on developers’ applications showing a century of water, the County Attorney’s Office validates whether a 300-year supply exists.

Despite that high hurdle, water tables have plunged. The aquifers in question span several Front Range counties, from El Paso to Greeley, and comprise the Denver Basin. Within that basin lie shallow alluvial formations, the Dawson, Denver, Arapahoe and Laramie-Fox Hills aquifers.

Excessive pumping endangers those aquifers, as noted by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Its Citizen’s Guide to Denver Basin Groundwater notes that “groundwater resources are being withdrawn from the Denver Basin bedrock aquifers at rates in excess of recharge, resulting in a mining condition that depletes the groundwater in storage... .”

In El Paso County, the water table in certain wells has dropped over the last decade alone by up to 37 feet in the Dawson, 88 feet in the Denver, 134 feet in the Arapahoe and 80 feet in the Laramie-Fox, according to data from the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
While other wells in those basins have shown gains, it’s unclear how resilient various wells will remain over the long term.

As Dossey says, “The rate of replenishing those aquifers is unknown, even at the state level, because they’re confined aquifers. Nobody knows how actively they recharge.”

Drops in water levels mean wells become less productive, leading well owners to either drill deeper or drill new wells, which then compete with existing wells for a finite source, Dossey says.

Although Dossey couldn’t think of a well that’s run dry in El Paso County, Donala Water & Sanitation District, which serves about 2,700 taps in the Gleneagle area in north El Paso County, found falling water tables alarming enough to search elsewhere for water.

Other districts also have done so.

After buying water from Utilities in 2007 and 2008 due to a shortage, Cherokee Metropolitan District purchased 850 acre feet of Denver Basin water rights in 2011 from Sundance Ranch in north El Paso County. The district installed a pipeline to deliver the water to its service area east of Powers Boulevard, which serves about 17,000 customers. It also provides water to Schriever Air Force Base and Woodmen Hills Metropolitan District to “leverage a more cost-effective ‘economy of scale’ as fixed costs are absorbed by a larger number of consumers,” its website says.

Cherokee Executive Director Amy Lathen says via email the district has completed two wells so far, which have produced 189 acre feet of water.

Woodmoor Water & Sanitation District bought 3,500 acre feet of surface water rights from the JV Ranch south of the city in 2011 to serve its 8,700 customers. The project was funded with a $28 million bond issue, according to a Special District Association of Colorado article. But delivery of that water isn’t planned until 2033, according to the district’s long-range plan. For now, the district relies on wells and storage at Lake Woodmoor, purchased in 2001.

click to enlarge featuregraphics1-2.jpg

So some districts have solved their problem, at least for now, and drought conditions of 2012-13 have subsided. In fact, Dossey says he’s never seen a county project stall due to a developer’s inability to prove a water supply. So why forge ahead with a water study?

“Those bedrock aquifers are nonrenewable resources,” he says. “Recognizing that this resource, at the rate we’re pumping, is not going to be there forever, we need to encourage developers to look for alternative sources of water.”

More than 21,300 water wells serve the unincorporated parts of the county. Most — 16,803 — serve 35-acre or smaller tracts scattered across the Black Forest and the plains and pump no more than 15 gallons a minute. The others, subject to water rights decrees, serve more densely populated housing projects via dozens of special districts that operate with little oversight by county officials.

Commissioners approve service plans when districts are created by developers, and have a say over use of land for water supply, water treatment and wastewater treatment projects water, such as pipelines and treatment plants. Beyond that, the county steers clear of district business.

Some residents assert it’s a formula for mismanagement — or even corruption.

Oversight of districts is so lax that one manager made off with an estimated $1.1 million from Arabian Acres Water District in Teller County and districts in Cascade in El Paso County between 2005 to 2013. Terry Malcom went to prison.

A district northeast of Colorado Springs, Falcon Highlands, has imposed boiled water restrictions at least twice since 2016 due to poor quality, one resident tells the Indy. Some customers experienced either low pressure or no water service at all at times, according to the resident, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation from the district board.

In some cases, special districts are controlled by developers, leaving residents feeling they don’t have a voice, while others give rise to political drama as resident boards attempt to govern complex water issues.

click to enlarge County Planning Chief Craig Dossey. - COURTESY EL PASO COUNTY
  • Courtesy El Paso County
  • County Planning Chief Craig Dossey.
All that said, Dossey says the new county Water Master Plan will require developers seeking approval of water infrastructure to abide by the plan’s provisions.

But that might not be too difficult. Adopted in December 2018 by the non-elected Planning Commission (county commissioner approval isn’t necessary), the 272-page report appears to lack teeth.

Though the $312,300 study sends up a flare, noting a 60,000-acre-foot supply gap in the region by 2060 and repeatedly warns the Denver Basin “may not be economically sustainable in the long term,” the requirements are far from onerous.

It uses words such as “encourage,” “support” and “consider” in describing possible steps toward water conservation, efficiency and development, and calls for more study of the 300-year rule and available groundwater supplies.

The report suggests:

• New landscaping standards to encourage water efficiency.

• Voluntary use of best management practices to reduce water consumption.

• Exploration of using aquifers as storage vessels.

• Collaborating with homebuilders and developers on zoning code amendments that promote decreased water demand coupled with water conservation for residential developments “where economical.”

One tangible step, though, will come in September when county officials consider requiring proof of water supplies earlier in the process. Now, developers don’t have to show ample water supplies until seeking final development approval.

It’s worth noting several subdivisions entered the approval pipeline prior to the Water Master Plan’s adoption, exempting them from the plan’s restraints, however weak they may seem.

“We can’t retroactively apply this to previous plans,” Dossey says.

And that includes a district called Sterling Ranch, unless, as Dossey notes, developer Jim Morley proposes zone changes or amendments, which would essentially restart the process.
Sterling Ranch Metropolitan District, which lies just outside the city’s northeast city limits, inspired City Council to get serious about setting the course for Utilities’ role in growth outside the city.

Earlier this summer, Morley and Classic Homes’ Doug Stimple, a builder at the ranch, asked Utilities to extend wastewater service to accommodate about 300 of the 5,800 homes planned for the 1,900 acres.

The urgency stemmed from 25 homes being built and ready for closing before the planned sewer line was finished to Meridian Ranch to the east.

On July 23, Council approved the extension but required Sterling Ranch to submit an annexation request in coming months.

The annexation, if approved, would come on the heels of the city’s 2018 amendment of the 20,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch’s 1988 annexation agreement that loosened developer requirements. The idea was to encourage developers to turn those mostly undeveloped acres into homes and businesses, rather than leap-frogging into the county. That leap-frogging stems from development costs in the city exceeding those in the county, because the city requires stormwater controls and concessions for parks and public safety while the county does not.

The Sterling Ranch example, says Council President Richard Skorman, opened the door for the city to set its boundaries once and for all. The new process also offers the opportunity to address the city’s water supply in the face of climate change, he says, though water experts say the only strategy to prepare for global warming is to create more storage.

But Skorman says every drop counts as the planet warms. Noting surface reservoirs lose water to evaporation, he wonders if the city could turn to the underground aquifers as cisterns that would protect against evaporative losses.

In any event, Skorman wants to come up with a game plan and stick with it, and that may mean reserving Utilities services for city customers only while “doing everything we can to discourage growth in the county.”

click to enlarge featuregraphics1-3.jpg

“They should know we’re not going to bail them out in the future,” he says, referring to county subdivisions.

Or will we?

Utilities’ goals, says Wells, call for creating regional water and economic sustainability.

“How do we first partner with the city to take care of our interest? How do we engage El Paso County, because they’re now starting to take a look at the unsustainability of the Denver Basin groundwater,” he says. “What is our role in helping our neighbors? And how can we kind of lift all boats with the rising tide in the region?”

But the city already covers nearly 200 square miles, which adds cost to providing basic services over such a wide area, including police and fire protection, road maintenance and transit service.

Gaebler identifies the overriding question this way: “Would it be better for us to just annex earlier, which gives us control over development, or wait, knowing these districts will, at some point, need our water supplies?”

On the development side, Kevin Walker, who runs a special district management company, calls that question “absolutely the correct assessment of the conundrum” the city faces.

click to enlarge Judy von Ahlefeldt of Black Forest. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Judy von Ahlefeldt of Black Forest.
“If you want a more compact urban form in order to achieve operations and maintenance efficiency over the long term, then I think we should consider annexing the next phase of growth area between Falcon and the city limits,” he says — and that includes Sterling Ranch.

Speaking as chair of the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs’ public policy council, Walker says the development industry is “more than happy” to comply with new development rules to conserve water, “because we’re interested in the long term viability of the community.” He also notes that higher densities often lead to lower costs of housing, and no one disputes the region is crying out for more affordable housing.

Which brings us back to von Ahlefeldt, who, along with other county residents, wonders how far urban densities will encroach on prairies and woodlands that skirt the city.

“People have always been worried about the city coming right up to the forest and into the forest,” von Ahlefeldt says.

She also disputes the reliability of past population forecasts.

“In the 1970s, they said we would have wall-to-wall rooftops from Trinidad to Fort Collins [in coming years],” she says. “It didn’t happen.”

click to enlarge Wolf Ranch will bring hundreds of homes to the edge of the Black Forest area. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Wolf Ranch will bring hundreds of homes to the edge of the Black Forest area.
A conservationist who holds a doctoral degree in ecology, von Ahlefeldt says development completely disrupts the ecosystem, and the city and county haven’t found ways to ease those impacts.

Remember that green carpet plowed by bulldozers in Wolf Ranch?

A previous plan for the land, now owned by Nor’wood Development Group, was to “feather” density toward Black Forest with 1- to 5-acre tracts on land abutting the forest’s yawning 35-acre lots, Von Ahlefeldt says. But that idea gave way to densities of up to seven homes per acre, a change approved on July 23, the same day Council OK’d the Sterling Ranch deal.

That, she asserts, demonstrates a lack of consideration for not only water issues but the natural world. Development, she says, alters the landscape, creates drainage problems, contributes to air pollution and introduces non-native and invasive species.

Von Ahlefeldt hopes any coordinated planning effort addresses all those factors, though she remains skeptical.

“It’s a web of life,” she says.

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