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Rural district's struggle shows magnitude of water supply problem 

click to enlarge Kip Peterson, Donala district manager. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Kip Peterson, Donala district manager.

July 30 was a red-letter day in Donala Water & Sanitation District. That’s when it received final approval to use water that journeys more than 200 miles: from a ranch near Leadville to Pueblo Reservoir and then to the district’s 2,700 customers in north El Paso County.

Getting to this point took 15 years.

Donala’s experience stands as an example of the lengths to which some rural water providers must go to stretch their groundwater supplies.

The district, east of Interstate 25 and largely south of Baptist Road, formed in the 1970s, predating El Paso County’s 1986 rule that requires developers to document a 300-year water supply to win development approval.

Reliant on Denver Basin underground wells, Donala had no worries for nearly 30 years.

“Back then,” says district manager Kip Peterson, “science wasn’t anywhere near where it is today, and everybody still thought that that was an inexhaustible resource.”

But over time, water tables dropped and the district’s board and manager awoke in 2005 to a new reality, realizing, “Our long-term sustainability is at risk.”

So Donala began its search. In 2008, it purchased Willow Creek Ranch outside of Leadville and, through water court, won a decree for 248 acre feet of renewable water rights from the ranch, or about 30 percent of Donala’s 848-acre-foot demand.

The district then set about finding a way to bring its water home. In December 2018, after seven years, Donala secured a 40-year storage contract from the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Pueblo Reservoir, the repository for the ranch’s flow.

To move the water from the reservoir north, Donala had to obtain what’s known as a 1041 permit from Pueblo County.

Named for the 1974 House Bill 1041, the law sets up a permitting process that allows local governments to “identify, designate, and regulate areas and activities of state interest” to exert control over local development projects.

“I’m very happy to say that as of Tuesday [July 30],” Peterson says during an Aug. 1 interview, “I have a 1041 permit from Pueblo County.”

It took nearly five years.

Pueblo County extracted more than $50 million from Colorado Springs Utilities for a 1041 permit for the Southern Delivery System (SDS) water pipeline, which began piping water from the reservoir in April 2016.

Donala’s 1041 called for a one-time $250,000 payment for potential stormwater impacts and $10,000 a year paid to the Fountain Creek Flood Control & Greenway District, which oversees mitigation of the creek’s stream flows.

While it navigated the complex permitting process, Donala spent $1.3 million to connect to a Utilities line at Northgate Boulevard to receive water for which it paid the city roughly $8 million.

In 2016, Donala bought 340 acre feet of water from the Laughlin Ditch, a water right associated with Fountain Creek.

Long-term storage for the district’s surface rights is planned for gravel pits in the Fountain area.

All of those efforts translate to bills that range up to a third higher, depending on usage, for Donala customers than those in Colorado Springs.

Looking ahead, Donala and other districts in that area want to consolidate wastewater treatment with Colorado Springs Utilities, which will extend a sewer line to the recently approved Air Force Academy visitors center project, putting the line within reach. That would allow decommissioning of two sewage plants in the districts north of Colorado Springs, Peterson says.

“This is how a regional approach can work for everybody’s advantage,” he adds.

Utilities’ wastewater plant will run more efficiently with greater volumes, he says, and the city collects 1.5 times the going rate from outsiders, bringing in revenues for its operations.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected. Donala secured a 40-year storage contract from the Bureau of Reclamation.

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