Homebuilding in Fountain, which can help ease the region’s housing shortage, is dependent on the availability of water — and a way to get it to new users.

The city of Fountain has hit the pause button on development, saying the city needs to assess its water supply before allowing more new taps.

Utilities Director Dan Blankenship tells the Indy by phone the city has received up to 30 development proposals in recent months that seek 30,000 new taps, which would more than triple the city’s current 8,700 taps.

A small fraction of those could eat up the existing capacity, he says, adding, “I can’t give anybody something we don’t have.”

The potential interruption of development in Fountain comes as the region faces a housing shortage, with Fountain seen as a source of new housing as inventory in Colorado Springs dwindles.

But now, the city’s Utility Department is putting the brakes on approving developments until it takes steps to improve its water capacity and determine whether it needs to acquire new water rights.

Blankenship stresses there’s no moratorium on development, per se. “We do have, just like every community, a finite amount of water capacity. We don’t have an unlimited amount,” he says.

As City Manager Scott Trainer says via email, “We don’t want to get into a position of allowing development without having the resources to support it. We’re trying to manage growth, not let it manage us....”

Limitations span the spectrum from water supply, to delivery mechanisms, to treatment capacity and distribution, Blankenship says.

That’s why the city has undertaken a series of studies, costing roughly $240,000, that will include a water master plan. Consultants will study supply, system modeling, legal implications, demand and delivery, and how to fund improvements.

Blankenship says the study results, due in October, will identify alternatives to meet water needs through 2050.

“We’ve been basically overwhelmed with development requests,” Blankenship says. La Plata Communities alone is seeking 2,500 taps, he says.

That doesn’t mean the city isn’t in the process of approving projects, however.

“We are allocating existing capacity on a first come, first serve basis, and we have a long list of projects,” he says. “Once they get to the point where they obtain all of the required entitlements, then at that point is when they would be eligible to obtain taps.”

Meantime, the city has identified a couple of projects that will address the situation.

First, the city is awaiting the Air Force’s completion of a treatment plant to remove polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that polluted underground aquifers from years of using PFA-laced firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base.

Blankenship says the city gets some of its water from two groundwater wells, but owns two additional wells that will resume pumping after the new treatment plant is operational — hopefully in mid-summer, though start-up could lag due to state permitting requirements.

The city’s other source is the Fountain Valley Authority (FVA) water line from Pueblo Reservoir. Blankenship says the city needs a new pipeline project to maximize the water it’s entitled to. The $5 million project would build a 36-inch pipeline enabling  Fountain to take more water from the FVA line and serve an additional 1,200 taps.

“Right now our system does not have physical capability to get all the water from all of our FVA allocation into our distribution,” he says.

The 24-month project will be complicated by the need for the pipeline to cross Interstate 25, Fountain Creek and the railroad tracks, “so there will be a significant amount of permitting by agencies before we start construction,” Blankenship says.

For now, the city has grouped tap requests into three categories.

The first comprises those subdivision projects that are under construction or have completed the application process. They’re first in line for water the city is currently able to deliver and represent roughly 100 taps, he says.

The second group includes those applications that will benefit from the pipeline project.

The third group of applications will have to wait until the master plan study is finished.

“My plan is,” Blankenship says, “once the master plan is completed, we would bring in landowners and prospective developers who would benefit from these improvements to share with them what the alternatives are and allow them [to choose] which of these alternatives will best meet their needs. Then we will ask them to come up with a means to finance and construct those improvements.

“Those who benefit from improvements will pay for improvements,” he adds.

The 8,700 customers currently served, he says, shouldn’t fund growth.

“Those landowners and developers who want to improve their land,” he says, “they’re going to have to step up to the plate and figure out how to finance and get this water from the source to the taps on their nickel.”

He reports that during a recent meeting with representatives of the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs, someone asked about imposing water restrictions to free up water for new developments.

HBA volunteer Kevin Walker, who runs a special district management company and chaired that meeting with Fountain officials, says someone asked Fountain officials if the city has taken conservation or rationing steps, as in some other jurisdictions.

“The answer was that they [customers] have been asked to voluntarily conserve and the City would not require a conservation plan,” Walker says in an email.

The water situation has some developers concerned, he says, and they might shift plans to other locales where water supply pressures aren’t as great, such as Widefield Water District nearby and Colorado Centre on Colorado Springs’ southeast side.

Blankenship isn’t partial to rationing but the city is investigating conservation practices to identify “programs that are realistic and implementable based on demographics and interests in the community,” he says.

The utility is reviewing its operations to achieve more cost-effective and efficient ways to operate; it’s also working with planners to predict growth patterns through 2050, and eying financial policies to ensure sustainability.

Blankenship says the city asked Colorado Springs about buying a larger share of its Southern Delivery System water line, “and we were told the current leadership at CSU is not interested in selling any capacity in SDS at this time.”

SDS, a 66-inch pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs’ east side, became operational in April 2016 after nearly 20 years of planning and construction. The $825 million project increased the city’s access to supply by a third.

Fountain paid $40 million to participate in SDS, though it doesn’t have a physical connection but rather trades its SDS allocation for water through the FVA line, Blankenship says. 

It’s worth noting that the cost of SDS was funded with rate increases spread across all ratepayers, not just the new parts of the city. Colorado Springs Utilities officials argued SDS heightens redundancy benefiting all users, not just new customers.

Colorado Springs, in fact, has its own growth issues despite SDS, notably in the northeastern and eastern parts of the city, where developers building homes outside the city hope to connect with city water.

As the Indy reported in a cover story in 2019, water, a precious commodity in semi-arid climates, is in finite supply in fragile underground aquifers and rights to renewable sources in mountain streams are scarce.

Springs Utilities has sold water to outlying districts, such as Cherokee Metropolitan District and Donala Water & Sanitation District.

Utilities spokesperson Jennifer Kemp says in an email the enterprise’s Regional Water & Wastewater Services Policy, adopted in May 2020, allows regional contracts to be considered; two conveyance pacts — with Donala and Security Water & Sanitation District — were finalized recently. Two others are under review, Kemp says.

But while Utilities has ample supplies for now — about 95,000 acre feet of water to serve a population of 465,000 ­— by 2070 it will need about 136,000 acre feet to sustain a population of 720,000. (An acre foot is 326,000 gallons, which can supply two to three households for a year.)

That means the city must grow its water supply by 40 percent in the next 50 years. Springs Utilities officials have said they hope to achieve that through conservation measures, a new reservoir in the mountains, and acquisition of water rights from Arkansas valley farmers. 

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.