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 that seek 30,000 new taps in recent months, 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, most notably of affordable housing. Fountain has been seen as a source of 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, "... [W]e have limited water resources and are in the process of evaluating just how much future capacity we have. 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 that will comprise a water master plan, at a cost of roughly $240,000. Consultants will study supply, system modeling, legal implications, demand and delivery, and how to fund improvements. That ranges from acquiring additional water rights to conveying treated water to the tap.
"We have initiated the process to prepare a comprehensive water utility master plan," he says. "That will include a quantitative analysis of our water delivery source, from water rights to taps, and identify alternatives to meet the long-term needs through 2050."
The study is expected to be completed in October.
"We've been basically overwhelmed with development requests," Blankenship says, "from not only people who have applied but people who have come in the door expressing interest, and we have almost 30 projects that are people that either come in and want to start the process, are somewhere in the process or have completed the process or are under construction."
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 enable the city to access its water supply for treatment. First, the city is awaiting the Air Force's completion of a treatment plant to remove polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that contaminated the groundwater supply due to years of using firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base that contain those chemicals.
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. He predicts the plant will be operational in mid-summer, though start-up could be delayed as the government obtains the required state approvals for operation.
The city's other source of water is the Fountain Valley Authority (FVA) water line from Pueblo Reservoir, which shares water with other users. Blankenship says the city is unable to use all the water to which it's entitled until a pipeline project is finished.
More specifically, he says, the city has grouped water 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. Projects under way represent roughly 100 new taps, he says.
The second group of applications are contingent on the city completing a $5 million project to design and build a 36-inch pipeline that will enable Fountain to take more water from the FVA line into its system. This project would add Fountain's ability to serve an additional 1,200 taps, he says.
"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.
That project is expected to span 24 months and is complicated by the need for the pipeline to cross Interstate 25, Fountain Creek and railroad tracks, "so there will be a significant amount of permitting by agencies before we start construction," Blankenship says.
The third group of applications will have to wait until the master plan study is finished and a means to finance and build the improvements has been adopted.
"My plan is," Blankenship says, "once the master plan is completed, we would bring in land owners 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. "I do not believe the existing ratepayers who will not benefit should pay for those improvements."
The 8,700 customers currently served, he says, shouldn't have to fund new growth; one developer, La Plata Communities of Colorado Springs, has asked for 2,500 new connections. "Somebody has to pay for that," he says. "It would be irresponsible for the utility to put a financial burden on our customers to have that kind of capacity sitting there waiting for someone who wanted to build."
Blankenship says the third group will face a significant financial burden to build the improvements necessary to provide water to develop raw land.
"Those landowners and developers who want to improve their land, 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 says.
"We don't want to make commitments we can't keep," he says. "We also don't want to overburden the existing system."
He notes that during a recent meeting with representatives of the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs, the HBA asked if existing customers could be placed under 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 existing customers have been asked to conserve or been rationed water as in some other jurisdictions, including in Colorado Springs.
"The answer was that they have been asked to voluntarily conserve and the City would not require a conservation plan," Walker says in an email. "It was not known in the meeting if the problem was a supply or an engineering/distribution issue. The discussion moved into the required investments to make an additional 500-700 taps available. There was not further discussion about current users conserving or rationing."
Walker notes the city of Fountain has approved about 100 taps per year the last several years.
But developers are concerned, he says, and might high-tail it out of Fountain for other locales that aren't feeling as much pressure for water supply. Among those might be Widefield Water District nearby and Colorado Centre on Colorado Springs' southeast side, he says.
All that said, Walker adds, "The HBA and the builders will continue to work with the City on their water shortage issue."
Blankenship isn't partial to the idea of water rationing but the city of Fountain is investigating conservation practices to identify "programs that are realistic and implementable based on demographics and interests in the community," he says.
The utility also is reviewing its operations to find more cost-effective and efficient ways to operate, working with city planning to predict growth patterns through 2050, and analyzing financial policies to ensure the system's sustainability.
"FVA is 100 percent maxed out, so nothing is available to purchase [from that existing line]," he says. "We approached the city of Colorado Springs, and we asked if we could purchase more capacity in SDS [the Southern Delivery System], and we were told the current leadership at CSU [Colorado Springs Utilities] is not interested in selling any capacity in SDS at this time."
SDS is a 66-inch water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs' Eastside. After nearly 20 years of planning and construction, the $825 million line became operational in April 2016 and increased the city's access to supply by a third. Fountain paid $40 million to participation in the SDS line, though it doesn't have a physical connection to the pipeline and, rather, trades its SDS allocation for additional water through the FVA line, he 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; however, SDS was envisioned, in part, as a tool for redundancy, not strictly a new source of water, Springs Utilities officials have said.
Colorado Springs, in fact, has its own growth issues despite SDS, notably in the northeast and eastern parts of the city, with developers who are building homes outside the city hoping for water service from Springs Utilities.
As the Indy reported in a cover story in 2019, 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.
Though Springs Utilities has sold water to a collection of outlying districts, such as Cherokee Metropolitan District and Donala Water & Sanitation District, it has water supply problems of its own to deal with in coming decades. For now, the city has ample supplies — 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, though, the city will need about 136,000 acre feet to sustain a population of 720,000. That means the city must grow its water supply by 40 percent in the next 50 years, and likely achieve that through calls for more conservation measures, construction of a new reservoir and acquisition of water rights from Arkansas valley farmers, Utilities officials have said.
Utilities spokesperson Jennifer Kemp says in an email the enterprise's Regional Water & Wastewater Services Policy, adopted in May 2020, allow regional contracts to be considered.
Such requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and consider type of service, infrastructure available and potential impacts to the Utilities system and resources. City Council must approve regional agreements.
Utilities recently finalized two agreements for conveyance with the Donala district and with Security Water & Sanitation District. Two others are under review, Kemp says.
Utilities and the Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority have applied for a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to partially fund a study of developing "reuse solutions," she says.