Drought: economic issues won’t go away

Filed under: economy,environment,Government,Utilities |

As the drought afflicting Colorado Springs and much of the rest of the state continues, tempers are hot over a deal in which the city utility sold an additional three million gallons of water to irrigate a golf course.

The Broadmoor Hotel was sold city drinking water to irrigate its golf course while the rest of the city remained on a Stage II, twice-weekly watering schedule. Utilities representative Don Miles told the Business Journal the sale was cleared through the utility board, which is also the city council.

That’s not how councilmember Sallie Clark remembers it. Actually, she doesn’t remember it, period.

“That is absolutely not true,” Clark said of Miles’ recollection of the utility board being briefed on the sale. “We didn’t know about the sale until after it happened.”

As it turns out, utilities decided to sell the water to the Broadmoor while it investigated any legal requirement to do so. Finding none, said Miles, the spigot was turned off after two weeks.

“I’m disappointed,” Clark said. “I have never seen people so emotional over an issue… people are angry with the water (new sod) permits.”

Certain agreements existed between the city and the Broadmoor Hotel dating back to the 1970s. Those covenants were reviewed to determine any city liability, Miles added.

“We had an agreement that dates back to 1973,” Miles said of the water sale to the Broadmoor. “We were afraid we might be legally bound, and we made the decision in mid-July when (water) savings were 19 percent.”

Utilities ended the Broadmoor water sale on July 30, when it was determined the city had no responsibility (to provide extra water), Miles said.

The council was fully aware of the deal, Miles continued. “We asked ourselves the same question, is it right?” said Miles. “No, it was not right, but we had to find out if we had a legal obligation.”

Councilmember Judy Noyes also said the matter was not discussed with the council before utility executives moved ahead with the sale.

The Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce is taking the drought seriously, and has formed a task force to address present and future water needs in the region.

The Water Task Force will be an initiative of the chamber’s Governmental Affairs Committee. The group will address current water concerns and long-term statewide water issues and solutions, the chamber said.

“Since the spring of 2002, the chamber has been working to inform the business and residential communities of the serious nature of this year’s drought,” said Jeff Crank, the chamber’s senior vice president of governmental affairs.

Through the task force, Crank promised weekly updates on the Stage II Water Alert, to support the city council decision to increase charges for repeat offenders of the Stage II restrictions, and to support the Colorado Springs Utilities “Water Champions” program.

“The current water crisis is not a short-term problem,” said Crank. “It is complex and long-term in nature… through the formation of the Water Task Force, the chamber will address the issue head on and work with all affected parties toward comprehensive solutions. This is a statewide problem and will involve support of federal legislation and cooperation among water users along the entire Front Range.”

The city council has wrestled with continuing to issue new sod permits for installation of bluegrass, and some believe the council will eventually vote to end that practice as well. The sod permits allow new sod lawns to be installed, then watered several times daily for a period of time to ensure the roots take hold.

Naturally, that’s not what Green Industries of Colorado (GreenCO) wants to happen. GreenCo is a statewide consortium of nine landscape-related industries, and advocates that Colorado Springs and other utilities statewide look at the “facts concerning sod and avoid making shortsighted decisions that will give the appearance of water conservation, without really saving any water.”

“The green industries want to be part of the solution in Colorado Springs and we advocate wise use of water resources – it’s our lifeblood,” said Sharon Harris, president of GreenCO. She said green industries of Colorado contribute $2.2 billion to the Colorado economy and create 40,000 jobs.

Cities that have focused on educating water users on how much water plants really need to survive have had success with conservation measures. GreenCO contends public education on all water uses – indoor, outdoor and the amount used by industry – will ultimately be the best way to conserve water.

“The key is to work cooperatively to reach informed, educated solutions,” Harris said. “We need to address the drought issues in ways that are effective without being arbitrary. Singling out one particular industry because it’s visible isn’t the answer… we all need to look ahead on how our actions now will impact our environment in the future.”

In addition to implications toward the landscape industry, homeowners and commercial property owners would feel an economic impact if outdoor water is eliminated, GreenCO said.

GreenCO said well-maintained turf alone comprises 15 percent of a home’s property value, according to studies done for the Turf Producers International. A Gallup poll reported that landscape comprises 7 to 15 percent of a home’s property value. The average front lawn has the cooling effect of about nine tons of air conditioning, the group also claimed.

“We don’t have a choice but to get serious about this,” Crank said of the drought. “It is an enormous, serious issue.”

The council could implement Stage III if the drought situation continues and present conservation steps fail.

“We are still a very long way from Stage III… that would be disastrous to our economy,” said Crank.

Answers, Crank said, are to build more storage. “If we had more storage we wouldn’t be in the pinch we’re in; we’d be in a drought, but we’d have more water.”