Water: An issue since Day 1

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Crystal Reservoir, above, is part of the Colorado Springs water system.

For the last 25 years, Colorado Springs has sought to build a major water project – a project which is crucial to the city’s future growth and prosperity. Why has it taken so long? What’s at stake? And how did we get here? In this two-part series, The Business Journal will examine water issues in Colorado Springs – past, present and future.
One five-letter word defines the economic history of Colorado Springs: water. Without our far-flung system of collecting, storing, transporting and treating water, the city would not exist.
Unlike Pueblo or Denver, both of which were located on the main stem of significant rivers (the Platte and the Arkansas), the city’s founders chose, as Manly Ormes wrote in 1916, “… an arid plateau where not even the native trees could get started … it was nothing but a desert with a wonderful setting.”
Despite its name, there were no springs in Colorado Springs – just a shallow, muddy creek bordered with cottonwoods.
The city’s founder, Gen. William Palmer, knew perfectly well that without water the little resort that he envisioned couldn’t exist. Fifteen wells were dug for drinking water that first year (1871) in what is now downtown Colorado Springs; one of the best was at the present location of the Hibbard’s building. And in August, construction began on irrigation canals to bring water from Fountain Creek to the city.
Within four years, the “arid plateau” had been transformed into a city of several thousand people.
City Council decided it was time to invest in a water system to bring pure water from the mountains and asked voters to approve a $100,000 bond issue to build it. It was needed, according to its backers, to fight fires and sustain economic growth.
Opponents ridiculed such claims – and demanded that the city get out of the water business and turn it over to private enterprise. The voters rejected the bond issue.
A year later, in 1876, a fire leveled most of the central business district. This fire, perhaps more than any single event before or since, shaped modern Colorado Springs. Chastened, the voters quickly approved a bond issue for the construction of a municipal water system, and the modern era began.
Two principles, first enunciated by then-mayor Matt France, whose leadership skills, energy and vision would have been remarkable in any era, have guided the city’s water policy since.
First, we can’t rely upon local sources for water – there simply isn’t enough. Just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because “that’s where the money is,’ we have to go where the water is – to the mountains. Second, we have to provide for growth – we can’t just wait and see whether it’s going to happen.
For the next several decades, the city moved quickly and decisively to acquire water rights, build reservoirs and construct pipelines.
It was far from easy. The terrain was difficult, construction was expensive and, then as now, the city had to deal with Congress, the courts and the state legislature.
It wasn’t clear whether water could be transferred from one watershed to another – it took a decision by the Colorado Supreme Court and an act of the legislature to settle the question.
Between 1890 and 1902, both by purchase and by acts of Congress, Colorado Springs gained control of the south slope of Pikes Peak – more than 7,000-acres. Control of the watershed meant that Springs reservoirs, present and future, would be forever protected from polluted runoff.
Reservoir storage, non-existent in 1878, amounted to more than a billion gallons at the turn of the century.
In 1902, J.C. St. John, the chairman of the city water committee, wrote a glowing account of the city’s successes: “I have never yet found a place … that compared to the water system of Colorado Springs. … We have gone through one of the driest seasons that has ever been known in Colorado … and while Denver was very short and some of the time without any at all … we had all we needed.”
But St. John still called for conservation: “… as the town grows, and people realize that even with abundance of water that it is foolish to waste it, they will look at it a little more closely.”
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Colorado Springs was easily able to provide water to its residents.
Multiple reservoirs were constructed around Pikes Peak, providing adequate storage even in the dry years of the Great Depression.
Fueled by the boom that accompanied the discovery of gold in Cripple Creek, the city had nearly 25,000 inhabitants by 1900. Such growth proved unsustainable – indeed, by 1940 the city’s population had only increased to 35,000.
World War II changed everything.
Camp (later Fort) Carson came to the Springs, the economy revived, and, after the war, local businessmen, headed by local banker H. Chase Stone, began the pursuit of economic development that still characterizes our city.
They were successful beyond imagination – competing against 578 cities across the country, they landed one of the biggest prizes of all: the U.S. Air Force Academy.
According to contemporary accounts, Colorado Springs was chosen in part because it resembled Annapolis and West Point – small, conservative, pro-military. And like those cities, the Springs would be forever defined by its military academy.
But Springs leaders had bigger ideas. They wanted to use the academy’s presence as a business generator – an economic engine that would attract visitors, new residents and new businesses. And they’d need water – not just to serve the academy, but to provide for decades of growth.
But where would they go to get water?
The answer was simple. Eighty percent of the water in Colorado falls on the western slope of the continental divide – and 80 percent of the people live on the eastern slope, along the Front Range.
Like Denver and its suburbs, like Pueblo and like Aurora, Colorado Springs looked to the west.
During the next three decades, Colorado Springs initiated or partnered in three major transmountain diversions; the Blue River project, the Fryingpan-Arkansas project and Homestake I. All led to protracted legal and political battles, battles in which Colorado Springs and its partners easily prevailed.
All of that changed in 1984, when Colorado Springs and Aurora proposed to expand the existing Homestake project, which collects, stores and transports water from headwater tributaries of the Eagle River to the eastern slope.
The proposed expansion included collection points within the Holy Cross Wilderness Area – and that single fact created a perfect storm of opposition.
Environmentalists, Eagle County politicians, local residents and in-basin water interests united to fight the two cities.
Environmentalists opposed any development in a wilderness area, the ski areas feared that winter stream flows would drop to levels that would restrict snowmaking operations and local residents didn’t like the idea of arrogant flatlanders making off with “their” water.
And so began 10 years of litigation, characterized, according to historian Doug Kenney, by “… legal and political vitriol …” and “… open animosity and public hostility on both sides of the Divide.”
To Colorado Springs, it was an open and shut case. The city had acquired the water rights long before the establishment of the wilderness area; in fact, the legislation establishing the wilderness area had specifically given Colorado Springs the right to develop its existing rights within wilderness boundaries whenever it chose to do so.
And Colorado water law was, the city’s lawyers knew, absolutely clear. Water rights are property rights.
The nature and extent of those rights are governed by a simple principle: first in use, first in right. That is, whoever first puts water to “beneficial use,” has first claim over subsequent users.
All disputes regarding water rights go to the courts, not to the legislature. There isn’t any state “Water Commission,” allocating this scarce resource according to perceived need.
Thus insulated from political meddling, and with uncontested legal right to the water, Colorado Springs and Aurora thought they were on safe ground.
But they’d underestimated the guile and creativity of their opponents – or, more accurately, of their opponent’s lawyers.
Some years before, the legislature had passed a seemingly innocuous and apparently wholly unrelated bill HB1041 which gave county commissioners more power to alter, regulate or deny development projects within their counties.
Using this law Eagle County commissioners refused to let the project go forward.
There ensued a series of appeals, each of which the cities lost, culminating in the 1992 refusal of the Supreme Court to hear the case.
Homestake II was dead, and Colorado Springs had lost millions of dollars and 10 years of time.
Even more significantly, the law had given every county in Colorado a silver bullet; a failsafe “WWD” (weapon of water destruction).
Not only would eastern slope cities have to jump through the usual hoops – environmental impact studies, multiple project changes that various interest groups might demand, up-front design costs and the steady escalation of project costs – but now they’d be hostages to the decisions of a handful of elected officials.
And those decisions would only be handed down after years of preliminary work – years that could be made worthless by a single vote in a rural county courthouse.
In this altered landscape, Colorado Springs Utilities would have to change.
Conciliation, cooperation and partnership became important, as did scaled-back, less intrusive development projects.
Throughout the 1990s, the city marked time, skillfully managing its existing resources and preparing for the inevitable: the next major project.
For, according to utility projections, the time was fast approaching when the city would have to have more water – and this time, multiple small projects wouldn’t suffice.
As City Councilwoman Margaret Radford, who has worked on water issues for years, said: “(A new water project) that would yield 60 to 80 million gallons per day is pretty much the key to the future of this community. We have to find a way to use our rights on the Arkansas within the next few years … or put the health and well-being of this city at risk.”
Next week: The water war between the cities – Colorado Springs squares off with Pueblo.
John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com