SDS: The not-so-perfect water solution?

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The Arkansas River, left, and Fountain Creek converge near Pueblo. Colorado Springs owns extensive water rights on the Arkansas and is considering building a pipeline to transport water from the Pueblo Reservoir.

Last week, CSBJ traced the history of water in Colorado Springs — how the town grew from a few frame structures on an arid plateau to today’s bustling city. This growth was fueled by water — started with wells, irrigation ditches and a pipeline from Ruxton Creek. Today, the system includes 25 reservoirs, six water treatment plants, three major pipelines, and 1,800 miles of distribution pipes. Water from mountain snowmelt is transported as far as 200 miles before it reaches Colorado Sprins.
As the city grows, it has had to find new sources of water. Decades ago, the challenges were those of planning, engineering andfinancing. Those challenges remain — but they are insignificant compared to today’s increasingly contentious water politics.

The 1980s and 1990s were not good years for “water buffalos” — the nickname given to the powerful, tough-minded men who conceive and direct major water projects.
The Denver Water Board saw its plans for a massive dam on the Platte River near Deckers killed by the Environmental Protection Agency, while Colorado Springs was forced to abandon the Homestake II project in the Holy Cross Wilderness.
In both cases, ad hoc coalitions of landowners, environmentalists and recreational interests opposed the projects. Dismayed, the water buffalos adapted to the new realities.
As a retired senior utilities manager remarked recently: “OK, we realized that we probably couldn’t do transmountain diversions any time in the future — we’d have go to other alternatives. And that’s why we went to Pueblo Reservoir and SDS — no environmental problems, no wetland problems, everybody’s a winner … at least, we thought so.”
SDS — the Southern Delivery System — seemed to be the solution to political bickering about new water projects. No new reservoirs, no transbasin diversions, no intrusion into wilderness areas, no environmental concerns to fight — just a pipeline running from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs.
Thanks to a court decision in 1986, Colorado Springs was able to acquire extensive rights on the Arkansas, through exchange.
SDS would enable the city to develop these rights in a cooperative way, partnering with other entities.
Fountain, Security and Pueblo West would all benefit — and Pueblo would be guaranteed recreational flows for its downtown water park. SDS would cost nearly a billion dollars. And it would be expensive to operate — millions annually in pumping costs alone.
But, most importantly, it could be built. Who could oppose a modest expansion of the reservoir, an unobtrusive intake on the dam face and a buried pipeline across the prairie?

The opposition

Pueblo Chieftain editor/publisher Bob Rawlings stretches out on a comfortable leather couch in his spacious office, and offers a cup of coffee to a visitor.
At 83, Rawlings has the energy and appearance of a man 30 years younger. Through family trusts, he controls the Pueblo Chieftain, one of the most successful medium-market daily newspapers in America.
The Chieftain has had three publishers during the last hundred years: Rawlings, his uncle and his grandfather.
A native of southern Colorado and a graduate of Colorado College, Rawlings is deeply-rooted in the community that he loves — and is absolutely committed to stopping SDS.
Rawlings claims that Colorado Springs is high-handed, arrogant and utterly unconcerned about the well-being of its southern neighbors.
Since SDS was first proposed, the Chieftain has run scores of editorials condemning it.
Rawlings has characterized SDS as a nefarious scheme by Colorado Springs to exchange its “sewer water” for clean water from Pueblo Reservoir.
“That 1986 decision was a disaster,” he said. “That opened the way for Colorado Springs to buy senior rights from farmers in the lower valley and exchange good mountain water for their sewer water. They dried up thousands of acres of farmland. Fountain Creek — as far as your city’s concerned, it’s just an open sewer. It’s been a mess for years. They [Colorado Springs] knew what was happening, and they did nothing.”
Rawlings asserts that wastewater/
stormwater discharges into the Fountain have caused downstream erosion, and have polluted the creek.
Rawlings hasn’t confined his opposition to writing newspaper editorials. Last year, in a stunning political coup, Colorado Springs lost control of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Lobbyist and longtime Rawlings ally Wally Stealy was elected board president, defeating retired Colorado Springs Utilities water chief Ed Bailey.
The water district administers the federal Fryingpan-Arkansas project, of which the Pueblo Reservoir is a part. Absent the conservancy’s support, SDS could face more hurdles.
The “simple, easy, uncontroversial” project is none of the three.
But Rawlings asserts that he doesn’t necessarily want to stop SDS — just make it better. His proposal: build a flood control dam on Fountain Creek to control stormwater and sewage spills.
In addition, he wants Colorado Springs to recycle its wastewater, rather than sending it down the Fountain to exchange for water from Pueblo Reservoir. Then, and only then, should the city think about building SDS.

The other view

Springs officials have reacted to Rawlings’ proposals and political maneuverings with unconcealed disdain. Asked about Rawlings’ proposal for a dam on the Fountain, Springs City Councilwoman Margaret Radford didn’t mince words.
“Oh, that’s just a swell idea — it impairs downstream water rights, it’s not technically feasible, it’s just another smokescreen,” she said. “It’s another excuse for Mr. Rawlings to mislead and lie to his community.”
Mislead and lie? “I’m not worried about calling him what he is,” Radford said.
Colorado Springs Utilities executive Gary Bostrom is more temperate, but just as dismissive.
A dam on the Fountain, Bostrom points out, was considered by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1972, and rejected.
“There’s not a good place for a dam — it’s flat, rolling land,” he said. “It’d be very expensive — and probably would be overtopped by a major flood.”
Bostrom also disputes Rawlings’ claims that the city’s exchange programs have dried up farms on the lower Arkansas.
“We acquired rights from individuals who had bought up rights in the lower valley from willing sellers before we had any interest [in such rights],” he said. If anyone dried up the valley, Bostrom seems to imply, it was the farmers themselves.
A friendly, informal, even-tempered man, Bostrom said that Colorado Springs is doing its best to be a good neighbor.
“We’ve committed to maintaining minimum flows in the Arkansas through Pueblo,” he said. “We’re working with the Pueblo City Council, with the Pueblo Water Board and with everyone in the Arkansas Valley. We’ve created our stormwater utility, and we’ll be spending $15 million annually to control stormwater.”
Bostrom practices what he preaches; he’s spent several weekends in Pueblo recently, helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house.
And what about Fountain Creek? What about the repeated sewage spills that provoked lawsuits from Pueblo and the Sierra Club?
“We’re doing our best to address the sewage spills,” Bostrom said. “I don’t think people realize how much we’ve done. Fountain Creek needs a regional solution-we’ll help facilitate solutions, but it has to be regional.”
Asked what such regional solutions might look like, Bostrom demurs. “Maybe some drop structures along the creek [to reduce stream velocity] — but it has to come from a process.”

No middle ground

Rawlings doesn’t buy it.
“They’re worried about downstream water rights?” he asked. “Since when has Colorado Springs ever cared about the water rights of anyone but themselves? And you can’t build a dam on the Fountain? The country that built Grand Coulee and Hoover Dam can’t dam a muddy little creek? They’re just looking for reasons not to do it.”
But none of the skirmishing and posturing really matters. What matters is whether the Pueblo County Commis-sioners, exercising their “1041” powers to control water development projects, vote to kill the deal.
Asked what he thought the commissioners would do, Rawlings was uncharacteristically close-mouthed. “We have not been in contact with them,” he said.
But Colorado Springs may believe otherwise.
The city, citing an obscure provision of the 1974 “1041” legislation, is asking the District Court to declare that Pueblo’s 1041 ordinances cannot apply to SDS.
Not surprisingly, Colorado Springs is also asking for a change of venue from Pueblo to Colorado Springs.
So what happens if Rawlings and his allies manage to kill SDS?
Bostrom chooses his words carefully. “We continue to believe that SDS is the best option — we want to co-operate, we want to be a good neighbor,” he said. “But we can make other options work as well.”

Plan B?

One of those options, championed by developer Mark Morley, would involve diverting water from the Arkansas near Florence and transporting it north via a pipeline running alongside Highway 115.
Such an alternative would bypass Pueblo County, since the pipeline and intake structures would be in Fremont County — which, with El Paso, is one of four counties which has never enacted “1041” ordinances.
According to Bostrom, it would be more costly, less flexible and yield less water than SDS — and it might harm Pueblo more than SDS.
“The IGA (intergovernmental agreement) with Pueblo [establishing minimum stream flows in the Arkansas through Pueblo] is conditional upon SDS being approved,” he said. “If SDS is not approved, we could withdraw from it.
So would Colorado Springs dry up Pueblo’s multi-million dollar water park/kayak run/beloved civic amenity?
“I’m certainly not saying that — but we could choose to withdraw,” Bostrom said.
Another option would involve water recycling; i.e., taking the liquid that Rawlings calls “sewer water,” piping it to a new reservoir on the city’s east side and treating it through reverse osmosis.
Although the purified water would be odorless and tasteless, the concept has few supporters. County Commissioner Jim Bensberg is not one of them.
“I just don’t think that we’re ready to give up pure mountain water for treated effluent,” he said. “That’s not why people want to live here.”

Expensive solution

In the end, there is only one certain outcome: whatever Colorado Springs builds will be expensive.
SDS phase 1, including the pipeline, pump stations, a new water treatment plant and treated water pipelines was estimated at $552 million during a May presentation to City Council. By last week, the price tag had risen to $570 million.
Phase two, including new reservoirs and expanded water treatment plants, will bump up the cost another $400 million — or more.
That billion-dollar price tag concerns Morley.
He said the city could save $500 million by adopting the Highway 115 option, and using Brush Hollow Reservoir for terminal storage, instead of building a reservoir on Jimmy Camp Creek.
Morley owns most of the land surrounding Brush Hollow, but he denies any conflict.
“My real business is here in Colorado Springs,” he said. “I’ll make money there [around Brush Hollow] whether they use the reservoir or not.”
He claims that utilities has overstated the price of the Brush Hollow alternative, and underestimated the value of a diversion structure on the Arkansas near Florence.
Moreover, there’s an opportunity to build a “pumped storage” unit as part of the project, he said, which would generate peak use hydroelectric power. But utilities isn’t listening.
“I’ll tell you, we need a good investigative reporter to work on this,” he said. “It’s like (the movie) ‘Chinatown.’ ”
City councilman and Morley employee Tom Gallagher favors the Brush Hollow option.
He hasn’t managed to persuade any of his colleagues, but utilities took him seriously enough to issue a detailed rebuttal.
The sticking point: Morley/Gallagher claim that an expanded Brush Hollow Reservoir could replace the proposed Jimmy Camp Creek impoundment, while Bostrom says absolutely not.
“We need close-in terminal storage, for safety, redundancy and reliability,” Bostrom said. “Brush Hollow can’t provide it.”
SDS? 115? Recycle? Who pays? The short answer: everyone.
Until last week, utilities forecasts called for annual residential rate increases of 10 percent to 12 percent for six years. But Bostrom cited revised estimates of 10 percent to 15 percent. Annual increases of 15 percent for six years would raise water bills by 130 percent.
But there’s an alternative, according to Dave Gardner of “Save The Springs.”
He believes that new residents ought to foot the entire cost of water development.
“Tap fees should reflect the actual cost of infrastructure,” Gardner said. “Utility bills should reflect the actual cost of service and maintenance, and rehabilitation of older infrastructure — no more, no less.”
Not a good idea, says Morley.
“In that case, I’m out of business,” he said. “We might see tap fees of $60,000 on a $200,000 home. My customers couldn’t qualify.”

No win situation?

In the end, maybe it is like “Chinatown” or “Rashomon” — a baffling hall of mirrors, where the principal players seem to be living in different universes.
Is Colorado Springs the evil colossus of the north, intent on drowning Pueblo in a sea of sewage?
Is Colorado Springs Utilities an essential component of government and an architect of our prosperity, or a malignant octopus controlled by development interests?
Is Colorado Springs going to get the water it needs, or does it need the water it’s going to get?
And we may be fighting over … nothing.
A University of Arizona study using tree ring data to reconstruct Colorado River flows during the last 500 years contains some troubling conclusions.
Colorado River water is allocated among seven western states by a 1922 agreement that depends on average water flows in the river.
That’s fine, but it turns out that those “average” flows were based on one of the wettest periods during the past five centuries.
The 1999-2004 drought may be the norm, not the exception.
Harold Miskel managed Colorado Springs Utilities water development programs for a generation. He is semi-retired and is a member of the SECWCB and the State Water Conservation Board.
He’s blunt in his assesment about the future.
“There’s only so much water — and as we get closer to the end, we’ll see some shifting,” Miskel said. “We’ll be asking people, ‘do you want continued growth, or do we want to take out all this damned blue grass that we’ve put in over the last 50 years?’
“We won’t be Tree City, USA, anymore, and there won’t be flowers and grass on the medians … but that’s a decision the politicians have to make. The people elect them, so they’ll do what the people want.
“And in the end, whatever use carries the highest value to the people is where the water will go.”
John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com