Wandered down to Pueblo last weekend to attend an actual Congressional hearing.
The grandly titled “Subcommittee on Water and Power of the Committee on Natural Resources of the United States House of Representatives” held an “oversight field hearing” entitled “The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project at 45: Sustainable Water for the 21st Century.”
It doesn’t seem like a subject that would fill a room, does it? Normally, you’d expect a couple dozen folks representing the regional water providers as well as a handful of journalists entranced by the novelty of actual, live congresspeople.
But these aren’t normal times.
It was standing room only in the Fortino Ballroom at Pueblo Community College, where at least 250 attendees heard testimony from a dozen grandees of Colorado’s water world.
We heard from Hizzoner Lionel (Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera), from Aurora Mayor Ed Tauer, from a gaggle of congresspeople, including Messrs. Lamborn, Perlmutter, Salazar and Udall, as well as from Mike Ryan, the regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, and half a dozen others.
Like most such hearings, it was a kind of political Kabuki theater, where the participants ritually posture and preen, and the actual content of the show is a mystery to those unversed in the rituals of the genre.
Even the subcommittee’s chairwoman, the feisty Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-California), seemed baffled by the whole opaque affair, inexplicably scolding Rivera for the city’s failure to recycle its water (as da mayor pointed out, we recycle 13 percent of the water we use).
Ostensibly, it was all about the Fry-Ark project, and how to craft policies that both honor the project’s genesis and reflect the changing realities of Colorado’s Front Range.
In reality, it was about Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Aurora and the Arkansas Valley. It was about water rights on the Arkansas that are owned by Colorado Springs and Aurora, and whether those cities will be able to use those rights. It was about the war between the cities, whose outcome might well determine the future of this community.
A little history: The Fry-Ark was a good old-fashioned 1962 water grab, largely federally financed, which moved water from the Colorado River basin to the Arkansas. The purpose of the project was to support agricultural, municipal and industrial uses in the Arkansas basin, which includes Pueblo and Colorado Springs but not Aurora.
Pueblo Reservoir, Turquoise Reservoir and Twin Lakes are part of the Fry-Ark, which is administered by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Although Colorado Springs is within the Arkansas basin, relatively little of the city’s water has come from native sources. Since the 1950s, the city has supported its growth through transmountain diversions from the Colorado River basin. One such diversion, the Homestake Project, was developed in partnership with Aurora.
But by the mid-1980s, it was clear that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to develop any more such projects because of environmental and political constraints.
So, the cities developed an alternative.
Colorado Springs and Aurora acquired Arkansas River rights from farmers in the lower Arkansas Valley, willing sellers all. But they didn’t have any intention of building a pipeline from the lower valley to the cities.
Instead, they’d take the water upstream, at one of the Fry-Ark reservoirs, and transport it to the cities. They’d get clean mountain water, not the muddy, toxic brew, contaminated by urban runoff, treated wastewater and agricultural pollutants that farmers use.
For years, Aurora has been using Fry-Ark facilities to store water thus purchased, transporting it via pipeline to the city, contracting with BuRec on a year-to-year basis.
BuRec is on the verge of entering into a 40-year storage contract with Aurora, but Rep. John Salazar has introduced a bill that would prohibit the bureau from entering into any such contracts with out-of-basin entities. Springs Rep. Doug Lamborn has introduced a bill permitting such contracts.
So what’s going on here?
There’s a reason that all the water buffalos were snorting and head-butting in Pueblo last Friday. There’s a reason that Rivera, in a notably hard-edged and uncompromising statement, said that “Our resources must be spent planning for the future, not attempting to relive or reinvent the past.”
Go back to those Arkansas Valley water sales two decades ago. Individual farmers benefited, but the valley suffered. Irrigated agriculture had long been the valley’s lifeblood; without it, the valley fell into a long decline. In the small towns along the Arkansas, school enrollment plunged, businesses closed and tens of thousands of once-productive acres were barren and sere.
As the commercial center of the valley, Pueblo suffered as well. Already stunned by the closure of the steel mills, the Valley’s decline exacerbated the city’s problems.
Led by the publisher of the Pueblo Chieftain, Bob Rawlings, some Puebloans and valley leaders have apparently devised a strategy to reclaim the lower valley’s water rights.
Arguing that Aurora is using Fry-Ark facilities that were intended to bring water to the valley to, in effect, dewater the valley, they want Congress to nix the BuRec deal. They’re also creating as many obstacles as possible to Colorado Springs’ Southern Delivery System.
Claiming that the city has turned Fountain Creek into a foul sewer with greatly increased urban runoff and treated wastewater releases, they’ve repeatedly railed against the Springs’ plan to take “pure mountain water” from Pueblo Reservoir, use it and send it back to Pueblo as “sewer water.”
Their proposed remedies — a dam on the Fountain and recycling wastewater for use as drinking water — are characterized by Springs officials as either impractical or ruinously expensive.
If they’re successful, the Springs and Aurora will have to go elsewhere, maybe even signing on to Aaron Million’s scheme to bring water from Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir. The cities’ rights on the Arkansas would suddenly be useless to them — but not perhaps to Pueblo or to irrigators on the Arkansas.
Isn’t this a little far-fetched? Do these folks think they can rewrite history? Here’s an excerpt from the testimony of Jay Winner, the manager of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District.
“For the communities east of Pueblo, the Fry-Ark has so far been a disaster …. Farms have not prospered … and are the target of unceasing raids on their water supply …. Colorado Springs has sought to use the Fry-Ark project mainly for its own benefit …. The acquisition of water rights in the back yards of its neighbors, the request for another pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir, the push for more storage … (are) all evidence of how the project will benefit this ‘growth machine.’”
Remember the movie “Network”? They’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it any more.
No one will die in this war, but its outcome will determine whether cities grow and prosper or fade and decline. This is a game that isn’t a game.
And there are no rules.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.