Springs seeking solutions beyond Colorado River for water supplies

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.titles {font-family: Myriad, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; font-style: normal; line-height: normal; font-weight: bold; color: #3399FF;}On Aug. 13, northern Colorado rancher W.D. Farr died at the age of 97. His passing marked the end of an era.
Bill Farr was the last of his generation of visionary “water buffalos” — men who saw that the Front Range could not flourish and grow without undertaking enormous transmountain water diversions from the Colorado River. A near-contemporary of California’s William Mulholland, Farr brought the same drive and determination to obtaining water for the parched cities and farms of northern Colorado.
A young farmer during the Great Depression, Farr helped create the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which provides water to more than 30 Front Range municipalities, as well to farmers in eastern Colorado.
“The day that water came through the tunnel for the first time, it was the most exciting day of my life,” Farr said in a 2000 interview. “I never saw adult men at that time (1949) act like they did. They threw their hats in the air and kissed and cheered. They acted like a bunch of kids. Every man who was there felt he had contributed to something.”
Almost 60 years have passed since that joyful day, but Colorado politicians and water providers still look westward for water, driven by the belief that there’s plenty of water to develop on the Colorado River.

Cities of the River
Week 1 Colorado River
Week 2 Colorado River Compact
Week 3 Las Vegas
Week 4 Phoenix
Week 5 Los Angeles
This Week Colorado Springs
This is the last of a six-part series exploring the critical importance of the Colorado River to the growth, development, and continuing prosperity of Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
The river’s waters are already over-allocated, and there is little prospect that average yearly flows will increase. There is a real possibility that what we now consider drought will become the norm and that the cities will enter into a new era of reduced water availability and enforced conservation.
How will the cities meet these new challenges? Who will gain, and who will lose? Will the historic model of growth-driven prosperity continue? Are businesses, politicians, water managers, developers and government officials creating sustainable blueprints for the future, or are they simply continuing with business as usual and hoping for the best?

But their belief is almost certainly unfounded. There might be no water to left to develop and, more ominously, the hydrology of the Colorado River Basin might have changed permanently, meaning that existing municipal users of Colorado River water will have to reduce their present use.
In Colorado Springs, 60 percent of the city’s water comes from tributaries of the Colorado River, making the city as dependent upon the Colorado as any in the nation, except Las Vegas.
This fact, which may bear heavily upon the future of this community, is neither widely known nor often discussed.
On the Colorado Springs Utilities Web site, a search for “Colorado River” or “Colorado River Basin” returns no meaningful data. This entry is the only mention of the city’s link to the river.
“Our raw water collection system originates from nearly 200 miles away, near Aspen, Leadville and Breckenridge. Almost 75 percent of our water originates from mountain streams. Water from these streams is collected and stored in numerous reservoirs. Collection systems consist of the Homestake, Fryingpan-Arkansas, Twin Lakes and Blue River systems.”
Almost all of these “mountain streams” are tributary to the Colorado River. Colorado Springs imports about 60,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River Basin. If the present drought in the basin deepens and persists, virtually every user would be forced to curtail consumption — including Colorado Springs.
Other baskets
Last February, Bruce McCormick said that the city had no interest in participating in Aaron Million’s proposal to bring Colorado River water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Front Range, preferring instead to push ahead with the Southern Delivery System, which would bring Arkansas River water north to Colorado Springs.
The reason?
“We don’t want to increase our reliance on the Colorado,” McCormick said. “If the river declines to those predicted levels (7 million acre feet annually), not only is there no more water to develop in the Colorado, but cutbacks will be necessary.”
It’s impossible to quantify just how deep any cutbacks might be.
That possibility is one of the factors that led Springs water developers to acquire rights on the Arkansas, which has significantly different hydrology.
The summer “monsoon,” which augments the flow of the Arkansas and its tributaries, scarcely impacts the Colorado River Basin. And while snowpack and runoff in the Arkansas drainage have been affected by the regional drought, climatologists do not predict long-term impacts as severe as those in the Colorado River Basin.
Perhaps even more significantly, no other large metropolitan area competes with Colorado Springs for the waters of the Arkansas.
The city acquired many of its rights on the Arkansas from irrigators in the lower Arkansas Valley. That strategy, usually referred to as “buy and dry,” entailed buying the right to the water and transferring the point of diversion from the farmer’s irrigation ditch to an upstream location.
That location would, if the Southern Delivery System is built as planned, be Pueblo Reservoir.
According to McCormick, the city still expects to complete the project by 2012.
But that might be a difficult date to meet. Since the proposed pipeline crosses Pueblo County, the Pueblo County commissioners have the statutory power to disallow it.
Despite Pueblo’s opposition to SDS, Pueblo leaders are well award of the dangers of relying on the Colorado River.
Citing “predicted climate change and a possible call on the Colorado,” the Pueblo Water Board moved this week to decrease the city’s dependency on the Colorado by offering to buy a controlling interest in the Bessemer Ditch, which holds some of the most senior water rights on the Arkansas River.
SDS opposition
Some prominent Puebloans, chief among them Bob Rawlings, the publisher of the Pueblo Chieftain, have suggested that the SDS project shouldn’t be built unless the Springs recycles more of its waste water and takes steps to reduce flooding on Fountain Creek.
“Sometime in the future, there will be direct wastewater reuse in the city’s potable water system,” McCormick said, “but the time is not yet ripe.”
But if the city wants to build SDS, it might have no choice but to fund a massive recycling project as well. Gov. Bill Ritter has made it clear that new water projects should incorporate conservation, recycling/re-use and additional storage on the Front Range.
To build the reservoirs, pipelines and water treatment facilities to support wastewater reuse — as well as SDS — would be staggeringly extensive, but it would place the city in an enviable position, with a secure, diversified and abundant water supply — enough, in all probability, to support the city’s growth for many decades.
Alone among the Cities of the River, Colorado Springs has the opportunity to create new renewable sources of supply, without tapping fossil groundwater, investing in desalination projects or mandating draconian cuts in outdoor water use.
Where’s the vision?
But building such a project would require from both its architects and its beneficiaries a clear-headed understanding of the city’s future, and a willingness to pay for it.
In Bill Farr’s time, farmers and municipalities struggling to emerge from the Great Depression were prepared to invest in the future — but that may be less true today, as local politics are increasingly driven by the preoccupations of a transient community, whose members might have few enduring ties to their momentary place of residence.
The next few years will tell us whether we — the politicians, water developers and residents of Colorado Springs and the other great Cities of the River — can rise to the complex challenges of the future or whether we are unequal to the task
If we fail, the Cities of the River will fade and die, as the river fades and dies — once-glittering islands of prosperity overwhelmed by an arid and unforgiving land.
John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com