Time to admit that solving water woes won’t be painless

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

In mid-November, Colorado Springs Utilities released the final draft of the 2008-2012 water conservation plan.
It’s a worthy, well-conceived, eminently practical document, which lists 23 steps that utilities intends to take to reduce water use.
Colorado Springs, as the plan points out, at 112 gallons per day, already has one of the lowest per capita rates of residential water use in Colorado and the Southwest. Primarily by introducing a water waste ordinance, instituting residential block rates, commercial seasonal rates and revising landscape codes for new residential construction, CSU hopes to save 7.63 percent of cumulative consumption by 2017.
That’s laudable. Without new laws or specific direction from City Council, it’s about all that CSU can do. But it’s far from enough.
Let’s have a little reality check here.
The Colorado River Basin, from which we get as much as 70 percent of our water, is literally drying up. As we reported in an extensive series this fall, climate scientists agree that what we used to consider a drought is the new normal. And since the Colorado River is the primary source of water for more than 20 million people, this new reality creates a host of problems.
Simply put, cities and farms throughout the West that have historically relied upon the Colorado River will have to drastically cut their water use. Not just reduce their year-to-year rate of growth, but cut it permanently.
This is just one part of a looming water crisis that will powerfully affect Colorado and the Southwest. Almost all of the water available to support growth has already been put to beneficial use. To get more water for cities, we’ll have to take it from agriculture or from recreation.
Do we want to live in a state without farms and ranches, where ski resorts are forbidden to make artificial snow and where rivers and lakes will no longer support fisheries? If not, we need to change.
In Colorado Springs, we’re better off than most of the other “cities of the river” because we might be able to tap undeveloped water in the Arkansas River drainage. But if we lose a substantial portion of our Colorado River entitlement, the day when we have no more water to support growth will arrive much sooner than we imagine.
It is within City Council’s power to pass far-reaching ordinances that would cut our water use dramatically, and only marginally affect our lifestyle.
To find savings, look at where the water is actually used, or misused. And here’s a not terribly surprising statistic: more than 50 percent of our water is used outdoors, during the summer, to support landscaping practices that were imported from New England during the 19th century.
Look at pictures of Colorado Springs during the 1870s. It was an arid, treeless plain. The only native deciduous trees were cottonwoods, which grew, as they still do, along watercourses.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of non-native trees and shrubs, as well as thousands of acres of the artificial grasslands that we call “lawns.”
At my 1898 house on the west side, I’m blessed with a dozen mature trees, some more than a century old, as well as wonderful old lilacs that perfume the entire neighborhood each spring. Like so many other Springs residents who love their landscaped yards, I would do almost anything to preserve and sustain my personal Eden.
So to reduce water use, preserve our lovely artificial oasis and still allow our community to grow, council needs to break with the past and try some innovation.
For starters, let’s simply outlaw water-intensive landscaping in new residential construction — require xeriscaping and limit Kentucky bluegrass to tiny plots. We should have done that years ago, but better late than never.
Let’s allow residential users to capture and re-use so-called “gray water” — waste water from showers, dishwashers and clothes washers. This water, which currently simply flows into the wastewater system and eventually down Fountain Creek (often to the dismay of our neighbors to the south), could substantially lessen demands for irrigation water.
Then let’s couple the development of the Southern Delivery System with the implementation of water recycling. Instead of simply dumping the water we import from the Colorado into the Fountain after a single use, let’s store it in a new reservoir, then pipe it to a water treatment plant, purify it and re-use it.
Such recycling might seem strange, even distasteful, but we really don’t have any choice. We’ll have to do it sooner or later, so we might as well start now. And we’re not alone — our fellow westerners in Las Vegas recycle 100 percent of their wastewater through their municipal water system.
And speaking of Vegas, let’s institute a program whereby homeowners are paid to remove bluegrass and install xeriscaping.
Finally, to preserve our existing urban forest, which is now largely sustained by water that percolates to tree roots from lawn watering, offer homeowners incentives to install targeted drip irrigation systems. And the city should assume responsibility for the irrigation of street trees with drip systems as well.
To carry out such an ambitious agenda will take determination, vision, and moxie. It won’t be cheap, and it won’t be easy to sell, to finance or to implement. But it will create a sustainable city, one that can supports the kind of growth that protects our natural environment.
We have a chance to lead the west into the 21st century — or, by failing to rise to the challenge, to invite stagnation and decline.
Just as half a century ago city leaders moved boldly to bring water from the western slope to the growing Front Range, so too can today’s council members seize the day and adopt policies that will ensure prosperity for generations.
It’s our choice — and may future generations say, as the ancient warrior said to Indiana Jones when he identified a simple wooden cup as the Holy Grail, “You have chosen … wisely.”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.