Within the next two weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation will release the draft environmental impact study for the Southern Delivery System.
The bureau has released most of the technical documents that the EIS will be based on. One of them, the “Water Resources Technical Report,” weighs in at 649 pages, takes 30.5 MB of memory and includes 75 tables, 95 maps, graphs and illustrations, and a two-page “List of Abbreviations.”
Among the abbreviations: “LVSWWTF,” or “Colorado Springs Las Vegas Street Wastewater Treatment Facility.”
Considering the looming, interrelated water crises that might affect the southwestern United States during the next decades, the successful construction and completion of SDS is likely of paramount importance not only to Colorado Springs but to the entire metro area.
John Fredell, who manages the SDS project for Colorado Springs Utilities, is eager to see the EIS. “That will be such a huge milestone for the project,” he said. “We’ve been working on this since 2003.”
It is evident from scanning the technical documents that many of the non-political obstacles to SDS will be removed when the draft EIS is issued. The bureau has rejected the various wastewater reuse alternatives that were considered, citing their cost.
According to bureau’s technical analysis, the cost of reuse would be prohibitive.
“Criteria established in the original analysis were $25,000 per acre-foot/year for firm yield …. Unit costs for the reuse alternatives ranged from $50,000 to $61,000 per ac-ft/yr for firm yield, which are greater than twice the criteria. Because of their dependence on treated wastewater, all reuse alternatives would be considered less desirable from a standpoint of public health protection …”
It seems probable that the bureau will recommend that SDS take the form originally proposed by Colorado Springs, a pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir, rather than any of the other alternatives that various groups have proposed. It also appears doubtful that the EIS will recommend the construction of a flood control dam on Fountain Creek, as suggested by some Pueblo business leaders and elected officials.
Fredell is cautiously optimistic.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll be in good shape,” he said. “The technical papers don’t seem to show any really significant environmental impacts, and that’s a good thing. It also seems that Reclamation would be OK with any of the alternatives, so that’s good.”
If, as expected, the EIS removes technical and environmental obstacles to SDS, that doesn’t mean that the project will go forward without impediment. There remain political obstacles, and those might be serious enough to doom the project.
Those issues won’t be addressed in the EIS, Fredell said. “That’s not in their purview.”
The greatest such obstacle lies in the so-called “1041” powers granted to county commissioners by the state legislature 34 years ago when it enacted HB 1041. The act requires that “any person desiring to engage in the development in an area of state interest … shall file an application for a permit with the local government in which such development is to take place. A local government may deny the permit if the proposed activity does not comply with the locally adopted guidelines and regulations.”
In practical terms, this means that the Pueblo County Board of Commissioners can, for almost any reason, block the project.
Unlike Colorado Springs, which has five commissioners, Pueblo has only three. The fate of SDS, after more than a decade of development work, and tens of millions of dollars, will depend upon favorable votes from at least two Pueblo elected officials, who might be under enormous pressure from local business and political interests to extract large, and possibly unaffordable, concessions from Colorado Springs.
If politics does kill the project, it won’t be the first time that Colorado Springs has suffered such a fate.
During 1991, Colorado Springs planned to develop water rights in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area by constructing the Homestake II water diversion project. The city’s plans were thwarted by the Eagle County commissioners, who, exercising their 1041 powers, voted to deny a permit for the project.
The city appealed the verdict to the Colorado Supreme Court, which found that the commissioners had acted properly.
The city made a final appeal to the United States Supreme Court, which denied certiorari in 1995.