“Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.” — Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Look at the photographs of Colorado Springs a few months after its founding. There are no trees, no shrubs, no gardens, no lawns — just a couple of ramshackle frame buildings next to a dusty road.
My house on the west side was built during 1898, carefully situated on rising ground which afforded a fine view of Pikes Peak to the west, as well as a panoramic view of the Front Range, from Cameron’s Cone to the Spanish Peaks.
The mountains are still there, but the views are gone.
The pillared porch from which the house’s first owner, Judge Louis Cunningham, watched the sun set over the mountains is now shaded by a multi-layered urban forest. Lilacs line both sides of the street, ash and maple trees rise gracefully to the sky, and the cottage next door is dwarfed by an enormous oak tree.
Lilacs, mountain ash, maples and oaks are scarcely native to the region. They grow and thrive on Bijou Street only because generations of homeowners have watered them. Without supplemental irrigation, they’d die.
We live in an oasis reclaimed from the desert. And just as oases in the Sahara are under relentless siege from the sands which surround them, so too is our urban oasis at risk.
The present city budget crisis will pass and the parks will once more receive enough water to keep the trees healthy and the grass green. But city officials might make a “minor” change in utility policy which could end our artificial oasis within decades.
Since the creation of our municipal water system, water has only been available to customers within the city. That simple, far-sighted policy has enabled the city to grow through annexation, and to finance necessary expansion of the system.
Once reliant upon local sources of water, Colorado Springs now transports raw water hundreds of miles from the Western Slope, utilizing a bewilderingly complex network of reservoirs, pipelines, water treatment plants and wastewater facilities.
That network, which will soon be augmented by the billion-dollar Southern Delivery System, is literally irreplaceable. It would cost tens of billions to duplicate, and that’s just the present-dollar cost of building it.
The system would be valueless without water. The developed water rights, exchange agreements and existing transmountain diversions are the real basis of the system — not the reservoirs, not the pipelines, not the pump stations and not the infrastructure that has been paid for by generations of Colorado Springs ratepayers.
Once SDS comes online, the city will have a temporary and illusory water surplus. That’s why utility officials are considering selling water to suburban water providers, which now rely on well fields to supply their customers.
Those wells might eventually run dry and/or become extremely expensive to operate. In less than 20 years at present rates of depletion, many suburban communities will be faced with difficult supply dilemmas.
That’s regrettable, but Colorado Springs should not sacrifice both its economic future and its urban forest to bail out (OK, that’s an unfortunate metaphor) suburban El Paso County.
When these high-density suburbs were first created, developers and county officials knew that the proposed water supplies were non-renewable and unsustainable. Everyone involved believed the same story — there was lots of water in the aquifer, and if there wasn’t … well, that would be someone else’s problem.
That “someone else” should not be the City of Colorado Springs.
SDS is not just the latest water project — it’s the last water project. Twenty years hence, there will be no more developable and renewable sources of water to tap. The combined impacts of demand growth, climate change and competing needs will force Front Range communities to conserve, recycle and ration to meet the needs of growth.
Once the city extends water service past its boundaries, it forfeits the regional economic power and the control over its own destiny that SDS will bring. SDS gives us time to adapt and change, to preserve our green mantle for future generations and to drive change that will reinvigorate the city’s economy.
If city water is available to northern El Paso County, the economic balance of power will be irretrievably altered. Why should any new development annex into the city and pay higher taxes and fees if developers can get city water without annexation?
As big-box retailers have followed rooftops to county suburbs, the city’s main commercial artery, Academy Boulevard, has fallen into prolonged decay. That decay has been driven both by natural processes and by the economics of doing business in the county.
Lower tax rates, cheaper land, easier development and an attractive environment are potent enough advantages — so let’s not give away our city’s most powerful tool without a major quid pro quo.
We might insist upon reserved water for irrigating our mature oasis, and condition any deal upon countywide approval of an equitably re-aligned tax structure.
That’d mean higher taxes in the county — and if I know county voters, they’d rather risk running out of water than pay higher taxes.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at email@example.com or 227-5861.