In the late 1980s, water managers at Colorado Springs Utilities still hoped to build a major water diversion structure that would have taken water from the Holy Cross Wilderness Area south of Vail and eventually transported it to Colorado Springs and Aurora.
That effort, more than a decade in planning, had been delayed by Eagle County’s 1987 decision to deny the project using HB1041 regulations.
Contending that the denial had been arbitrary and capricious, the two cities appealed the decision to the courts. In a comprehensive description of the city’s water system and possible future sources of supply given to City Council in 1991, CSU managers said that “extensive litigation is expected to continue.”
Denied by the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court, the cities appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
City officials were stunned. They couldn’t believe that a coalition of Western Slope “enviros” and ski towns had prevented them from developing water to which the city had an undisputed right. They had believed the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1990 decision to scuttle Denver’s proposed Two Forks Dam near Deckers on the South Platte River was an outlier, not a sign of things to come.
Homestake II had received all the relevant federal permits. The city had played by the rules, receiving an easement from the U.S. Forest Service and a 404 dredge-and-fill permit from the Corps of Engineers.
In addition, the city’s water development rights had been specifically included in the legislation establishing the Holy Cross Wilderness Area.
Slow to recognize that mountain communities now had the power to kill their water development plans, Utilities officials looked at another alternative. Instead of taking water directly from the wilderness area, the city proposed to build a dam on the mainstem of the Arkansas at Elephant Rock, a few miles upstream of Buena Vista.
A grassroots rebellion against the project was soon evident, as hand-lettered signs appeared along U.S. Highway 24, which parallels the Arkansas. The signs carried a simple message: “Don’t Let Colorado Springs Dam this River!”
It soon became clear that Chaffee County commissioners would not issue a construction permit for any such project, dooming it before the first planning documents were created.
If trans-mountain diversions or dams on the Arkansas were no longer feasible, that left a single alternative for developing the city’s water rights. CSU would have to let its water flow down to Pueblo Reservoir, construct a diversion structure on the dam, and pump it uphill to Colorado Springs.
It would be, water managers believed, the easiest project to build and permit.
“It was just a pipeline,” said CSU water resources manager Gary Bostrom, who has worked 35 years for Utilities. “What could go wrong?”
Every forecast of future demand pointed in the same direction: Colorado Springs needed to develop a new major delivery system.
The city’s population had increased by 92.4 percent from 1960-1970, by 59 percent in the next decade and would grow by 31 percent from 1980-1990.
During those 30 years, much of the growth took place in the new suburbs of the east and northeast. Developments such as Vista Grande, Village Seven, Old Farm, Briargate, Rockrimmon and Garden Ranch brought seas of rooftops and thousands of acres of irrigated turf grass to the arid ranch lands on the city’s periphery. In 1988, the city annexed the 22,000-acre Banning-Lewis Ranch, approving a comprehensive master plan that envisioned tens of thousands of single-family homes and more than 100,000 residents at buildout, expected to occur in as soon as 25 years.
In a 1991 report to City Council, CSU officials didn’t mince words.
“Planning has begun on a major delivery system which will be required just after the turn of the century to convey additional water to Colorado Springs.”
But although the perceived needs hadn’t changed, CSU had to change.
“We didn’t really understand the importance of partnering with and involving the public in decision-making,” said Bostrom, “until the Southern Water Project.”
CSU had long planned to build a water treatment plant at the mouth of North Cheyenne Canon. It was seen as a routine project to increase the capacity and flexibility of the city’s treated water system.
Who could object?
Once the project was formally announced in 1991, homeowners in surrounding neighborhoods quickly joined in opposition. They described the proposed plant as a “massive industrial facility” inappropriately plopped down in the middle of one of the city’s historic neighborhoods. They brought their concerns to City Council, which commissioned an independent study of alternatives by outside experts.
Used to having their decisions rubber-stamped by Council, Utilities managers were nonplussed. The independent consultants hired by the Council majority were characterized as “a bunch of damn university professors” by Mayor Bob Isaac, and deeply resented by CSU officials.
“We thought we’d involved the public,” Bostrom wryly recalled. “We’d put up signs on the property that said ‘Future site of a water treatment plant,’ and we thought that was enough.”
The “professors” presented Council with a report offering multiple options to accomplish CSU’s stated goals. Building the plant as proposed was the lowest-ranked option. Forced to choose between the “professors” and CSU professionals, Council chose the former.
Plans for the new plant were formally abandoned, while system capabilities were enhanced by strengthening intra-system connectivity and expanding existing water treatment plants.
“Phil (Tollefson, then-Utilities CEO) was stunned,” said Bostrom, “but I think it made him a better leader. We all realized that public input and buy-in was crucial, and the whole organization had to change.”
Public acceptance and support, so long taken for granted, now had to be earned. Stakeholders had to be identified, involved and informed. Plans and projects would have to be created with new partners, and ancient feuds would have to be settled.
Just as three Eagle County commissioners had blocked Homestake II, three Pueblo County commissioners could kill the new project. And if the Southern Delivery System couldn’t be built, there were no further options available.
There was no time to waste. Demand projections suggested that the new delivery system would have to be online within 10 years. Nearly 14 years had passed since Colorado Springs agreed to partner with Aurora to build Homestake II, and the city couldn’t afford another such debacle.
In 1989, Colorado Springs water consumption averaged 64.4 million gallons per day. Most of the use occurred during irrigation season in the summer months. On July 9, that year’s maximum day, customers used 152.6 million gallons, nearly five times as much as the 31.2 million gallons consumed on Jan. 25, the minimum day.
CSU projections suggested the city’s population, estimated then at 266,000, would double by 2010. Annual water demand, then 73,000 acre-feet, might rise accordingly, putting the system in deficit as early as 2006.
The plan for the Southern Delivery System was presented to City Council in 1992. Among the material submitted to councilmembers was a comprehensive description of the city’s existing water system. Water managers made sure Council was aware of the importance of the task before them.
“The massive scope of this project,” CSU staff noted, “requires a very long lead time to allow for complexities of numerous permitting processes, land acquisition, litigation, design, financing and construction.”
Of all the variables, CSU managers and elected officials gave the least weight to those that may have been the most significant.
“We weren’t worried about hydrology,” said Bostrom. “The years between 1980 and 2000 were some of the wettest years on record. The water was there for the taking. Shortages on the Colorado weren’t part of the discussion.
“We knew about the Colorado River Water Compact of 1922 (which allocated Colorado River water between Mexico and the upper and lower basin states), but it wasn’t something we worried about.”
Then as now, 70 percent of the city’s water supply came from the Colorado River. SDS would tap the city’s rights on the Arkansas, diversifying the portfolio.
“We have to plan for growth,” said Bostrom. “That’s what history tells us. We know that it will be expensive, but the cost of not building a system well in advance of need would be much greater. People complained about the cost of the Blue River (trans-mountain diversion) project in the 1950s, but we wouldn’t have a city without it — we wouldn’t have the Air Force Academy.”
But even as the project moved slowly forward, the comfortable assumptions of a wet, prosperous future began to unravel.
“Exactly 15 years ago today (April 29, 1999),” said Bostrom, “we were in the middle of a flood — remember? We didn’t know it, but that was the day the drought began.”
(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Next: drought, war and recession delay SDS, but the project goes forward. When will we need the water? Is SDS the city’s last pipeline?)