Water: When will we need more?

Our water and SDS:
Second of a three-part series

Next: Bargain or boondoggle? Is Southern Delivery System the future of the city or a needless extravagance? How much water will we need from SDS in 2016? In 2040? In 2013, city residents used 78,067 acre-feet of water, 3,000 acre-feet less than in 1986. Is such use reduction a drought-related anomaly, or a leading indicator of permanent change?

Levels today at Lake Mead in Nevada, a storage spot for the Colorado River downstream from Colorado Springs’ rights, are 127 feet below full pool.

Levels today at Lake Mead in Nevada, a storage spot for the Colorado River downstream from Colorado Springs’ rights, are 127 feet below full pool.

As the 20th century came to a close, the future of Colorado Springs seemed assured. Every economic indicator pointed upward, suggesting that growth would continue for the foreseeable future.

Water managers at Colorado Springs Utilities were pleased. Despite the city’s growth, water supply and storage had been more than adequate to meet burgeoning demand. But a day of reckoning would come when supply no longer could meet demand.

Since the 1970s, a generation of CSU “water buffaloes” had tried to permit and build new transmountain water diversion systems to serve the city. Plans to divert water from the Holy Cross Wilderness Area had been killed by the Colorado Supreme Court in 1992 after years of litigation, and preliminary plans to build a dam on the Arkansas River north of Buena Vista at Elephant Rock had been abandoned because of local opposition.

The Southern Delivery System was the only remaining option.

It seemed simple enough. Let the water that would have been diverted upstream flow down the Arkansas to Pueblo Reservoir, and build a pipeline to transport it from the reservoir to Colorado Springs.

CSU officials previously had rejected it as an inelegant piece of engineering, one that would be significantly more expensive to operate than upstream alternatives.

Water would have to be pumped uphill from Pueblo, at a possible cost of several million dollars annually. Moreover, a pipeline from Pueblo wouldn’t offer the flexibility and system redundancy of a line paralleling the existing Homestake/Blue River pipelines.

But the clock was running out. Even as the ruinous Manitou flood of 1999 receded, Colorado was entering a prolonged period of drought, bookended by the severe droughts of 2002 and 2013.

The drought years

Although SDS had been informally presented to City Council in 1992, it was formally launched in 1996. The Water Resource Plan proposed an unhurried 20-year timeline for the project. Allowances were made for regulatory delays, for securing the necessary permits, for litigation, for complying with environmental requirements and for dealing with unanticipated political and bureaucratic roadblocks.

Extreme drought wasn’t a consideration. The project’s drivers were expected population growth and water demand. The report paid lip service to conservation, xeriscaping and water-efficient appliances, but did not suggest such water-saving measures would ever be mandatory. 

Four years later, a water resources implementation plan moved the date forward to the 2008-2015 time frame. Actually, 2000 and 2001 were both relatively dry years, but neither was dry enough to cause much concern to state water providers or their customers.

CSU’s spring 2002 water outlook noted that the year was predicted to be “warmer than normal.” Demand drivers included a 98 percent increase in irrigated turfgrass, owing to larger lots, covenants requiring bluegrass and the addition of parks and golf courses. Taps had grown more than 43 percent during the period, and the hot and dry weather had increased annual water demand from 90,000 acre-feet in 1999 to 104,000 in 2000 and 2001.

“Precipitation data for Colorado showed that the 1980s and 1990s were two of the wettest decades in Colorado since 1930,” wrote Nolan Doeske, a climatologist for the state, in 2004. “The people of Colorado were not thinking about drought (before 2002).”

The drought was deceptive at first, bringing snow and cold temperatures to the Front Range in January. Colorado Springs residents didn’t worry, but CSU officials were concerned, knowing well that January precipitation east of the mountains has little impact on the water supply. What counts is the mountain snowpack — and it wasn’t there. 

“By the end of March,” Doesken wrote, “the statewide snow water equivalent, as a percent of average, was a mere 52 percent and all portions of Colorado’s mountains were far below average … these were very extreme conditions for a state that derives most of its surface water from melting snow.”

Eventually, 2002 would become the driest year in Colorado history. The June Hayman fire in the mountains west of the city burned more than 138,000 acres, and remains the largest in the state’s history. Utilities would be forced to introduce mandatory watering restrictions during the summer irrigation season to maintain adequate supplies in the city’s reservoirs. 

Severe droughts had occurred in the 1930s, the 1950s and again in the late 1970s — so CSU managers initially believed that 2002 was merely the latest iteration of Colorado’s 25-year drought cycle.

“As soon as I took office, the rains started and the drought ended,” said newly elected Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera in May 2003. He was joking about the cause, of course, but many residents assumed that the drought had ended.

Those assumptions were false. The next 12 years would see continued local and regional droughts, forcing water managers to change plans and assumptions that had served them well for decades. Managers believed that the “new normal” would make SDS even more important to the city’s future.

The project moves on

“We never imagined in 1999 that we were entering a drought that would last indefinitely,” said CSU water resources manager Gary Bostrom. “That just wasn’t part of the equation.”

CSU’s planning for the Southern Delivery System had been driven by two data points from the 1996 water resources plan: a forecasted population of more than 900,000 in 2040 that would consume 168,150 acre-feet of water annually.

Those high-side estimates were based on unchanging commercial, industrial and residential water use profiles and a strong, vibrant economy.

Given water use figures for the 1980-1995 period, such estimates were credible. Total annual water use had increased from 62,807 acre-feet in 1980 to 81,847 acre-feet in 1994, and would skyrocket to 104,218 acre-feet in 2000. But the 2002 drought and subsequent dry years changed customer behavior. A new term entered CSU’s lexicon: drought shadow. 

Forced to conserve irrigation water, many CSU customers never returned to their former consumption patterns. Residential use in gallons per capita per day fell from 127.5 GPCD in 2000 to 90.6 in 2004. Commercial and industrial use also fell during the drought decade, as water-intensive manufacturers such as Intel closed their doors and other businesses became more conservation-minded.

Water managers scrambled to update their forecasts as demand dropped, population growth leveled off and the local economy stagnated. Internal documents show forecast sales dropping in 2003 and 2004, and actual declines in 2005.

Demand forecasts through 2007 were further constrained by the possibility of severe drought, watering restrictions and SDS rate impacts.

“We started learning more about how our system responded to stress,” said Utilities Water Manager Kevin Lusk. Forced and voluntary conservation had reduced expected demand, giving the city the time it would need to permit and build SDS.

The regulatory thicket

Serious business was at hand. The path to building SDS required an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and CSU had to come up with “the numbers.” Water managers would have to weave together the databases that would drive the EIS, required because SDS could not be constructed without major federal action. The document would guide the Bureau of Reclamation’s decision regarding long-term storage, exchange and conveyance contracts for using Pueblo Reservoir. Absent a favorable ruling from BuRec, SDS would be dead.

As work on the EIS began in 2003, CSU had to negotiate two significant intergovernmental agreements with Pueblo and other government entities regarding participation in the “Arkansas River Flow Management Program.” It may sound like an insignificant piece of the bureaucratic puzzle, but SDS opponents in Pueblo saw it as a way to derail the water bullies in Colorado Springs. A divided Pueblo City Council approved both agreements by a single vote.

The final EIS ran to hundreds of pages of dense technical prose, charts galore and more information than any single person could possibly digest. Some of it seems irrelevant (e.g., a discussion of the effects of the no-action alternative on Pueblo property values), but much of it is key to understanding the socioeconomic effects of SDS.

Yet the ground had shifted. Many assumptions and numbers that the project was based on had changed, but the train had already pulled out of the station.

CSU managers couldn’t submit new numbers to reflect facts on the ground, because that would have forced the Bureau of Reclamation to restart the whole process, adding years of delay and tens of millions of dollars in costs.

“We couldn’t know what we did know,” Lusk recalled. “Once you’re in the SDS process, you can’t change your numbers.”

Five and a half years would elapse before the Bureau issued its favorable record of decision in March 2009. A month later, the Pueblo County commissioners voted unanimously to approve a 1041 land use permit for SDS. That permit gave CSU a three-year window to begin construction, which began in May 2011.

“I think we’ve had to get 300, 400 different permits since we started the whole SDS process, and it’s ongoing,” said veteran CSU public communications officer Janet Rummel.

“And it’s a pipeline,” Bostrom said. “Do you remember when the gas pipeline companies were laying 10 miles of pipe in a day out east? Things have changed.”

When the water is ready to flow in early 2016, it will have cost ratepayers $841 million, funded by a cumulative 52 percent increase in water rates.

Was it worth it?