Monday, April 15, 2013

Water Flows West

The problem with Colorado is that it’s a great place to live. So people move there.

But people need fresh water and the bulk of the state’s population is on the semi-arid, eastern side of the state. The majority of the fresh water falls as snow and rain in the mountains and then flows southwest, via the Colorado River, to Arizona, California, and Nevada. The Colorado River Compact, signed in 1922, established the use agreements for the basin's freshwater and in general, priority is given to downstream states. Colorado Springs receives most of its fresh water supply from Fry-Ark Collection System that straddles  the Continental Divide in central Colorado. This is moved eastward through a collection of tunnels  pipelines,  reservoirs, and lift stations the the city itself. Overall, the system is aging and is not able to meet the long-term needs of the community. The city's 1996 Water Resource Plan found that 55% of new water needs would need to come from a major capital project; conservation measures could accomodate 24% of the future water demand. The solution for more fresh water for Colorado Springs is the Southern Delivery System (SDS) - a 62 mile pipeline that will provide an additional water supply to the community from the Arkansas River and the Pueblo Reservoir. This water will be pumped uphill to Colorado Springs and delivered to the community. Phase 1 of the project will cost approximately $1Billion and will be completed in 2016. In 2010, the Colorado Springs Gazette put the cost at $2.3 Billion. In-town storage reservoirs will be built in phase 2.
Current water delivery systems (red) and SDS (green). From SDS.

The costs of SDS are being paid in part by water rate increases. SDS reports that water rates  increased 12% in 2011 and 2012 and that they will increase 10% in 2013 and 2014. Tap fees - exactions paid by developers tapping into a community's services - have increased by 138% since 2002 to help pay for the system. SDS notes that this an average of $9,000 per tap, but they are unclear if that is the increase or the total cost. 

Rampart Reservoir in August 2012 at late fall levels. From KOAA TV.
Last year, the Gazette reported that the rate increases were anticipated to raise the average monthly water bill from $40 to $80, though a series of 6 12% rate increases. The 10% increase mentioned above, and the possibility that the sixth rate increase may not be needed, means that the average bill will only rise to $60 a month. 

The other problem with Colorado is that is often hit by drought, which is occurring right now. 

Colorado Springs Utilities reports that water storage levels are at less than 50% and has implemented mandatory restrictions on watering. In January of this year, the Gazette reported that rate increases and changes in the pricing structure may also occur. This has happened before, when a drought earlier in the 2000's forced the community to implement mandatory watering restrictions. 

So where does that leave us?

John Hazlehurst of the Colorado Springs Independent writes that in order to help address project costs, Colorado Springs Utilities wants to "make 'temporary' deals with users outside the city." He doesn't fully clarify what he means by this, but his argument goes on to imply that it will only facilitate more sprawl. His op-ed piece captures something that is often missing in the debate about water usage, supply, and rates, namely the fact that in Colorado water drives growth. 

While SDS will provide fresh water for thousands of new residents of the city, it will also facilitate new growth. And location, character, and type of that growth is the missing piece in the whole discussion. Plus, more droughts will come. SDS will only work if there's water to put in the pipe.