July 19, 2008

Water Worries Ambitious Projects Herald New Era – but Raise Old Concerns

By Jerd Smith

Nearly $3 billion of ambitious new water projects along the Front Range are in various stages of launching - from completing a lengthy federal permitting process to actually breaking ground.

The pending boom includes seven new or expanded reservoirs and at least one major pipeline. Barely recovered from the 2002 drought and with projected shortages looming, the water districts and cities involved say it is imperative that the projects be built now.

When completed, the combined projects will make for one of the largest water development eras in Colorado history.

State water officials and analysts, however, worry that the fragmented nature of the plans constitutes a $3 billion free-for- all, and that the lack of a coherent regional or statewide plan will prove costly for both the consumer and the environment.

"With each city doing its own thing, you have a ratcheting up effect on the cost and on the environmental impact," said Neil Grigg, a Colorado State University engineering professor and water historian. "Without an entity to coordinate things, the public will suffer, it will cost more, and it's harder on the environment."

Millions of dollars have been spent on each project to enter the federal permitting process, the first step before construction can begin. The project are:

* Parker's Rueter-Hess Reservoir, a $165 million storage facility that will capture recycled groundwater and flows from Cherry Creek for use by water-strapped Douglas County towns. Construction is under way.

* Colorado Springs Southern Delivery Pipeline, a $1.7 billion project that will pump water from the Arkansas River 43 miles north to the Springs and surrounding areas. Construction: begins in 2009.

* Halligan Reservoir expansion, a $60 million project that will serve Fort Collins, Loveland and other communities, storing water from the Cache La Poudre. Construction: expected 2011.

* Windy Gap, a $270 million reservoir that will serve several fast-growing northern Colorado towns, including Erie, Greeley, Evans and Lafayette. Construction: expected 2011.

* Glade and Galeton reservoirs, a $406 million project serving Dacono, Frederick, Firestone, Erie and others. Construction: expected 2011.

* Moffat expansion, a $140 million to $500 million project that is likely to include the expansion of Gross Reservoir and construction of several pipelines to serve Denver. Construction: expected 2011.

* Seaman Reservoir, a $90 million storage project serving Greeley. Permitting process begun, but construction isn't slated until 2029.

Water agencies hope the projects will create enough supply to carry Colorado through 2030.

Long time coming

Taken together, the projects could mark an end to a 40-year standoff in Colorado's contentious water wars, a "not-one-more- drop" era whose hallmark battle - the defeat of Two Forks Dam on the South Platte River - ended when the Environmental Protection Agency summarily killed the project in the late 1980s.

Even before Two Forks, environmental concerns and costs had made constructing dams and reservoirs difficult.

As a result, no significant water projects have been built in Colorado since Denver's Lake Dillon and the Bureau of Reclamation's Blue Mesa Reservoir in the 1960s.

Until now.

Up first is Parker's Rueter-Hess, which is driven largely by growth in surrounding Douglas County, a region that has relied on a deep, nonrechargeable aquifer that is failing.

"You can talk about cutting off growth," Frank Jaeger, manager of the Parker Water and Sanitation District, said of the need for the reservoir. "But if I built a fence 10 feet high around Parker and said no more growth, they would drill wells outside the fence and drain the water right out from under us. If we had enough guns we couldn't stop it."

But not all communities see the need to rush.

Fort Collins has asked for more time to review a proposal by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District to build Glade Reservoir to the northwest of the city because of concerns over water quality. Two other reservoirs nearby also are in the permitting pipeline.

"It seems if we could look at things as a whole in the region it would make more sense," said Fort Collins City Councilman Bennet Manvel. "But it's very territorial. Everyone has their own empires they're looking out for. Frankly, we're worried," he said.

Northern officials, however, say that most issues Fort Collins is concerned about can be resolved and that the project makes sense regionally because it serves several small towns.

"We've got to move these projects forward," said Eric Wilkinson, manager of Northern. "We've got 15 entities that are planning their future and they need the water. Some of them need it now."

One key concern of environmentalists and state officials is that some of these projects are tapping the same rivers in different places, increasing disruptions to stream systems and creating the need for more infrastructure.

Complicated reality

The state estimates that water demand will surge 53 percent by 2030, when an additional 2.2 million people are expected to join the nearly 5 million already here.

Ensuring enough water to meet demand will mean either taking more from already stressed mountain streams or drying up thousands of acres of farmlands, a process that hurts the state's ability to grow food and the rural communities who rely on farmers for business.

After the 2002 drought struck, the state launched a groundbreaking effort, the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, to determine just how much water the state needs and how to responsibly harvest it.

"How do we develop an adequate water supply for our citizens and the environment? We haven't cracked that nut yet," said Rick Brown, a former Colorado Water Conservation Board staffer who spent much of the past five years working on a potential solution.

State efforts to coordinate water planning and development have been slow to yield results, in part, because Colorado's water reality is so complicated.

The state's eight major river basins provide water not just to Coloradans but to much of the western and central United States, all governed by federal compacts.

In addition, cities control their own water rights. Denver, for instance, has a rich portfolio of individual water rights that allow it to divert from two major river basins, the Colorado and the South Platte.

Other cities, such as Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, have similar systems in place, gathering water from far afield, even if mountain or rural communities with fewer water rights also need the resource.

The state's energy industry is an enormous consumer of water, and that will only intensify if sources such as oil shale are developed in the coming years.

"If you look at this mosaic, you can see the pressures are great," said Harris Sherman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

Coloradans have proved adept at reducing their water use since the drought struck - some communities by as much as 20 percent or more. But that may not be enough.

"When environmentalists say we can conserve our way through this, they're not being realistic," CSU's Grigg said. "One person's conservation is another person's hardship. One town may already have an adequate water supply and can conserve, but a small, fast- growing town needs new water because it doesn't have any. It doesn't have a base from which to conserve."

Efforts to share water between cities and farms have also failed to yield results to date, because no one has come up with a system that works. Even though farms control huge water right portfolios, the water must be transported back and forth through expensive new pipelines.

Higher rates expected

In this round of water development, the cities and districts are striking out on their own.

Colorado Springs is planning one of the costliest projects on the table - the $1.7 billion pipeline that will draw water from the Arkansas River and pump it 43 miles north.

Utilities officials there estimate that water rates will rise dramatically to pay for the pipeline, from about $307 annually for homeowners now to $933 by 2025.

Agreements to manage flows and to stop diversions when the water is low should offset some of the stress on the river, but the project still has triggered howls of protest from other cities, including Pueblo, which routinely spars with Colorado Springs over the Arkansas.

But Colorado Springs faces growth and future demand pressures, said Keith Riley, planning and permitting manager for Colorado Springs Utilities.

"We plan based on the worst- case scenarios," he said, "and those show us running short by 2012. We can't go out and purchase water like you can do if you're an electric utility. If weather conditions were just right, and demand was high, we could run short."

Originally published by Jerd Smith, Rocky Mountain News.

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