From The Colorado Springs Business Journal (John Hazlehurst):
CSU’s ongoing billion-dollar bet is the Southern Delivery System. Scheduled to go online in 2016, SDS will convey water from Pueblo Reservoir via a 66-inch-diameter underground pipeline to Colorado Springs. It will expand the city’s raw water delivery capacity by an eventual 55 million gallons per day (MGD), a nearly 50-percent increase in system capacity…
“What we’re hoping for is a record snowpack,” CSU Chief Financial Officer Bill Cherrier said in late March, “followed by a hot, dry summer.”
Cherrier said it with a smile, but he had neatly summarized CSU’s dilemma. Water in the reservoirs must both be replenished and sold. The sell side of the equation is driven by fixed costs, including system maintenance and replacement, energy costs and continuing capital investment. But buyers don’t care about CSU’s problems; they prefer to water their lawns with free water from the skies.
Per-capita water use has dropped sharply in the past 20 years, leading to corresponding reductions in the city’s long-term consumption estimates.
“The Base (i.e. revenue) forecast is for an estimated service area population (city, suburban, Green Mountain Falls, military) of about 608,552 and about 106,000 AF/yr for demand,” wrote CSU spokesperson Janet Rummel in an email. “The ‘hot and dry’ scenario uses the same service area population and estimates about 120,000 AF/yr demand. This particular ‘hot and dry’ scenario equates to an 80 percent confidence interval and adds about 13 percent to annual demands.”
That’s a precipitous drop from the high-side estimate of the 1996 water resources plan, which forecast a population in 2040 as high as 900,000 and water demand of 168,150 acre-feet. The base forecast, at 106,000 acre-feet annually, is only 1,800 acre-feet more than the community used in 2000, 40 years previously.
Does that mean CSU’s water managers dropped $841 million into a new water delivery system that we may not need until 2016? Does this prove that the project, originally conceived to furnish water for the Banning-Lewis Ranch development, is now entirely unnecessary?
“SDS is not a short-term solution,” Rummel said in a 2010 email. “The time to build a major water project is not when you have run short of water … [we need] to better prepare our community for drought, climate change and water supply uncertainty on the Colorado River.”
Many factors entered into the decision to build SDS. In 1996, there was no discussion of system redundancy, of having an additional water pipeline that could serve the city in case one of the existing conduits needed emergency repair. But 18 years later, the pipelines are that much more vulnerable to accident or malfunction.
In 1996, population growth and per capita water use were expected to continue indefinitely at historic levels. But they didn’t. Commercial and industrial use declined, and price-sensitive residents used less water. Indoor use declined as well as outdoor, thanks to restricted-flow shower heads and low-flush toilets.
SDS stayed on track. In the eyes of the water survivalists who conceived and created the project, the city’s rights on the Arkansas River had to be developed. They saw long, hot summers in the city and dry winters in the mountains. Opponents could make any arguments they liked, but these five words trumped them all.
Use it or lose it.
Undeveloped water rights are like $100 bills blowing down the street — someone will grab them and use them for their own benefit…
“This will be our last pipeline,” said CSU water resources manager Gary Bostrom. “We will never be able to develop a new water delivery system. When SDS is finished, that’s it.”
Bostrom’s peers in Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego and Los Angeles have reason to envy him. Colorado Springs has won the water wars. We’ve bought ourselves decades of time. Whether we save or squander this liquid bounty is up to us.
In 2040, the city may have 30,000 to 50,000 acre-feet a year of unneeded delivery capacity. That cushion will allow for decades of population growth and for the introduction of sophisticated irrigation techniques that will preserve our green city and minimize water use.
In years to come, members of the Colorado Springs City Council will decide how to preserve the city’s future. Will they heed Bostrom’s warning and encourage radical conservation? Will new developments be required to xeriscape, and preserve trees with drip irrigation devices?