FromAspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):
“It’s a plumbing project,” Million said. “We’re just looking at a small piece of the surpluses to bring new water supplies over.”
But others say it isn’t so simple; it’s not clear that there actually is extra water. More than 30 protests have been filed with the Utah Division of Water Rights. Many of these come from organizations that think Million’s team is skirting some major issues.
“What you’re doing is putting everyone at great risk,” said Andy Mueller, executive director of the Colorado River District, which is tasked with safeguarding Colorado’s water supply. Much of that comes from the Colorado River Basin.
That’s a big, complex system that feeds 40 million people across seven states and part of Mexico. The Green River is part of that; it connects to the Colorado River in Utah. So when you pull water from the Green, it affects a delicate balance that has been in the works for nearly a century.
The Colorado River Compact
In 1922, seven states signed the Colorado River Compact, a legally binding agreement. The four upper basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — agreed to let a set amount of water flow downriver into the lower basin, comprised of Arizona, Nevada and California.
But it’s really dry in these states and climate change means there’s even less water in the river. So when new players like Million try to jump in the game, it adds some real tension.
In the worst-case scenario — a serious, long-term drought — the lower basin states can cash in on that agreement, the so-called compact call.
As Zane Kessler with the Colorado River District explained, we’ve never been through that before, but he thinks a proposal this big would push us closer to the edge.
“We don’t know what’s on the other side of that cliff, because we’ve never been through it,” Kessler said. “We do know that it could cause chaos on a number of different levels, and that’s the biggest concern for a lot of us.”
But Million isn’t too concerned about a compact call. He’s said basically it’s an empty threat, and he points blame for any shortages at the lower basin states, saying they use more than their share. Plus, he said, this water is needed right here in Colorado.
“We shouldn’t let the water go to the lower basin when we are faced with the impacts we are on the upper basin,” Million said.
The River District thinks he’s over-simplifying, because it’s actually not totally clear how much water Colorado has left to claim. Mueller explained that recent studies have shown the state is probably already using its full share.
“We think that we are at a point where we no longer have water to develop in the state of Colorado in the Colorado river system,” Mueller said.
He said the key to managing water in this complex system is working together; it’s what has worked so far.
“The entire river system is short of water, and we’re all watching this very careful balance,” he said. “That’s the biggest concern, I think, is that [Million is] going around this developed consensus in our state.”
The consensus surrounds all kinds of water users, concerning everything from how to conserve water in cities to how to protect fish. Bart Miller is with Western Resource Advocates, which opposes Million’s project on environmental grounds.
“The Green River is really a stronghold, has been a stronghold, for some of these endangered fish, and so it’s a place that I think a lot of folks are concerned about the impacts of a large quantity of water being taken out,” he said.
Plus, Miller said, it’s not clear how exactly the diverted water will be used and that breaks the anti-speculation rules in water law.
Million has said the water would be used for hydropower, irrigating agricultural lands and for municipal uses, like drinking water. But he hasn’t said specifically who would use it in those ways…
“There aren’t any identified users of the water,” he said. “And in both Utah and Colorado, speculation — developing water just so you can have it — is highly discouraged.”
That could set the foundation of a legal fight. For now, it’s up to the Utah Division of Water Rights to decide if the project moves forward.
City Council on Tuesday agreed with city staff’s recommendation to declare that “stage one” water shortage conditions exist. A formal resolution will be adopted Monday during council’s regular meeting.
The first phase of water restrictions is a 10 percent reduction in use and it is voluntary. Of course, the city encourages people to conserve on their own. The government suggests people water their properties at night and not during the day when it’s hot and dry. Odd/even watering days based on address also will be suggested.
It will be a mandatory 10 percent reduction for the municipal government’s public properties, said Margaret Medellin, the city’s utilities portfolio manager.
Snow water equivalent in the area is below average and tracking with conditions experienced in 2012, when stage one restrictions last went into effect.
Aspen and Pitkin County are fairing pretty well so far this spring, compared with the rest of the state. As of May 1, the U.S. Drought Monitor identified Pitkin County as having moderate drought conditions, with a severe classification in the western tip and abnormally dry in the northeastern section.
Aspen is somewhere in the middle of the state, between normal to wet in the northeastern part and exceptionally dry in the southwest region, according to Medellin.
Southern Colorado is experiencing exceptional and extreme drought, and conditions are worsening. City officials expect that Gov. John Hickenlooper will activate the Colorado drought plan for at least part of the state.
In terms of snowpack, March was one of the driest on record for the Aspen area. But with the storms and cool temperatures last month, it resulted in minimal snowmelt, Medellin said, adding that she and her colleagues were preparing for worse conditions.
“April was really good to us,” she told council. “We got some good snow.”
However, stream flows in local watersheds are expected to be lower than the median. Water supply forecasts prepared by the National Weather Service indicate that runoff in the Roaring Fork River is expected to be between 50 and 70 percent of average.
This year we had we had a lousy winter in terms of moisture, with our drought map showing Colorado ranging from moderate drought status to exceptional drought.
Yet, we see more and more people move here every day.
At Denver7, we are committed to sharing stories that get to the heart of Coloradans’ concerns and what you are telling us is you are worried. Do we have enough water?
How is our water used?
Agriculture uses the most: production of our food and other resources account for about 86 percent of water usage.
Our cities and towns use about 5 to 10 percent.
The rest is used by businesses and industries.
And all that water? The reality is, long ago, the rights were all bought up.
“All the easy water rights, all the easy water supplies were gone years ago, decades ago. So now, figuring out where to go and look for new water for a growing city is more challenging,” said Marshall Brown, the director at Aurora Water.
Since 2010, our population has grown by nearly 600,000 people.
The last census estimate, made in July, put our Colorado population at just over 5.6 million. When you think about that growth and look at the expanding skyline, you have to wonder whether our water entities are planning for the future.
Ron Rodd, the District Manager for Parker Water and Sanitation, sat in in front of Reuter Hess Reservoir as he spoke to Denver7 about just that.
“What you see in the background is 6 years of filling,” Rodd said. “There’s about 27,000 acre-feet of water there.”
Rodd is talking about Parker Water’s plan, which is to store water when it is plentiful.
Reuter Hess Reservoir is about 105 feet deep right now; the plan is to get it 165 feet deep.
You might look at it and think it looks like a nice recreation area, but Reuter Hess was built to take water from Cherry Creek and store it.
“It’s a bucket for us to stick water in during wet years and pull water out during dry years,” Rodd said.
Parker has also bought up water rights 150 miles away, near Iliff, Colorado, because Parker is expecting its population to triple by the year 2045.
The city of Aurora too, has been building, buying and planning.
Its population of 365,000 is expected to double by 2070.
They will live in places like Aurora Highlands, which is just one of Aurora’s many planned developments. The city has room to grow, with plenty of acreage of undeveloped land, and Brown says Aurora’s 50-year plan has enough water to handle it all.
“We’re 95 percent surface water,” Brown said. “We get almost all of our water from snowpack.”
Brown says getting water from several sources, and not just one, is key to its supply…
Aurora has bought up rights to water from the Colorado River, the South Platte and the Arkansas River basins, along with rights to a reservoir called Wild Horse located more than 100 miles away – near Alma in Park County.
And now, the city is looking at a new source. It’s an old gold mine called London Mine, located near Breckenridge in Park County. The mining there has stopped, but its water rights are still tied up…
“Denver has been a great example of that, because despite growth over the last 10 to 15 years, the amount of water used has remained steady if not dropped a little bit.”
Conservation is key. Aurora is also using a third less water per person compared to the year 2000.
Still, as consumers, it is important to do your homework. Just like you look at the quality of schools or property taxes before you move into a neighborhood, you should be asking, does this community or my water district have a water plan?
…in November 2016, the EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sued, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and the city’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit to discharge into creeks, streams and rivers. As a federal judge looks to set a trial date this summer, the state and lawsuit intervenors, Pueblo County and the Rocky Ford-based Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, urge the EPA in a March 26 letter to “re-commit” to the case, suggesting a dismissal or settlement might be in the works.
That would be a mistake, says Lower Ark executive director Jay Winner, because the city has broken promises in the past involving stormwater. “I started this in 2005 and we’ve had three or four deals, and something always goes south,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure we have good clean water, not just for now but for the future.”
The city’s struggle to fund stormwater dates to two failed ballot measures in 2001, and City Council’s adoption of fees in 2007 only to rescind them in 2009. In April 2016, the matter became a sticking point as the city prepared to activate the Southern Delivery System, a $825 million, 50-mile water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir. Having issued a construction permit for it, Pueblo County demanded the city fix its storm system to relieve Fountain Creek flooding, or face revocation. In response, Mayor John Suthers and Council pledged $460 million over 20 years for city drainage work.
In November 2017, Suthers and Council proposed shifting that cost from the city’s general fund to fees. Voters approved, and the city begins collections in July. (See sidebar.)
By all indications, the city is working to comply with its MS4 permit. Its March 30 annual report for 2017 says the city:
Increased the number of drainage structures it maintained, from 53 in 2016 to 70, and for the first time, city workers walked every foot of the city’s 270 miles of creeks and channels to assess needs.
Boosted by 56 percent its reviews of drainage reports and construction and grading plans — to 1,590 last year. The city also rolled out new grading, erosion and sediment control permitting programs.
Launched Stormwater University, which instructs developers, engineers and consultants, as well as citizens, on MS4 mandates.
More than doubled the number of cleanup events along city waterways in 2017, to 88 from 37 in 2016, increasing public participation by 54 percent, to 6,014 people. Those volunteers removed 18 tons of trash. “We now have the capacity and people in place to run the programs,” says Jerry Cordova, who oversees the volunteer “trash mob” events, “so we can develop them and continue to grow.”
Beefed up development inspections, a key EPA lawsuit criticism. While no monetary penalties were imposed, the city stepped up enforcement, issuing 47 compliance actions last year compared to only 16 in 2016.
Inspections are more robust, says stormwater manager Rich Mulledy, because the city has more inspectors focused on drainage issues alone. “If you do a lot more inspections,” he says, “you’re going to catch more.” And the city did. It issued six stop-work orders last year, compared to only two in 2016, and 41 letters of noncompliance, the step that precedes a stop-work order — triple the 14 issued in 2016.
Pockets of noncompliance, such as Wolf Ranch in the northeast, which gave rise to 23 percent of last year’s enforcement actions, stem from multiple adjacent job sites, Mulledy says. “We have a lot of different home builders and different contractors, and they’re all trying to play in the same sandbox, and they step on each other’s toes. You might have 100 pieces of equipment being used by 20 to 30 different companies.”
Mulledy also warns against thinking that no monetary fines means no penalties. “Stop-work — that’s a very serious thing. That is a big deal,” he says. “They can’t work till it’s fixed.” Which is why stop-work orders span only a day or so, he says.
The industry is aware of the heightened scrutiny, says Kevin Walker, spokesperson for the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs. That’s why the HBA instituted “Wet Wednesdays,” a series of tutorials about drainage rules for builders and developers.
But it’s worth noting that builders applaud the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back clean-water and stormwater-runoff regulations. The HBA even funded EPA director Scott Pruitt’s “luxury hotel stay” at The Broadmoor in October 2017, according to Politico, which quoted HBA CEO Renee Zentz as saying it was “our chance to make sure the concerns of our industry are being listened to.”
It’s not publicly known if the EPA’s lawsuit was discussed during Pruitt’s visit, but there’s been no filing that hints a negotiated settlement is imminent. Still, the March 26 letter from the state, Pueblo County and the Lower Ark says they “are now seriously concerned about whether the EPA continues to share our commitment to working together to protect Fountain Creek…”
The CDPHE tells the Indy in an email the letter’s intent was to “reiterate the importance … of remedying the ongoing discharge of pollutants” into the Arkansas River watershed.
But Lower Ark’s Jay Winner is more pointed: “I think there is a genuine distrust that the EPA may try to cut a deal,” he says. “We’re hoping that doesn’t happen. We’ve got to live with Fountain Creek for a very, very long time. Colorado Springs is doing a great job. Mayor Suthers is doing a great job. But we had a mayor before him [Steve Bach] that wasn’t doing a good job, and I don’t know if the mayor after John Suthers is going to do a good job.”
More coverage of the Colorado Springs stormwater enterprise from Pam Zubeck writing for the Colorado Springs Independent:
Starting July 2, billings for the city’s Stormwater Enterprise will be mailed to all Colorado Springs residents and property owners.
The charges were authorized by voters last November under a 20-year plan that would raise roughly $20 million a year. The fee revenue will free up general fund money Mayor John Suthers and City Council had previously committed to its 20-year, $460-million deal with Pueblo County for projects to reduce erosion and flooding along Fountain Creek and other waterways. That general fund money, in turn, will be used for other purposes, such as hiring more cops.
Since the November vote, the city has been working to set up billing procedures. Residential billings, including those for apartment dwellers, will be made by Colorado Springs Utilities, with one exception. Multi-family buildings that don’t have individual apartment water meters will be handled under nonresidential rates.
City CFO Charae McDaniel says water service connections will trigger the stormwater fee for residential properties. Residential fee payers who don’t pay the $5 charge on their utility bills will be subject to disconnect under standard Utilities policies, which require payment within 14 days of the billing date. Utilities spokesman Steve Berry wouldn’t say how long Utilities provides service for overdue accounts, but it assesses a $20 fee for disconnection. Reconnection costs $30 during normal business hours and $40 after hours.
If a residential customer refuses to pay the $5 fee, it rolls onto the next bill. If left unpaid for a period of time, accumulated fees could exceed the usage billings for water, sewer, electric and gas.
“That couldn’t continue in perpetuity,” Berry says. “They [customers] will then eventually go into arrears, and they would be eligible for disconnection. There’s a point it becomes untenable for the customer, and they would be held responsible, just as in nonpayment of any service we offer.” But, Berry notes, Utilities gives customers “plenty of opportunity” to pay bills prior to disconnection.
Nonresidential property owners of developed tracts up to 5 acres will be billed $30 per acre per month; if the land isn’t developed at all, no fee will be assessed. Owners of properties larger than 5 acres will be assessed $30 per acre per month on only those portions that are developed. Portions of those properties that remain in a natural state won’t be assessed a fee. Undeveloped land won’t pay any fee.
There are currently 1,005 parcels that are over 5 acres that will be charged a fee, city spokesperson Jamie Fabos says. McDaniel says when properties are developed, based on monthly reports from the El Paso County Assessor’s Office, they’ll be added to the stormwater fee rolls.
But Assessor Steve Schleiker says he changes a tract’s status only once a year, on Jan. 1, for tax purposes, and doesn’t generate a monthly report regarding development status; rather, those reports merely describe changes to property ownership.
Asked about that, Fabos says, “Although we will be receiving monthly updates from the assessor’s office that show current ownership, acreage, and use, each property will be determined as developed or undeveloped by aerial investigation and through additional GIS technologies.” She adds that updates to parcel status will be made every six months — meaning new, nonresidential construction might not be assessed the fees until six months after they’re built.
Nonresidential customers — which includes businesses, industry, churches, nonprofits and governments, including the city — won’t face disconnection of utility bills, because the city, not Utilities, will collect the fees. Nor will they be assessed late fees.
“We will be going through collection processes if they become delinquent on the nonresidential side,” McDaniel says, meaning a collection agency could be used. If the fees become 150 days past due, she says, “We will process a lien on the property and record that with El Paso County to be added to property taxes.” That procedure carries a cost of 10 percent of the bill.
Last fall, City Council President Richard Skorman said nonresidential billing information should be made public. Now, McDaniel says the City Attorney’s Office has said stormwater fees fall under the Colorado Open Records Act’s exemption for utility bills, so they’ll be kept confidential.
That means citizens, or the media, can’t check how much various tracts are being assessed in stormwater fees.
“It’s an issue I’d like to bring up,” Skorman says, “because I did make that promise, and I didn’t check with lawyers at the time, and I said, of course we would reveal it.”
One possible alternative, he says, would be for Council to direct an appointed stormwater fee advisory committee to analyze and monitor fees assessed to assure they’re applied fairly. “That’s something that we definitely want to put in place,” he says.
Moving forward, the fees can be raised by Council action, but only to satisfy a court order, comply with federal or state laws or permits, or fund the agreement with Pueblo County.