Diane Carman’s opinion column this morning touches on the cost of moving sustainability and resilience forward in Denver Suburb:
For decades, we’ve heard that a reckoning was coming.
Climate change would threaten our fundamental way of life in the West. After years of neglect, essential parts of our infrastructure would fail. The bills for the costs of maintaining our essential services — kicked willy-nilly down the road to a murky unidentified date in the future — would come due.
We ignored it all, blithely turning up the air conditioning, watering our lawns and tuning out the scientists, the engineers, the city managers.
Now that reckoning has arrived.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks in Westminster. They can tell you all about the connections between climate change, infrastructure and money.
The first signs of reckoning there came in 2018.
Officials from Westminster’s water and sewer departments began warning that the 50-year-old facilities were worn out.
The storage tanks for the city’s water, the pipes and pumps delivering it, and the sewage treatment systems were shot. Concrete was flaking away, pipes deteriorating, pumps becoming unreliable.
The city council looked at the mountain of evidence and made the only responsible choice: it voted to upgrade the system.
To pay for it, the council also voted to raise the rates for water and sewer customers and, since the cost of the projects was estimated in the tens of millions, the increased fees were significant, especially for high users.
When the summer of 2020 came and the thermometer hit 90 or above for a record-setting 75 days, the good folks of Westminster sprinkled their lawns like they always had (maybe not blithely but still …) and the resulting water bills blew their minds.
Still in deep denial of reality, a group of Westminster activists mobilized as Water Warriors to recall several city council members for their failure to kick the problems down the road once more.
The effort was an expensive bust, with the recall of only one council member, Jon Voelz, making it onto the ballot, only to fail spectacularly in the special election last week.
But this war is far from over.
Several Westminster council members will face re-election in November and surely water rates will be an issue. Those who routinely flood their lawns with 20,000 gallons or more each month and pay the highest rates are not about to give up the fight for their right to Kentucky Bluegrass — drought and system failures be damned.
But Westminster is hardly unique. In fact, it’s really Everytown, USA. Its water war is a mere skirmish in the seething national debate about how to face the reckoning now upon us.
The facts are indisputable.
After years of drought in the West, reservoirs, water tables and rivers are at historic lows.
California is forced to forced to choose between leaving enough water in the streams so that salmon can survive and drawing enough to grow crops. Ranchers across the West are reducing their stocks as it becomes more apparent that they won’t be able to feed them. Customers who rely on hydroelectric power face shortages as water levels drop and heat waves stretch even into Canada. Fishermen have been asked to abide by a voluntary ban on angling in the mighty Colorado River.
At the same time, critical infrastructure from bridges and highways to the antiquated electric grid have been left to degrade for most of a century, risking public health and safety for lack of political will.
The backlog of delayed infrastructure projects in Colorado alone is huge: $10 billion for safe drinking water, $9 billion for transportation, $4 billion for wastewater systems … the list goes on.
But while nobody would say the Westminster water wars have been easy (or cheap), the outcome so far is cause for mild optimism.
Mayor Anita Seitz has listened to constituents’ concerns both about the condition of the water system and the painful rate increases and has chosen not to duck the issue for mere political expedience. Instead, she and other council members are working to help the community understand the problem and what the future holds.
Acres of green lawns, long a symbol of abundance, now represent reckless profligacy. Failure to address the crumbling infrastructure can only bring more serious and expensive problems down the road. An unwillingness to fix the problems now will only cost the community more in the future.
“Every single member of council swears an oath to our charter. And our charter dictates that we need to set rates of our utility to meet the operating needs of that utility,” Seitz said. There’s not much “wiggle room.”
She’s right. Whatever wiggle room we had to address climate change and meet our infrastructure needs is long gone.
In this summer of heat domes, wildfires, droughts, floods and structural failures, that message should be loud, clear and irrefutable.
Take it from the folks in Westminster, it’s time for action.
It’s time for political courage.
2 thoughts on “Opinion: #Westminster residents are in a #water war, and they can tell you all about the connections between climate change, infrastructure and money — The #Colorado Sun #ActOnClimate”
When I read Diane Carman’s call for political courage in her July 25th “In the war on reality, Westminster, Colorado, is Everytown, USA” I decided to come to her assistance. I interpreted her call for political courage as being able to see what the “facts” of a situation are and not what any observer wishes to see. We cannot have different facts. Those facts must speak for themselves.
Her reference to “tuning out scientists, the engineers, the city managers” needs to remember that the language of science is mathematics. If you can’t do math, you can’t do science. The mathematics of Westminster water rates tell a far different story that does the prose of Mayor Seitz. Ms. Carman should have asked Mayor Seitz about the specifics of Westminster instead of relying on a wider Colorado and Western US story of infrastructure projects delayed or left to degrade
In the summer of 2018 contrary to alarmists cries of the engineers and city managers the sewer system had not, over the preceding 10 years, increased in flow 40%. Sewer system overflow threat prompts Westminster City Council to ban new development for 12 months (denverpost.com). According to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) of 2017, sewer flows had increased 5%. Page 157, flows are shown as being 2,460 million gallons in 2017 versus 2,345 in 2008 (10 years) City of Westminster – 2017 CAFR.docx . The 2020 CAFR shows flows 2.382 million gallons, a decrease. The claims, told to the public in 2018 were misleading, false and not science.
In 2018 there was a lot of cash and cash equivalents in the water/sewer fund to immediately act on any need: the CAFR 2017, page 26, states there was $105 million in addition to the $29 million in restricted cash. Today according to the 2020 CAFR City of Westminster – 2020 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report there is $129 million in cash and cash equivalents with $48 million more in restricted cash in the water fund.
Where Mayor Seitz and Ms. Carman see green lawns as “reckless profligacy” I see the legacy that previous councils secured to ensure Westminster residents could always have a green oasis on the Colorado high plains. But those visions are not science, they are what we wish to see. Visions are not loud, clear or irrefutable.
There is a far darker side to the water diet that Ms. Seitz wishes to force on Westminster. A tiered water rate structure will reduce water consumption. It is the excess water gained by the reduction in use that Mayor Seitz wishes to give the 38,000 more people (about 1/3rd more) she wants to crowd into Westminster Westminster draft sustainability plan runs the gamut | Westminsterwindow.com. Because there is no water on the Colorado Front Range to buy, Mayor Seitz is working for developers to take water from existing users under the guise of conservation rather than the greed it is.
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