Dangling money, the developers at Renewable Water Resources — which counts former Gov. Bill Owens as a principal — contend that because the urban Front Range is the richest part of the state, it has the potential to give the most to the poorest.
They envision pumping 22,000 acre-feet per year from 14 wells drilled 2,000 feet deep at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, building a pipeline costing $250 million to $600 million, and then pumping water at least 40 miles northward over Poncha Pass toward Front Range cities.
“We need between 300,000 acre-feet and 500,000 acre-feet of new water for the Front Range. The question is: Where’s that going to come from?” said Sean Tonner, managing partner of Renewable Water Resources.
“We can take it out of the Colorado River, but we know what the stresses are there. The Poudre River? The Arkansas? The South Platte is already the most over-appropriated river. Folks are looking at moving water from the Mississippi River back to Colorado,” he said. “These are the lengths people are looking to for adding water.”
Exporting San Luis Valley water would be “fairly easy” compared with other options, Tonner said…
The San Luis Valley retort? “There is no win-win,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and a farmer, who has been traveling statewide to make the case against this trans-basin diversion of water…
The intensifying water battle here reflects the rising tensions and inequities across the arid western United States, where water and control over water looms as a primary factor of power. Thirsty Castle Rock, Parker, Castle Pines and other south metro Denver suburbs, where household incomes top $110,000 and development has depleted the groundwater, can marshal assets that dwarf those of farmers in the San Luis Valley, where families’ average income is less than $35,000…
State officials in Denver say they will study Renewable Water Resources’ proposal once the developers file it at the state water court in Alamosa.
“We’ll have to have a perspective of being open to anything,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, declining to take a position…
A Renewable Water Resources diagram provided to The Denver Post presented details of a water-siphon project that would begin near Moffat on a company-owned ranch with 14 wells spaced 1 mile apart. A pipeline, 24 inches to 32 inches in diameter, would convey no more than 22,000 acre-feet of water per year northward at least 40 miles over Poncha Pass to Salida, and also to a point west of Fairplay, Tonner said.
San Luis Valley water then could be diverted into the Arkansas River, the Eleven Mile Reservoir used by Colorado Springs and the upper South Platte River that flows into a series of Denver Water reservoirs, he said.
The exported valley water purchased by south Denver suburbs ultimately would be stored in the newly enlarged Chatfield Reservoir southwest of Denver and Parker’s Rueter-Hess Reservoir, still barely half full. Suburban water users would pay the cost of the pipelines, Tonner said, and Renewable Water Resources would use $68 million raised from investors to purchase water rights in the valley — rights to pump 32,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation. But the developers would export no more than 22,000 acre-feet a year. The difference would mean a net gain for the aquifer…
At least 40 farmers have inquired about selling water rights, some of them meeting with former Gov. Owens and other Renewable Water Resources officials. Tonner also declined to identify those farmers…
The ethics of siphoning water away from low-income areas toward the richest parts of the state would have to be considered as part of the state’s water project planning process, said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“That is definitely something that has to be looked at. Is that the way we want to grow as a state? Is that what the value structure is?” Mitchell said. “There are cases where those (trans-basin diversions) can be win-win. But without the buy-in of the local community, there are going to be struggles.”
In recent months, Renewable Water Resources’ principals have been working quietly in the valley, meeting with farmers and proposing the creation of a $50 million “community fund” and possibly other payments. Just the annual interest income from such a fund could exceed Saguache County’s current budget, Tonner said.
By paying farmers for a portion of their water rights, Renewable Water Resources could help them stay on their land, perhaps growing different crops that require less water such as hemp, and infuse the valley with the $50 million and possibly other payments while also retiring wells to ensure a net gain of water in the aquifer.
Urban water broker builds $22 million reservoir to boost development and agricultural land
The desire to expand housing, commerce and other development around metro Denver and on arid high plains once deemed inhospitable has driven an innovative urban water broker to build a $22 million reservoir on a ranch 70 miles east of the city along the South Platte River.
Water siphoned from the river through a pipeline this summer has filled about a third of this 5,500-acre-foot — or 1.8-billion-gallon — 70 Ranch Reservoir. It’s the latest new storage in an expanding network of reservoirs that United Water and Sanitation District president and ranch owner Bob Lembke is installing to meet rising demands from Front Range suburbs hooked on dwindling groundwater.
The reservoir that Lembke built near his private 13,000-acre 70 Ranch, purchased in 2003, took three years to complete, the largest synthetically lined reservoir west of the Mississippi River. It reflects growing impatience with constraints that could limit development along Colorado’s booming Front Range.
Others in northeastern Colorado also are planning, and seeking funds, to build much larger reservoirs that, like this one, would capture South Platte water otherwise bound for Nebraska. Lembke has been able to avoid red tape — and has left critics asking questions — by working with wealthy water-poor suburbs, building on land he owns and using former gravel pits off the main channel of the river.
“We’d like to try to enhance the economic development. I’m a native. I grew up in Arapahoe County. As a native Coloradan, jobs for my kids, and eventually my grandkids, are important,” Lembke said in a recent interview in his headquarters suite at the Denver Tech Center.
“If you look at Denver, they’ve done a wonderful job planning for their water. But outside of the Denver service area? There’s a lot of challenges in how to get water and economic growth in these areas not served,” Lembke said…
“We have tens of thousands of acre-feet of water that, without storage, will leave the state — to no economic value here in Colorado. We can accommodate a great deal of quality growth. … I am a problem solver. I like to tackle difficult problems. Providing water increases the value of land that otherwise did not have water,” he said…
“Whether on the South Platte River, the Colorado River or the Yampa River, we’re not in favor of converting agricultural water use to municipal use,” said Andy Mueller, manager of the Colorado River District, which represents western Colorado communities.
The new 70 Ranch Reservoir northeast of Denver “brings up questions,” Mueller said. “Is it water to support new growth? Or is it water to support the existing population that is dependent on groundwater?”
The hedge fund investors purchasing land and water rights in western Colorado typically seek double-digit returns, Mueller said. “They believe there’s monetary value there for their investors. We’d say that’s speculation. How do we make sure there is not emerging speculation by outside investors who may not have community values? How do we help farmers and ranchers stay in business?”
Colorado leaders for decades have declined to regulate population growth and development. But the growing private interests in water, perhaps reviving the role private financiers played developing water systems in the 19th and early 20th centuries, has piqued concerns.
“Because traditionally in the West we have the mind-set that water is the property of the people, we are concerned when water is being controlled and distributed by a private corporation that may have very different interests from the collective group of people who are affected by the use of that water,” said Anne Castle, formerly the top federal water official in the Obama administration, now a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment.
For an urban water broker to buy agricultural land and install a reservoir “is all perfectly legal and allowable,” Castle said. “But it does make us nervous because we tend to think governmental entities will have some accountability to the people to recognize the different kinds of values people put on water. We just don’t have that assurance with a private corporation.”
Lembke in his role as president of United Water and Sanitation also serves as president of the Weld Adams Water Development Authority, which owns and operates the 70 Ranch Reservoir. He pointed out that these so-called special-use districts are governmental groups…
Denver-based water attorney David Robbins called Lembke “a very smart man. He is an entrepreneur. He is filling a niche.”
The 70 Ranch site also is used for experiments in drip irrigation, aimed at using water more efficiently to grow plants where otherwise vegetation might not survive…
Lembke now is installing other reservoirs — including two that he would own privately — as part of a network that when completed would store about 30,000 acre-feet for supplying water to suburbs, agriculture, industry and other development along Colorado’s Front Range.
He has built, or is in the process of building, four reservoirs upriver from the 70 Ranch at high-growth locations along the South Platte: in Milliken (12,000 acre-feet), between Commerce City and Brighton (3,500 acre-feet), east of Lochbuie (4,000 acre-feet) and in Fort Lupton (5,000 acre-feet).
These will supply businesses and housing developers in each booming area “to help them achieve their goals for economic growth and development” using surface water from the river rather than by pumping from over-tapped underground aquifers, Lembke said.
“Everything has got a finite limit,” he said. “But if we use water intelligently, we have the potential for long-term growth in this region.”
For two decades, hydrogeologist Lee Pivonka has monitored toxic waste at and around the Superfund site for Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
He’s one of the most prominent voices in the state calling for more scrutiny of the site.
Pivonka told Sentinel Colorado that pollution testing wells — not private wells for drinking — north of the Superfund site boundary were found to have unacceptably high levels of contamination as far back as 1995, when city councillors gave Murphy Creek the green light. Chemicals in many wells have never returned to acceptable levels, he said.
In 2002, EPA became concerned with a chemical called 1,4 dioxane. The stuff is widely found in trace amounts in household products such as detergents and shampoos. It is probably a carcinogen if ingested in high-enough concentrations through drinking contaminated water, the EPA says, but most people will not be exposed to it that way in their lifetimes. The New York state legislature recently passed a ban on products with more than trace amounts of 1,4 dioxane. The bill is pending Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature.
For Murphy Creek golfers teeing off and residents, the danger is low, the WSDs said.
Further to their point, it’s unheard of for golfers to drink the creek water. The course itself, like the Murphy Creek neighborhood, is irrigated with clean City of Aurora water.
But scientists have also monitored 1,4 dioxane because it moves quickly in water. They believe that tracking the chemical could indicate other toxic waste following it.
As the state government’s lead researcher for the site, Pivonka has watched for the last 20 years and conducted more evidence about the leaking waste. In 2015, he co-authored a lengthy analysis to try and spur new fixes.
That paper mapped underground chemicals spreading down the Murphy Creek wash past East Jewell Avenue, below the edge of the Murphy Creek Golf Course and the community itself.
The paper estimated that 425.6 million gallons of contaminated water has leaked from the site in the plume, according to data from about a decade earlier. It’s a worrisome prospect for homes near the plume and on well water, such as the Raders’.
In the paper, Pivonka recommended that the EPA and the polluters try something new. The EPA recently heeded his suggestion that EPA stop injecting huge amounts of treated water north of the site.
Water was treated for various chemicals except for 1,4 dioxane, and pumped north of the site until the early 2000s. The WSDs then began treating water for 1,4 dioxane and injecting that north of the site until October 2018.
But while Pivonka and others conduct their own studies, the EPA and polluters have relied on separate studies and often come to separate conclusions. The debate over how and when the pollution has spread is rooted in a parallel universe of research at the EPA.
That agency’s conclusions, however, are often based on research commissioned by the WSDs.
The WSDs told Sentinel Colorado that, based on their information and EPA conclusions, the plan for containing the waste is currently protecting the public.
Karen Crummy of public relations firm BluePrint Strategies responded to Sentinel Colorado as the WSD spokeswoman. Crummy is routinely a spokesperson for oil and gas industry political causes.
The group believes the plume exists but is shrinking, pointing to data from a commissioned 2018 study indicating decreases in 1,4 dioxane levels at various locations north of the site.
Dave Wilmoth, a City and County of Denver official and environmental engineer, recently toured the site. He is a site expert representing Denver in the WSD group…
Wilmoth said the plan in place is working effectively. The contamination north of the site is little more than trace amounts of 1,4 dioxane, he said, blaming the outdated practice of dumping water contaminated with the stuff beyond the site’s northern barrier wall.
“No regulations,” he said of 1,4 dioxane. “No one knew.”
But that was almost two decades ago.
EPA spokesperson Rich Mylott said the containment plan is “working effectively to prevent off-site exposure to contaminants.”
However, the EPA is not sure that shallow and deep groundwater is safe from contamination, and directed the WSDs to commission their own studies of possible contamination. Two years ago, the agency declined to say in a multi-year study and report whether the site was adequately protecting the public.
The possible contamination of aquifers is a huge concern for Pivonka and Rader.
Two aquifers, the Denver and Dawson, overlap just north of the site where the plume is contaminating surface waters. The Dawson formation lies above the Denver, a 3,000-square mile table of water, separated by a leaky barrier of earth.
Both are important sources of drinking water for the dry Front Range. Serious contamination would threaten a key resource that scientists believe will become more scarce in the decades to come.
The EPA also acknowledges the existence of the surface water plume in the review but said the WSDs need to conduct more studies before it creates a plan.
In the years since, the polluters’ group has been doing just that. They say they are working to get the additional data EPA needs to again find the site remedy “effective and protective.”
The WSDs said it could also consider new solutions, such as drilling new monitoring wells — in addition to the 500 that already exist — changing how they monitor the groundwater, and studying the impact of injecting water north of the site.
The prospect of polluters running their own studies for the EPA worries Bonnie Rader, who is now chairing the site Community Advisory Group.
The group has long received funds from the EPA to hire out its own, independent contractors to study the pollution.
She doesn’t trust the polluters nor the EPA to reach their own conclusions.
The CAG consultant, McGinnis and Associates, reviewed a polluter-funded study of the site in 2013. Rader sent the review to a lead scientist at the EPA, who analyzed the study line-by-line, finding inaccuracies and omissions. The errors include misrepresenting levels of 1,4 dioxane in test wells.
McGinnis also believes the plume is growing, not shrinking.
It’s emblematic of an information gap that strains relationships between the various consultants and agencies.
Different studies come to different conclusions, frustrating all parties involved. Technical disagreements can turn sharky in tone.
Generally, the EPA and polluters believe they should stay the course, while CDPHE and the citizen-hired McGinnis and Associates think more should be done to contain and clean up the waste.
The EPA and polluters can press ahead with their own plans, but area residents and their consultants are extremely concerned about the leaking waste and continue to pressure them.
In the 2017 review, EPA staffers conducted interviews with locals. “All private citizens interviewed are concerned about groundwater contamination and the use of private residential wells,” the report says.
The gulf between the parties has also widened because of little trust and bad communication.
Four years after his paper’s findings, Pivonka said the EPA and polluters “have not been receptive to the recommendations, and continue the same approach to the site.”
Rader is disillusioned with the WSDs and their studies. She said she’s been hearing the same old reassurances for the last 30 years while the waste spreads north, closer to her home.
The polluters’ trust disagrees with the notion that they have not listened to residents, Crummy said. She said WSD representatives regularly attend meetings with locals.
The mass of evidence, varying conclusions and convictions on all sides leaves residents with vague concerns at best but nightmares at worse about the situation actually harming people…
…the mere possibility of pollution has encouraged new, suburban residents to forge an alliance with Rader and other environmental crusaders. While a subdivision lies close to the spreading plume, they are vehemently opposed to a new plan to house thousands of new residents on its doorstep, for reasons of their own…
The Superfund site and its leaking waste was not news to [Nicole] Johnston, who represents the eastern frontier region of the city. She actually became involved in the CAG herself before running for city council, and was interviewed in the EPA’s 2017 review study that downgraded the protectiveness of the site.
She said that 1,4 dioxane may not even be her biggest concern, compared to other chemicals dumped in the Superfund site.
“They put some really, really bad things in there,” she said. “Those other, really bad chemicals could be right behind it.”
Johnston met with Rep. Jason Crow that April afternoon when he visited the plume.
She said that, although the plume concerns her very much, the possibility of two injection wells about five miles from the site could dramatically change the area’s geology.
The wells, proposed by Wyoming- and Denver-based Expedition Water Solutions, would flush mostly saltwater and other by-products from oil and gas extraction more than 10,000 feet below the surface.
Injection wells are known to cause earthquakes in some circumstances, according to the United States Geological Survey.
But the science that the Superfund site geology could be disrupted is far from certain.
Zach Neal, a spokesperson for EWS, said the proposed location was the only possible place for the injection wells because of county zoning restrictions.
He added that the wells would be safely built and regulated. EWS would inject the waste far deeper below the surface than the Denver and Dawson aquifers.
Arapahoe County officials told Sentinel Colorado that staff are still reviewing the applications, and the state government agency charged with reviewing proposals has not taken action since EWS filed its paperwork in February.
Arapahoe County Commissioner Jeff Baker represents the Superfund site area and the residents that live in the unincorporated county. He said he’s also worried about the injection well permits and will be scrutinizing them, he said.
But Baker said he is also open to considering whether the solution to keeping residents safe from the Lowry Landfill should still be trying to contain the waste. He’s open to discussing a plan to clean up the waste, once and for all.
It’s an idea that Bonnie Rader has clamored for during the last 50 years.
Centennial Water has been serving Highlands Ranch for more than three decades, with 90% of water coming from renewable river supplies, according to its website.
The local water district advocates for water efficiency throughout the year, but specifically collaborates with the Irrigation Association during July, Colorado’s warmest month.
Leading by example
Centennial Water follows a number of practices to ensure the community’s water supply is used wisely.
Those practices include utilizing high-efficiency rotary nozzles, which use 20% to 30% less water than traditional nozzles by slowly delivering multiple rotating streams instead of a fixed stream.
The water district also promotes a process called cycle and soak, which applies water in three, shorter cycles, allowing the water to seep into the soil, “promoting healthier plants and landscape and eliminating water runoff.”
Soil in Highlands Ranch has high clay content, meaning its water capacity is reached very quickly, sometimes as fast as five minutes, according to Thomas Riggle, Centennial Water’s water conservation and efficiency coordinator.
“Once soil reaches its water capacity, it can no longer hold water, which results in runoff,” Riggle said in the release. “Therefore watering for multiple, shorter periods of time is more effective and promotes healthier plants and soil.”
Centennial Water strives to educate community members on the history of water in Highlands Ranch and how to implement best water conservation practices. Schools, businesses and organizations can request a visit from a water ambassador or Centennial Water staff member at http://centennialwater.org/water-conservation/education-opportunities. The water expert will go over local water challenges and solutions.
Centennial Water offers a number of incentive programs that reward residents for their water conservation efforts.
Piloted in 2018, the turf replacement program offers a rebate of $1 per square foot —with a $1,000 maximum — to residents who replace water-intensive plants, such as Kentucky Bluegrass, with xeric or drought-tolerant vegetation, such as bee balm, aster, coneflower, sunflower and marigold. Replacement with artificial turf or hardscape may be accepted but require further approval, according to Centennial Water.
Another program piloted in 2018 is the high-efficiency nozzle retrofit program. Residents may receive $1 for each traditional, fixed spray nozzle they replace with a rotary nozzle, which fits on most popup sprinkler heads.
The document says the county’s current water supply is about 146,000 acre-feet per year, but demand is expected to increase to about 160,000 acre-feet per year by 2040 and 206,000 acre-feet per year by 2060…
The plan, prepared by Englewood-based engineering firm Forsgren Associates Inc., makes a variety of recommendations for closing the gap, including monitoring groundwater well levels, exploring ways to reuse water, finding new water sources and considering changes to the county’s land use approval process.
The county is home to more than 21,300 permitted groundwater wells and roughly 70 water providers, from small districts to municipal departments, according to the plan.
Water providers in once rural parts of the county, such as Monument, face mounting concerns about how to ensure that residents have enough water as the population continues to rise.
The primary water source for areas that are not served by Colorado Springs Utilities is the Denver Basin. Experts say it’s hard to pinpoint the rate at which water levels are falling in the system of aquifers, which were filled by precipitation over many years.
By 2060, the county’s current annual supply would be enough to serve a little more than half of the projected population, according to the plan. More residents could potentially be served by Denver Basin groundwater, but only if it’s still economical to pump, the plan states.
Per state law, county commissioners generally decide if there’s sufficient water to serve a new development during final platting, the stage of the land use approval process in which lots are created, said Mark Gebhart, deputy director of the county Planning and Community Development Department.
But the plan suggests that the county consider changing its rules so that determination can be made earlier, such as when a preliminary plan or zoning change is approved, to help ensure that new developments are planned with water supply in mind.
The plan also recommends that the county re-evaluate a subdivision regulation that requires developers to prove that they have a 300 years’ supply of water. The requirement, three times as stringent as a state standard that requires proof of 100 years’ supply, could be waived if developers agree to conservation-minded practices, such as reuse of captured wastewater to offset demands, the plan suggests…
The plan also advises that the county encourage water providers to find more reliable water sources that are replenished regularly by precipitation, rather than deep groundwater sources that are slow to recharge. One possibility might be importing water from the Arkansas River, the plan states.
Click here to go to Water Education Colorado (Rachel Champion) and read the whole interview. Here’s an excerpt:
Lisa Darling, Water Education Colorado’s trusted board president, has years of experience working with water reuse—we sat down with her to learn more. Lisa works as executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority (SMWSA), an organization that formed in 2004 when rapidly-growing south metro communities reliant on declining non-renewable groundwater realized they had to shift their water portfolios if they were to be sustainable. Now SMWSA relies on the Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency Partnership (WISE) between Denver Water, Aurora Water, and 13 SMWSA members, reusing water from Aurora’s Prairie Waters Project—which Lisa worked on for Aurora before moving to SMWSA in 2017. An excerpt of the interview is available in the fall 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine, but you can follow along with the full interview here!
For years, Castle Rock Water has made providing long term, renewable water a priority. Now, a major milestone has been reached and the first drops of WISE water are headed to Town. Join the celebration to help commemorate this accomplishment and take a look at what’s coming up next for water in Castle Rock.
The fun-filled family celebration will be from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 8. Bring the kids, sunscreen and a great attitude to Gemstone Park, 6148 Sapphire Pointe Blvd., to join the festivities and celebrate the WISE water partnership.
After stakeholders officially cut the ribbon, the community is invited for a festival full of games, food trucks, bump soccer, bounce houses, a foam party, giant bubbles, water colors and more. Plus, get a chance to meet the Most Hydrated Man in Castle Rock.
The celebration will help mark more than 9 years of planning and $50 million in infrastructure to help ensure the community’s strong water future. When the WISE partnership was created, many communities in Colorado were faced with a drought. With limited, non-renewable resources, communities knew they needed to come up with a plan. Regional water providers saw the opportunity to partner in a solution and share in the expense to buy, transport and treat renewable water.
The WISE partnership is an arrangement between Denver Water, Aurora Water and 10 other south metro water providers to import renewable water. Castle Rock is the southernmost community partner.
Castle Rock Water finished the last piece of infrastructure – connecting a pipeline from Outter Marker Road to Ray Waterman Treatment Plant – in late 2017. The first drops of imported WISE water came to Town in late April.