A Balanced Portfolio of Water Resources

Colorado Springs takes a multipronged approach to securing and conserving water.

A Balanced Portfolio of Water Resources

A Colorado Springs Utilities crew uses a RAMVAC HX12 hydroexcavator and a CAT 328D excavator to carefully uncover a leaking 36-inch transmission line serving customers in the Northgate and Briargate areas of the city. (Photography by Carl Scofield)

Like every municipal provider of water services, Colorado Springs (Colorado) Utilities walks a tightrope. Not falling off that slender platform is all about balancing the needs and wants of utility consumers.

Demand too much regulatory compliance in exchange for a fat fee and alienated customers will revolt. Provide too little guidance or water — even when charging a reasonable fee — and customers will be just as disgruntled. It comes down to managing expectations and knowing how much risk to take.

In Colorado Springs, that means facing the fact that the community is not water-rich. “I’m not sure anyone is water-rich in Colorado,” says Earl Wilkinson III, water services officer, the title given the senior administrative executive for the utility’s water division. “We are not water-challenged, but we have to do a lot more work to bring water into our system. There is a lot more thought put into how to get water to this location.”

Local officials have been working on it for a long time, dating to the second half of the 19th century when residents depended on wells and free-flowing ditches. “If you had a big tub and a strong back, you could lug home all the water you needed by scooping it out of the ditches that meandered through Colorado Springs,” a resident is quoted in a local history account. In 1992, voters established Colorado Springs Utilities as a separate municipal enterprise.

High and dry

Colorado Springs is the largest city in Colorado in terms of its footprint — approximately 200 square miles. The more meaningful statistic is that elevation in the city varies 1,000 feet. As a result, six water treatment plants are strategically placed to serve different elevations in the system. Wastewater lines have pumps to keep effluent moving up slopes to main connector lines.

City founders situated their community on this slope at the base of the Rocky Mountains because it offered an unimpeded view of Pikes Peak and other dramatic mountain profiles. Unfortunately, the fact that no major waterway intersects the acreage was not considered. The South Platte River flows northwest of it, the Arkansas River south and the Colorado River on the far side of the mountain range, leaving Colorado Springs high and more or less dry.

Consequently, the city draws from all three river basins, with up to 70% of its water originating in the Colorado River. Pipes and tunnels channel the water to the city from as far as 100 miles away. More than 250 miles of pipe up to 66 inches in diameter have been laid over the years and deliver the water to 25 reservoirs.

An upside to the story is that because the water comes from snowmelt, it is rather pristine. Originating from high-mountain snowpack, it is virtually uncontaminated and Colorado Springs residents are its first users. “First-source water from the mountains is extremely high quality,” Wilkinson says. “It is so good, in fact, it doesn’t meet our turbidity standards. It’s too clear.”

Water the utility pulls from rivers downstream of other communities is not as pristine, but that water is also comparatively free of contaminants. All of which means treatment costs are relatively low, according to Wilkinson. “Treatment of the water is very affordable, which partly offsets the transportation costs.”

It should be noted that the city does not drill for water. “Wells are not renewable water sources here in Colorado,” Wilkinson says. “Let me be clear: We are going to stay away from use of wells. We are not going to use well water for our standard use.”

Balanced portfolio

Colorado Springs Utilities pursues a balanced portfolio of other strategies to ensure the growing city of just under a half million people can continue to slake its thirst, launder its clothes and flush its toilets. Its 2017 Integrated Water Resources Plan references historic droughts and predecessor initiatives and also formulates forward-looking solutions to water worries. The plan includes various strategies:

• Developing Colorado River Basin waters is a central tenet. The 2017 plan envisions siphoning an additional 10,000 to 15,000 acre-feet per year from the Colorado River, for which the utility already has legal rights. Developing this supply is a hedge against an unprecedented 10-year drought, a scenario posed in the water resources plan. Both new pipelines and expansion of existing acquisition facilities are also possible. On the other hand, Wilkinson says planners must also consider their options if this source becomes unavailable.

• Increasing water storage has dual purposes. Reservoirs near the city can be quickly tapped as needed during peak demand times, while water-holding structures higher in the mountains can capture runoff during snowmelt season and hold it in reserve. Expanding both types of structures is a management hedge against shortfalls, but construction requires long-term planning.

“If you are doing a high-mountain reservoir project, the environmental review process can take five to seven years,” Wilkinson says. “Then a shorter building season in those areas can mean a construction period of three years.” As a policy matter, the utility has enough water stored at all times to sustain residents for one to 1 1/2 years. “Storage is a key factor for survival in any kind of drought situation in Colorado.”

• Reusing water has been a Colorado Springs water management tool since 1962 when a system for nonpotable water was launched. Nonpotable water is shunted into public and private systems for commercial use or irrigation. Wilkinson says the nonpotable water could be sprayed on residential lawns as well, if property owners were ready to accept it. “The only real problem is the delivery system itself is only so large. We would need capital improvements to get the nonpotable water to the homes.”

As part of a direct potable reuse pilot project, Colorado Springs Utilities is partnering with the Colorado School of Mines and local beverage producers to use reused water in bottled alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages “to show folks it is something we can do and to get rid of the negatives associated with wastewater reuse,” Wilkinson says. “We believe we can improve customer perceptions about reuse.”

• Managing customer demand for water is a key strategy because providing an acre-foot of water derived from conservation will cost the utility about $8,000, whereas the same amount of water procured and introduced into the system will cost $25,000. “Conservation is the cheapest way we can add to the pool of what we need in the future,” Wilkinson says.

Water use recommendations and rules are one tool. In addition, Colorado Springs landscape contractors and companies have collaborated with the utility to encourage residential and commercial property owners to plant flora appropriate for the semiarid region. “You can still have a beautiful landscape, but if you select the right kind of plant, you can also save water.”

Partnering with farmers and produce growers to share water is a new and innovative solution. Called “alternative transfer mechanisms,” or ATMs, the agreements divvy up a source of water in ways that can benefit both parties. Wilkinson cites the example of row crop farmers in the Arkansas River valley south of Colorado Springs. The proposed ATMs for the valley would leave the water rights with the owner of a property through which water flows. Instead of buying water rights, the municipal utility company would purchase the right to divert the water from time to time.

This might mean Colorado Springs would control the water three years out of 10 — a year at a time, perhaps — during which the city would supplement its water supply while the property owner would let the ground lay fallow or plant a crop not requiring irrigation. Plus, the landowner would receive guaranteed payment for the interruption. “These ATMs are still being negotiated, but if we can time it right, when farmers have an excess of water in a wet year, for instance, it will be a win-win for agriculture and the municipality.”

Trust and confidence

Some of these management tactics require mastery of hydrology and other technical matters, which Wilkinson, as a civil engineer and administrator, seems comfortable navigating. The rest of it is political — that is, winning the trust and confidence of fellow citizens. The water services officer seems adept at that, too.

“I’ve spent some time across the bed of a pickup talking to farmers,” he says of the negotiations with corn and alfalfa farmers and market produce growers in the Arkansas River valley. “Staff members have done the same. There has to be trust and collaboration. One of the difficulties is there really haven’t been any long-term ATMs before. It is new enough that on both sides we have to take a leap of faith. Building that kind of a relationship takes time. It’s a process.”

He says he hopes it will play out so that the economies of the valley and the city mutually benefit. “We have a lot of small restaurants here and their owners want to say they use produce from the Arkansas River valley or buy beef from the Arkansas River valley. At the end of the day, this is about so much more than water sharing.”

Clearly, Colorado Springs Utilities is balancing critical choices as it serves its customers — negotiating historic water agreements with neighboring communities, persuading water users to more stringently use their purchased water and overseeing dozens of reservoir and pipeline construction projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars. It is, as Wilkinson says, quite a process. 


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