#COWaterPlan: Dwindling water options, high growth at odds in Douglas County — The Colorado Springs Gazette

Denver Basin aquifer system
Denver Basin aquifer system

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

The rolling grasslands of western Douglas County might look like prime Front Range real estate. But beyond the beauty of the nearby foothills, there is a deeply buried problem with the land: Water is hard to come by.

Technically, there is some water in the shallow aquifers that lie beneath the western prairies, the next frontier of Douglas County’s growth. But decades ago, wells in the area started going dry or pumping muddy water into faucets. The Denver Basin aquifer, the historic provider of water for Douglas, is a finite resource that can’t sustain the growth that the county has planned for the next 20 years and beyond. When wells are drilled, they are poor producers and easily overwhelmed by daily tasks – such as fueling showers, running dishwashers and watering lawns.

“All the free water, the cheap water, is starting to go away,” said Larry Moore, the general manager of the Roxborough Park Water and Sanitation District, which runs area’s main water treatment facility. “All you’ve got to do is pump it up.”

But when water no longer pumps up, water districts and homeowners in Douglas must find an alternative. Once considered one of the fastest growing counties in the country, Douglas County’s growth has already outpaced its water resources.

The county’s water crisis has been unfolding for decades, but recently it has taken aggressive and unprecedented steps to try and reverse its fate. The county commissioners have set a goal to wean county residents off the Denver aquifer, an ancient water source that is rapidly declining.

Seven years ago the county hired Tim Murrell as its water resources planner to help engineer ways for residents to abandon their wells and join water districts that get their water from the mountains. As a water planner working for a county that doesn’t provide water service, Murrell’s job is unique.

“I am the only one of (my) type in the state who was hired by the county to look at water issues,” said Murrell, who previously helped New Mexico compile a state water plan.

Murrell’s task is to get rural communities to use what he calls “renewable water” – water that does not come from the area’s limited aquifer, but from reservoirs and rivers naturally refilled annually by snowpack.

While Murrell’s county role might be unique, his outlook is one of increasing popularity in Colorado, a state in the midst of creating its first statewide water plan. Due this December to Gov. John Hickenlooper, the water plan will identify Colorado’s future water shortages and suggest ways to bring more water to rapidly growing communities both east and west of the Great Divide. Critics of the plan have said that it offers many problems but few solutions, although the plan’s advocates say that is has begun a difficult and invaluable conversation about water. Public comment on the second draft of the plan closes on Sept. 17.

Thirty years ago, El Paso County was one of the few counties in the state that required proof of water before development plans are approved, said Mark Gebhart, deputy director of El Paso County Development Services. The circa-1986 ordinance requires all developments with lots 35 acres and under to have enough water for 300 years, three times the state requirement. That requirement has only been waived in rare cases when a district had other conservation measures in place.

But as in Douglas County, there are areas in El Paso that were settled years before water conservation and planning were mandatory, Gebhart added.

“They have never had to prove to anyone that they have water, and some of those properties in the southern part of the county, they don’t have water,” he said.

Nonetheless, El Paso County hasn’t seen a massive loss in groundwater, unlike those counties south and west of Denver.

“The highest areas of water level declines have been in Douglas and Jefferson counties,” said Gebhart. “Hundreds of vertical feet of water decline.”

Water becoming scarce

In Douglas County, lack of water has become a barrier to development and growth. While the county’s picturesque westside offers acres of open land, the farther west development pushes, the harder it is to find water.

The geology of the Denver basin means that western aquifers are shallower and less plentiful – wells have to be drilled deeper and at greater expense. For years, dry or poor quality wells were a well-known problem that became more noticeable as development spread. Sometimes businesses in the area go days without water, said Murrell.

One western subdivision, Plum Valley Heights, had been struggling for years to get its 29 homes off wells before they went dry. The community became one of the county’s first major successes of water planning, thanks to some luck, a 2014 ballot measure and millions of dollars of county money. The neighborhood also benefited from a new mindset, shared by the Douglas County commissioners, that the county’s water future was partly in their hands.

“The commissioners had never taken an active role on this in past,” said Commissioner Jill Repella. “If any community goes dry, who are they going to come to? They are going to come to the commissioners.”

It didn’t take long for Jack McCormick to discover that his well in Plum Valley Heights was no good. McCormick and his wife bought a house in the subdivision in 1986, and a couple of years later, McCormick suddenly realized what it meant to live with little water on Douglas County’s westside.

“I was out filling my horse tanks one morning and my wife was in the shower and the shower went dry,” McCormick recalled. “And I kept filling my horse tank.”

The episode began decades of wrangling to get more water for the subdivision, where McCormick became accustomed to not running multiple water appliances at once or having his water supply run out before the lawn was fully watered. Although his well had been tested when he bought the home, McCormick learned that there was much more going on underground than he had realized.

The Denver aquifer has four layers, each essentially an underground storage container for water. The basin stretches from southern Weld County to northern El Paso County, west to Jefferson County and as far east as Lincoln County. The water is coveted for its accessibility and high quality – unlike water that comes from the mountains, Denver aquifer water doesn’t require as much treatment to make it drinkable, Murrell said. The water is also irreplaceable: once it has been used up, there is no way to refill it.

By contrast, most water sources in El Paso County are considered renewable – such as the Widefield aquifer, which is refilled by stream flow, said Gebhart. Districts like Woodmoor Water and Sanitation, which rely primarily on non-renewable aquifers like the Denver basin, have purchased other water rights to make up for the loss, Gebhart said.

The Denver Basin aquifer remains is ideal for residents in central Douglas County, but simple differences in geology make accessing aquifer water close to the mountains nearly impossible.

As various layers of bedrock jut out of the land forming rock outcroppings and hills, a layer of the aquifer is lost. What layers that are left underground can be hard to reach and have unreliable water quality.

When he bought a house in Plum Valley Heights, McCormick knew nothing about wells, water and the aquifer. He came from Indiana, where his well was productive at only 75 feet deep. But in the Denver basin in Douglas, wells are drilled hundreds or thousands of feet down and can cost up to $1 million, said Moore. As a reminder that west Douglas water is not reliable, Moore keeps a jug of it in his office.

“It’s almost like red clay mud,” said Moore of the water in the jug. “That’s what they are pulling out is water and mud. The water is not very clear at all.”

Moore’s Roxborough district resolved the problem of poor well water nearly 40 years ago, when developers discovered that there wasn’t enough groundwater to sustain a subdivision. The district bought an old concrete water treatment plant from the city of Aurora and with it 50 years of water, which Aurora shuttled from the mountains in a massive underground pipe. But when Moore started with the district in 1989, the eventual expiration of the water contract loomed.

“That’s been my career goal, to figure out a water supply,” he said.

At the forefront in water planning

Driving along U.S. 85 west in Castle Rock last week, Murrell pointed out many “for sale” signs and small businesses in an industrial park – all competitors for limited resources. He also pointed to a vast expanse of empty grassland, adorned only with a few signs for Sterling Ranch, a subdivision of more than 12,000 homes approved in 2011 after years of hearings and wrangling over water. According to a county ordinance passed in 1999, Sterling Ranch has to have 100 percent renewable water, which means it won’t be relying on the Denver aquifer.

With such a big development on the horizon, big changes in water use will make Douglas County a forerunner when it comes to managing water.

“It has very often been at the forefront of trying to plan this out,” said Gebhart, of Douglas County’s approach to water planning.

In November 2014, after more than two decades of struggles to get a better water source for Plum Valley Heights, the neighborhood voted overwhelmingly to join the Roxborough district, which secured a new 90-year water contract with Aurora for $26 million. The new deal with Aurora brought 50 extra taps to Roxborough, which it offered to other westside businesses and residences, including Plum Valley Heights, which had dry wells.

After using the same crumbling water treatment facility since 1958, as of late summer Roxborough had started work on a new $32 million facility, half of which will be covered by Sterling Ranch, said Moore. The new water treatment plant will be finished in roughly two years, and be one of the first in the state to use ultraviolet technology for its primary form of water treatment, instead of relying on chemicals, Moore added.

But the Douglas County commissioners also took a bold step to help fund some of the much-needed changes in the region, said Murrell. It will cost $15 million to plug Plum Valley Heights in Roxborough’s system, $5 million of which was paid for with county money. The money will be eventually paid back in tap fees, said Murrell. Pitching in the money was a “no-brainer” for the commissioners said Repella, who added that a lack of water could have had a ripple effect on the rest of the county’s land value.

This year, the county has focused on participating in a multi-million dollar project known as the Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency partnership, which links the Denver metro areas to system of recycled and unused water. If all goes as planned, the project will bring more water to communities like Douglas County, as it works to abandon its reliance on groundwater.

“We had a new realization that the county has a responsibility to be proactive to make sure that residents are moving in the right direction,” said Repella. “To take a step back and brush your hands and say, ‘Okay everybody, you are on your own now,’ that’s not responsible.”

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable ponies up $10,000 for WISE project


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

It didn’t quite amount to paying northern cities to stay out of the Arkansas River basin…but it could help.

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable Wednesday agreed to chip in $10,000 to a multimillion-dollar project by the Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency partnership, but only if Aurora promises not to use it to create an artificial trigger for more leases from the Arkansas River basin.

The money is just a show of support for a $6.4 million component that would get the right mix of water into a pipeline that connects Aurora’s $800 million Prairie Waters Project with a $120 million pipeline south of Denver to meet the future needs of 14 water providers who are members of the South Metro Water Authority.

Seven of the state’s nine roundtables, including the Colorado River basin, have contributed $85,000 to the project. Two roundtables are set to act on requests for $20,000 in the next two months, and another $800,000 is being sought from a state fund. WISE is ponying up $5.5 million.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board will be asked to approve the grants in September.

WISE would deliver up to 10,000 acre-feet annually of reused water primarily brought into the South Platte River basin by Denver and Aurora. Its backbone would be nearly $1 billion in existing infrastructure.

The $6.4 million would be for a treatment plant that would blend Prairie Waters and well water in the East Cherry Creek Village pipeline. That would relieve demand on Denver Aquifer groundwater and the need for cities to buy farm water — including Arkansas Valley water — said Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro group.

“In the big scheme of things, this is important because it meets a need in a big gap area,” Hecox said.

The proposal caused unease for water conservancy districts which have agreements with Aurora, however.

“The city of Aurora transfers water out of the Arkansas basin,” said Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District. “This project increases demand on Aurora’s supplies. I’m not OK with this unless there is some sort of amendment that says if (a storage shortfall) is triggered, they won’t come back into the basin.”

Aurora signed agreements with the Upper Ark, Southeastern and Lower Ark districts over the past 12 years that limit new leases from the Arkansas Valley. There are numerous requirements of how Aurora uses and stores water that factor into a complex equation.

The roundtable agreed that the benefits of reducing demand on the Denver Basin aquifer in northern El Paso County would help the Arkansas Valley. The WISE project would also slow, but not necessarily stop, future water raids in the Arkansas Valley.

Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Ark district, asked Hecox about South Metro’s 2006 master plan that included future Arkansas River projects as options. Hecox said a new master plan is being developed that does not contain those projects.

“So you can come into the Arkansas basin?” Winner asked.

“Legally, yes,” Hecox replied. “But we have no plans to.”

In the end, the roundtable endorsed the $10,000 token support, but only on the condition that Aurora formally assures the three districts and the roundtable that WISE won’t be used as an excuse to take more Arkansas River water.

More WISE project coverage here.

Colorado’s Water Plan and WISE water infrastructure — The Denver Post

WISE System Map September 11, 2014
WISE System Map September 11, 2014

From The Denver Post (James Eklund/Eric Hecox):

The Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency (WISE) project is a partnership among Aurora Water, Denver Water and the South Metro Water Supply Authority to combine available water supplies and system capacities to create a sustainable new water supply. Aurora and Denver will provide fully treated water to South Metro Water on a permanent basis. WISE also will enable Denver Water to access its supplies during periods when it needs to.

All of this will be accomplished while allowing Aurora to continue to meet its customers’ current and future needs.

Aurora’s Prairie Waters system will provide the backbone for delivering water from the South Platte when Aurora and Denver Water have available water supplies and capacity. The water will be distributed to the South Metro Denver communities through an existing pipeline shared with Denver and East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District, and new infrastructure that will be constructed over the next 16 months…

WISE is a key element to this plan. With construction agreements in place, we will break ground in coming weeks to begin connecting water systems throughout the Denver Metro area. When WISE begins delivering water in 2016:

• The South Denver Metro area will receive a significant new renewable water supply;

• Denver will receive a new backup water supply;

• Aurora will receive funding from partners to help offset its Prairie Waters Project costs and stabilize water rates; and

• The Western Slope will receive new funding, managed by the River District, for water supply, watershed and water quality projects.

More WISE Project coverage here.

2015 Colorado legislation: SB15-010 passes out of Senate Ag Committee

Denver Basin aquifer system
Denver Basin aquifer system

Douglas County joins WISE project


From the Parker Chronicle (Mike DiFerdinando):

The Douglas County commissioners took an important step in helping secure the county’s water future at their regular meeting on Aug. 26.

By joining in on the South Metro Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency (WISE) Authority’s agreement with Denver Water and Aurora Water, the county will be the recipient of 2,775 acre-feet of water per year for a 10-year period, starting in 2016…

The South Metro WISE Authority is made up of 10 water providers that are all part of the larger South Metro Water Supply Authority. Nine of those water providers — Centennial, Cottonwood, Dominion, Inverness, Meridian, Parker, Pinery, Stonegate Village and Castle Rock — are located in Douglas County. The 10th, Rangeview Metropolitan District, is located in Aurora.

“This region has been working hard for a very long time to bring renewable water supplies into the area,” SMWSA Executive Director Eric Hecox said. “We have a legacy of developing non-renewable groundwater and the effort for many years has been to transition our current population off of groundwater as well as to provide water for future economic development, and I think this project achieves that.”

The WISE project began in 2008 as a way for members to identify processes, cost, distribution, timing, storage and legal issues relating to distributing treated reusable water return flows from Denver and Aurora for use by SMWSA water users.

The group tasked with utilizing this water is the South Metro WISE Authority. The primary purpose of the authority is to reduce members’ dependence on non-renewable Denver Basin wells and provide reliable long-term water supply for residents.

“While we often refer to the Denver Basin aquifers in a negative way, they do provide an extremely important drought reserve,” Douglas County Water Resource Planner Tim Murrell said. “By reducing Denver Basin well pumping to a secondary source rather than a sole supply, the basin can continue to be a valuable asset in times of drought.”

In 2013, Aurora, Denver and the South Metro WISE Authority finalized the water delivery agreement. As part of the deal, 100,000 acre-feet of water will go to the authority’s providers over a 10-year period.

At the time of the agreement, the authority members were only able to agree on 7,225 acre-feet per year. This left 2,775 acre-feet per year that would be lost if not claimed. Douglas County has been working with the authority members over the last year to reserve the 2,775 acre-feet per year supply for the county.

The WISE members are funding new infrastructure that will move the water from Aurora’s Binney Water Purification Facility to its end locations, beginning in 2016. Water purchased by the county, as well as by some of the other providers, will be stored at the Rueter-Hess Reservoir south of Parker.

The county will pay a $97,125 annual reservation fee through 2020; 2,000 acre-feet of water per year will be available for use and purchase by WISE members, and 775 acre-feet will be available for use and purchase by non-members.

More WISE project coverage here.

Water Lines: Colorado needs a better water plan — Jim Pokrandt #ColoradoRiver #COWaterPlan

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Jim Pokrandt):

It’s almost time for football training camps, so here’s a gridiron analogy for Colorado River water policy watchers: Western Colorado is defending two end zones. One is the Colorado River. The other is agriculture. The West Slope team has to make a big defensive play. If water planning errs on the side of overdeveloping the Colorado River, the river loses, the West Slope economy loses and West Slope agriculture could be on the way out.

This is how the Colorado River Basin Roundtable is viewing its contribution to the Colorado Water Plan ordered up by Gov. John Hickenlooper. A draft plan will be submitted this December and a final plan in December 2015. The Roundtable is assessing local water supply needs and environmental concerns for inclusion into the plan and there is plenty of work to consider in the region. But the big play may very well be the keeping of powerful forces from scoring on our two goal lines.

Here’s why: Colorado’s population is slated to double by 2050. Most of it will be on the Front Range, but our region is growing too. Mother Nature is not making any new water. We still depend on the same hydrological cycle that goes back to Day 1. So where is the “new” water going to come from? Right now, there seems to be two top targets, the Colorado River and agriculture (where 85 percent of state water use lies in irrigated fields). Colorado needs a better plan.

The Colorado Basin Roundtable represents Mesa, Garfield, Summit, Eagle, Grand and Pitkin counties. This region already sends between 450,000 and 600,000 acre feet of water annually across the Continental Divide through transmountain diversions (TMDs) to support the Front Range and the Arkansas River Basin.

That water is 100 percent gone. There are no return flows, such as there are with West Slope water users. On top of that, this region could see another 140,000 acre feet go east. A number of Roundtable constituents have long-standing or prospective agreements with Front Range interests wrapped around smaller TMDs. Existing infrastructure can still take some more water. That’s the scorecard right now. We assert another big TMD threatens streamflows and thus the recreational and agricultural economies that define Western Colorado, not to mention the environment.

In the bigger picture, the Colorado River Compact of 1922 requires Colorado to bypass about 70 percent of the river system to the state line to comply with legal limits on depletions so six other states can have their legal share of the water. Failure to do so, by overdeveloping the river, threatens compact curtailments and chaos nobody wants to see. For one thing, that kind of bad water planning could result in a rush to buy or condemn West Slope agricultural water rights.

The Roundtable has heard these concerns loudly and clearly from its own members across the six counties as well as from citizens who have given voice to our section of the water plan, known as the Basin Implementation Plan (BIP). A draft of the BIP can be viewed and comments offered by going online to http://coloradobip.sgm‐inc.com/. It is under the “Resources” tab.

Jim Pokrandt is Colorado Basin Roundtable Chair.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

South Platte and Metro roundtables #COWaterPlan update

Basin roundtable boundaries
Basin roundtable boundaries

From The Fort Morgan Times (Marianne Goodland):

The Colorado Water Plan draws upon a decade of work by the state’s eight basin roundtables, the Interbasin Compact Committee and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). It also incorporates information from the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative, which predicted the state will have a gap between water supply and demand of about 500,000 acre feet of water by 2050, with the largest gap projected for the South Platte River Basin.

During the past year, the basin roundtables and the CWCB have held dozens of town meetings on the water plan, seeking input from citizens and organizations interested in the state’s water future. Those meetings wrapped up in April, and then the basin roundtable members went to work to develop their basin implementation plans (BIPS), that will be submitted to the CWCB at the end of July. Those plans will be incorporated into the draft Colorado Water Plan, which is due to the Governor at the end of the year. The plan is to be finalized by December, 2015.

In addition to the basin implementation plans, the state water plan will include a “framework” document that outlines the issues to be addressed. The CWCB has already released eight draft chapters of this framework document this year, with four coming out in the last month. The most recent drafts covered water quality, conservation and re-use, and alternative agriculture to urban transfers. The drafts will be updated based on input from the BIPs.

The draft on agricultural transfers focused on alternative agricultural transfer methods (ATMS) and current efforts to develop more creative solutions to “buy and dry.” The draft noted several ATMs are already in place and more are on the way. These include deficit irrigation, water co-ops, water banks, water conservation easements; and flexible water markets, which was proposed in the 2014 legislative session but failed to clear the Senate. Another ATM, farrowing-leasing, which would allow for farrowing of irrigated farmland with temporary leasing of water to municipalities, is being studied under legislation passed in 2013.

More than 1,000 emails and documents have come in to the CWCB, addressing the draft chapters. Almost half of the responses came from stakeholders in the South Platte River and Metro Denver districts.

Most of the comments received by the CWCB have come either through emails to cowaterplan@state.co.us or through a webform on the water plan website, coloradowaterplan.com. CWCB staff responded to all of the comments, even those that might not be financially or technically feasible. One such comment said the state should cover its reservoirs with a thin membrane “similar to bubble wrap” to slow evaporation. Another suggested that the state halt all housing development along the Front Range.

A handful of comments addressed agricultural use, including responses that encourage more efficient irrigation systems and pointing out that agriculture is far and away the biggest user of water. But one commenter suggested a new form of “buy and dry.” Kristen Martinez of Metropolitan State University of Denver said the city of Denver could pay for businesses and residents to xeriscape their lawns, similar to a plan implemented by the city of Las Vegas. She also recommended the city of Denver invest in more efficient irrigation systems for farmers, as a trade-off for buying up agricultural water rights.

“…agriculture stands as the biggest water user, but farmers should not be the only ones to feel the pain of supply and demand,” Martinez wrote. “Most Denverites don’t give heed to the serious task of stewarding their water — not as a farmer must. Why aren’t local industries or municipal users being asked to sacrifice their lifestyle or adjust their operations?…can Colorado’s water plan please ask urban users to take ownership of their consumption, in addition to solving it by diverting farm water?”

Sean Cronin, director of the St. Vrain & Left Hand Water Conservancy District, chairs the South Platte River Basin roundtable, and pointed out that the South Platte and Metro Denver basin are collaborating on a joint BIP.

Cronin noted that although they are submitting a joint BIP, the two districts are quite diverse and one size will not fit all. “Water is very local!” he said recently. Feedback in the town meetings has been very different throughout the two districts. In Sterling, for example, he said the focus was on agriculture. In Longmont, people spoke about groundwater because of the well issues in the area. Denver’s focus was more on municipal conservation and recreational/environmental concerns.

So how will the two roundtables come up with one BIP, given the divergent views? Cronin said that they knew going into the process it would be difficult to address all of the different interests and cultures surrounding water. “It’s incredibly challenging to par it down to one solution that will make everyone happy,” he said. Cronin believes the draft BIP will instead reflect the diverse interests of the basin districts…

A recent presentation on the BIP by the roundtable to Colorado Counties Inc. laid out the plan’s major premise: “You can’t have conservation without storage, and you can’t have storage without conservation.” Even with the “Identified Projects and Processes” already in discussion (which came out of the 2010 SWSI), the gap in the South Platte would at best be reduced to about 100,000 acre feet of water, and many of those solutions are years, and maybe decades, away.

And that raised red flags for environmental groups, with one warning Coloradans that the BIP will further endanger the rivers of the South Platte basin…

Cronin encourages people to continue to submit comments through the South Platte Basin Roundtable website (http://cwcb.state.co.us/water-management/basin-roundtables). Public comments also will be accepted on draft versions of the plan through September, 2015, and can be submitted through the Colorado Water Plan website noted earlier.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.