It was quite a celebration last Friday morning at the Bailey Water Treatment Plant, located way out east (or at what used to be “way out east”) at the intersection of Highways 94 and 24.
The occasion: the formal “turn on the faucet” moment for the Southern Delivery System, marking completion of a three-decade, $825 million effort that covered the terms of six mayors and dozens of city councilors in the years since it was conceived.
Looking at the immense, hulking gray plant (think the Führerbunker crossed with an invading spaceship from Independence Day: Resurgence) brought back memories of those halcyon, carefree days of the early 1990s when the economy was booming, Mark Zuckerberg was a harmless toddler and the internet was peopled only by geeky hobbyists.
What, you might wonder, compelled Mayor Bob Isaac, Utilities Director Jim Philips, water department chief Ed Bailey and eight reasonably sober-sided councilors to give the go-ahead to a billion dollar water project?
In retrospect, it’s pretty simple. You can have an ugly city or a beautiful city, a poor city or a rich city, a quarrelsome city or a cooperative city, a God-fearing city or a secular city … pick your pair. But we’re in the high plains desert, and a city without water is no city at all.
From the 1950s until the 1980s, Colorado Springs relied on transmountain diversions to provide for the city’s growth. In the 40 years from 1950 to 1990, the city’s population exploded, rising from 45,000 to 280,000. Diversions had given the city a stable, diversified and adequate source of water — but by the early 1990s, it was clear that transmountain diversions and reservoir-building were no longer feasible.
Local opposition thwarted attempts by the city to divert water from the Holy Cross Wilderness Area or build a dam on the mainstem of the Arkansas north of Buena Vista. That left an uphill pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir as the only feasible option.
While SDS was often touted as a way to supply water to the future residents of Banning-Lewis Ranch, its genesis was actually much simpler. Every city elected official had learned history’s simple lesson: Like it or not, Colorado Springs will grow, and your job is to be prepared.
That belief endured for a generation. With SDS completed, every person who served the city as an elected official, as a Utilities employee or in any other project-related capacity can be proud. It was good to read former councilor Bernie Herpin’s Facebook post — “What a great milestone for our city!”
Local politicians are often pictured as preening, incompetent know-nothings, interested primarily in re-election, catering to supporters, lining their pockets at public expense and raising taxes. You don’t think of them as a collectively amazing group of ordinary folks who can initiate, approve and sustain a decades long city-defining project.
That fact ought to give pause to those who think that an appointed board would do a better job of policy-making than some rag-tag bunch of local pols. Democracy gave us SDS, while an appointed board nearly bankrupted Memorial Health System.
And there’s another takeaway.
SDS was conceived, financed and built by Colorado Springs. Some of the independent water providers that ring the city, serving unincorporated El Paso County, Fountain, Security and Widefield signed on to take specified amounts of SDS water, while others did not.
In 1990, no city official imagined that water systems serving Fountain, Security and Widefield would have to shut down wells because of pollution from then-obscure and presumably harmless industrial chemicals. We looked upon these communities with lordly indifference and even thought of them as low-tax free riders.
PFOA pollution in Security, Widefield and Fountain sends a message: It’s time to create a regional water provider. If SDS water goes to irrigate the lawns of wealthy homeowners in the northeast while our southeast neighbors worry about their drinking water, we’ll have failed.
“That’s the future,” said Utilities Board Chairman Andy Pico when asked about water regionalization. “Maybe not on my watch, however long that may be, but that’s the direction. There will be problems, of course — for example, any new participant in SDS will have to have 1041 approval from Pueblo.”
It was a comforting statement — just the kind of farsighted, cooperative vision we expect from our ignorant, self-interested elected officials … right?
Like it or not, that’s what we get for our voter-approved annual council stipend of $6,250.