Water system created for city residents

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Bad ideas, like backyard skunks, have a way of reappearing when you least expect them. I assume that such reverse serendipity accounts for a draft recommendation from the Colorado Springs Utilities Policy Advisory Committee that according to a Colorado Springs Independent story by Pam Zubeck “calls for removing barriers for bedroom communities to hook up to city water and wastewater systems.”

Zubeck’s account lists a number of factors that guided the recommendation, which can be summarized in one phrase: Mo’ money!

In contrast with the well-dependent unincorporated cities that ring Colorado Springs, the city has sustainable water derived from mountain snowmelt and abundant storage. So shouldn’t we share our good fortune with our neighbors, charge them a fat premium and move forward into a gleaming future?

No, we shouldn’t. The city’s water system was created, funded, maintained and expanded by and for residents of Colorado Springs. It’s a continuing marvel of dedication, foresight and care for the future. It’s what separates us from the clever promoters and feckless politicians who teamed up to create urban-density developments in the county without sustainable water supplies.

Founded in 1871, Colorado Springs was never intended to be a real city. It was a real estate promotion designed to draw respectable folks who wanted the West without warts — clear air, brilliant sunshine and gorgeous vistas, but no saloons, bawdy houses, gamblers, miners and penniless adventurers. Those respectable folks and their successors brought us water from increasingly distant sources, culminating in our vast and now irreplaceable transmountain diversions.

In the 1990s I had the honor of serving on Colorado Springs City Council as we considered the challenge of building a new water delivery system. For nearly a decade, CSU had sought to divert water from the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, but legal obstacles eventually killed the deal. We eventually opted for the Southern Delivery System, and so began the 20-year process of planning, permitting, funding and constructing the massive project.

And although certain slick-talking CSU employees may claim otherwise, the project was conceived to accommodate growth within the city, especially in Banning-Lewis Ranch. The water was for our shared future — for folks who would live in the city, pay city taxes and enjoy the benefits of our municipal utility system.

The value of our water resources will only grow in years to come. Just as Boulder’s open space program has enhanced the city’s economy and driven stratospheric increases in property values, sustainable water has and will benefit Colorado Springs.

But has CSU’s $2.4 billion in long-term debt so crippled the organization that we have to pawn our water? I don’t think so,  but let’s compare some numbers.

As of Dec. 31, 1992, CSU’s total long-term debt amounted to $642.8 million, against operating revenues of $286 million. The organization’s balance sheet also included restricted bond funds of $255.2 million and cash and cash equivalents of $120 million. At that time, the city’s population was estimated at 300,000.

Twenty-five years later, our population has increased to about 480,000 and CSU’s long-term debt stands at $2.38 billion, according to the 2018 annual operating and financial plan. Restricted and unrestricted cash balances total $320.5 million, with unrestricted cash of $209.9 million. Annual debt service at $184.9 million amounts to about 20 percent of total annual operating revenue.

Debt and revenue have tripled since 1992, although inflation has accounted for a substantial portion of the increases. The numbers are fine — we don’t need to sell the family jewels.

So what will the hapless suburbs do when the groundwater runs out? They’ll have to annex to the city eventually, and pay a hefty price for the privilege. Security, Widefield and Fountain are special cases, since pollutants from Peterson Air Force Base contaminated their well water. It’s entirely appropriate to help them, but we need to realize that there’s no such thing as a “temporary” water supply agreement. Council needs to imagine the Colorado Springs of 2050 when there’s no more water for parks, medians, lawns and gardens — and our once-resplendent urban forest has withered and died.

So, city council, a word to the wise: Sell off our legacy and you’ll be remembered for the “Great Water Robbery of 2018.”

Editor’s note: This column has been updated to reflect more accurate numbers. The Colorado Springs Independent is owned by Colorado Publishing House, which also owns the Colorado Springs Business Journal.