Analysis: Water issues as old as city itself

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From the moment on July 31, 1871, when General William Palmer’s men drove the first stake of Colorado Springs at what is now the southeast corner of Pikes Peak and Cascade avenues, the city had a water problem.

The general’s ingenious real estate promotion sat on several thousand acres of empty prairie on the east bank of Monument Creek, a muddy little stream that nearly ran dry in the summer. Despite its name, there were no sizable springs in Colorado Springs and no native sources of water for future residents. Denver had the Platte, Pueblo had the Arkansas, and Colorado Springs had nothing.

But Palmer and his partners weren’t worried. The affluent residents that Palmer sought to attract could dig wells to supply their domestic needs (as did his right-hand man Henry McAllister when he built a lovely little brick house on Cascade Avenue in 1873). For irrigation, livestock and other needs, Palmer built a ditch that diverted water from Fountain Creek around present-day 31st Street and conveyed it to the town site.

The water ran “clear and limpid through the streets,” according to a contemporary source, but that didn’t last long. Thanks to upstream cattle ranches and wastewater from Manitou Springs, the ditchwater was soon polluted.

By 1878, the town had grown to about 4,000, and residents approved an $80,000 bond issue (about $4.8 million today, if measured by the price of gold, then $20 an ounce) to build a pipeline from Ruxton Creek in Manitou to a reservoir on the mesa, from which water was distributed throughout the city.

The die was cast. The city would grow, the need for water would increase — and city engineers, planners and elected officials would have to become water visionaries, always focused on the future.

In the next 20 years, the city’s population would grow to more than 20,000 and residents would approve four more water bonds. Colorado Springs gained control of almost all the Pikes Peak watershed and built the Strickler Tunnel to transport water from reservoirs on Beaver Creek to the south slope.

A message from 1901

In a letter deposited in Colorado College’s Century Chest dated Aug. 2, 1901, City Engineer Edwin Sawyer presciently fretted over climate change and population growth.

In the summer of 1899, “the driest season the city has ever known in its history,” water use peaked at 10 million gallons per day, or almost 400 gallons per capita.

“[Such use] threatened us with a water famine,” Sawyer wrote, “and the Mayor and Council were finally induced to cut the hours of sprinkling from six hours down to two hours daily.”

After noting that the restrictions would have been much less severe had the politicians acted earlier, Sawyer made some alarming forecasts.

Given that the population of the city had doubled every 10 years since its founding, Sawyer warned that the city might have 50,000 inhabitants in 1910, 100,000 in 1920 and even 200,000 at some future time.

“Our present system has neither the supply nor the storage capacity for such a population,” Sawyer wrote “… it behooves us to stir ourselves and see where this water is to come from.”

In fact, the city’s rapid growth stalled for a while, reaching 30,105 in 1920; 36,769 in 1940; and 50,000 in the mid-1950s. The explosive growth that Sawyer anticipated had resumed during the war years and the boom that followed. The city’s population reached 400,000 in the mid-2000s and is currently estimated at almost 500,000.

The modern era

During the last 60 years, Colorado Springs Utilities water managers have managed to stay ahead of the game. The result: a complex storage and delivery system that includes hundreds of miles of tunnels and pipelines, multiple pump stations and dozens of reservoirs.

By the end of the Second World War, city engineers had figured out that future growth would require transmountain diversions, bringing water from the other side of the Continental Divide. It was expensive and somewhat controversial, but city leaders were undeterred.

The Blue River project was completed in 1957, when Montgomery Reservoir was put in service, and enlarged in 1966 with the Upper Blue Reservoir. Three tunnels with an aggregate length of about 20,000 feet divert stream flows to the reservoirs, and water then flows through a 70-mile pipeline to the reservoirs on Pikes Peak, or through a connection in the Divide pump station to Rampart Reservoir.

Other transmountain diversions followed quickly. The city partnered with Aurora to build the Homestake project and became one of the beneficiaries of the federally funded Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. In 1972, the city paid $13.5 million for a substantial interest in the Twin Lakes Company, which diverts water from the Roaring Fork via the Twin Lakes tunnel.

Supreme Court kills Homestake II

In the mid-1970s, the city began the planning and permitting process for Homestake II, another joint venture with Aurora. The project would divert water from streams in the Holy Cross wilderness area. It drew fierce opposition from environmentalists and ski area operators, which the city at first pooh-poohed.

“The enviros don’t know what they’re talking about,” said then-Colorado Springs Mayor Bob Isaac after the Eagle County Commissioners had refused to issue the 1041 land use permit that would allow the project to go forward. “We’ll take this damn thing all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to.”

Isaac believed that the law and the facts were on the city’s side. The U.S. Forest Service had formally permitted a necessary easement and the Corps of Engineers had issued a 404 dredge and fill permit.

After the state Supreme Court had sided with Eagle County, the cities went ahead with an appeal to the Supreme Court, which declined to consider it.

The next chapter

The era of transmountain diversions may have ended then, but Colorado Springs had already hedged its bets. In 1986, the city bought a majority interest in the Colorado Canal, Lake Henry and Lake Meredith. That water, diverted from the Arkansas at Boone, could be released from storage in Lake Meredith, returned to the Arkansas and exchanged for water stored in upstream reservoirs, which could then be delivered to the city via the Homestake pipeline.

The purchase was linked to a strategy called “buy and dry” by opponents, as Colorado Springs and Aurora acquired senior water rights on the Arkansas from irrigators and farmers in the lower Arkansas Valley. The city also succeeded in getting the state water court to approve exchanging its transmountain return flows upstream, arguing that downstream users directly benefit from these out-of-basin flows.

Yet these relatively small projects couldn’t ensure the city’s water security.

“A major delivery system will be required just before the turn of the century,” according to a 70-page internal analysis of the water system prepared in 1990. “The massive scope of this project requires a very long lead time to allow for numerous permitting processes, land acquisition, litigation, design, financing and construction.” This compressed timetable was influenced by the projected development of Banning Lewis Ranch, which had been annexed into the city in 1988.

The new system was supposed to have been Homestake II, but when it died city water planners seemed flummoxed. A proposal to build a dam on the main stem of the Arkansas just north of Buena Vista at Elephant Rock drew outraged opposition from Buena Vista, Salida and Chaffee County. Just as Eagle County (1990 population, 21,928) had killed Homestake, it looked as if the rafting companies, residents and visitor-oriented businesses of Chaffee County (1990 population, 12,684) could kill Elephant Rock.

There seemed to be only one practical way to use the city’s water rights on the Arkansas. The city would have to build a pipeline and multiple pump stations to transport water from Pueblo Reservoir to reservoirs and raw water treatment plants in Colorado Springs. It would be expensive to build and operate and difficult to permit — but the city had run out of options.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part analysis of the region’s water challenges, the Southern Delivery System, ongoing drought, and preparing for future growth. Part II: Building the Southern Delivery System, the drought of 2002, the long fight with Pueblo and the delivery system’s completion.