by Pam Zubeck
Work on the controversial Southern Delivery System water pipeline could get sped up, judging from comments made at the first Utilities Board meeting today presided over by the newly elected City Council.
Colorado Springs Utilities officials gave an update of SDS, along with several other utilities matters, to a Council that contains six new faces after the April 5 election: Angela Dougan, Lisa Czelatdko, Tim Leigh, Merv Bennett, Brandy Williams and Val Snider.
During the presentation, the Council was told the city is getting good prices on SDS construction because of the gloomy state of the economy and intense contractor competition.
That led Leigh to suggest that if it's cheaper to build now, the city might think about pushing forward now, even if it means higher water rates for customers in the short run.
In response, SDS program manager John Fredell told the Council that Utilities officials will "be ready to talk more detail in July about the project," including, he said, "about accelerating" it.
That's where the discussion ended on the idea of expediting the pipeline. Which makes one wonder if Leigh's idea came as music to the ears of Utilities officials, who have been struggling to push SDS through for more than a decade. Utilities is probably eager to seize the opportunities provided by a cooperative Council and finish the project before its planned 2016 due date, to guarantee no interruptions. The Council gets its next infusion of new blood two years from now, and another in 2015.
Anyway, back to the project. Water officer Gary Bostrom, who's overseen SDS for nearly 20 years, noted this is the ninth City Council to deal with SDS. He also noted that because Colorado Springs isn't on a river, it must go great distances to obtain water. In fact, 70 percent of the city's water comes from the Western Slope.
SDS, he said, will add diversity and redundancy gives Utilities "the opportunity to address regional water resources in El Paso County." This, from an organization that refused to even attend El Paso County Water Authority meetings in the 1990s, much less cooperate on regional water planning.
Now, the city apparently realizes it soon might be sitting on a pipeline whose capacity is way beyond the need, considering the 23,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch out east was supposed to bring scads of homes but now sits in the mire of bankruptcy.
So Utilities is doing water deals with outlying areas, such as the Donala Water District , whereby the city sells them water temporarily until the districts buy their own water rights, with the idea that those rights will be delivered to them through the SDS pipeline.
Bostrom says the city will confine such deals to the Arkansas River Basin territory, so Douglas County and points east like Ellicott would be out of luck, it would appear.
Bostrom acknowledged that becoming a water king for the region wasn't part of the original purpose of SDS, but that it now makes sense because residents reliant on dwindling groundwater supplies northeast and east of Colorado Springs have little choice, and "We're one region."
Of course, whoever has dreams of hooking up to SDS will have to pay the freight, and that includes paying a share of SDS' costs, which total $880 million for construction alone. Financing charges add another $1.4 billion over the next 30 to 40 years.
So, while Bostrom wouldn't say how much those charges to outlying districts would be, he did say, "It's going to be expensive." Yeah, expensive. As in millions of bucks up front.
Which is all good news for schmucks like us city residents, who face annual water rate increases in the coming five years; they'll double rates from what they were in 2009. Maybe the millions that flow in from those outsiders mooching off of SDS means our bills won't be quite so high.
As a footnote, the Councilors were all outfitted with their eager smiles and iPads, which the city purchased at $721 each, along with $35 per month for the apps.
This, Council President Scott Hente says, will save the city money, because no longer will Council members be given paper anything: agendas, backup materials, memos, whatever. It all will be electronic.
How much will that save exactly? City spokeswoman Sue Skiffington-Blumberg says city folks are calculating that figure, but it for sure "would be reams and reams" of paper.