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Holding on to water

City Sage

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"Remain calm — all is well!"

Remember that scene near the end of Animal House, when D-Day and the Deathmobile disrupted the homecoming parade, and the hapless Omegas tried to keep order? It didn't work.

Now read the soothing reports about water in the Mountain West. Sure, say the experts, we're looking at looming shortages of the precious stuff, thanks to global climate change, rising demand, and century-old disagreements between users — but no problem! We'll conserve, we'll negotiate, we'll reallocate water as necessary, and we'll be fine ... maybe.

We're about to enter an angry new era, when some folks will have the water they want/need, and others won't. Those of us who live within the boundaries of Colorado Springs will be just fine, unless our elected officials are stupid enough to lose control of the water that sustains our high-plains oasis.

Absent water from the Colorado River Basin, many great cities of the West could not exist. Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Colorado Springs — all depend upon the river for life itself. If the river fails, so do the cities.

It may seem strange that these cities, none of which border the river, can tap its waters. But they can and do, because Western water law is based upon the rough-and-ready code of 19th-century mining camps — first in use, first in right. You can divert water from any river, transport it anywhere, and as long as the water is put to "beneficial use," it's yours — subject to prior claims.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 allocated the river's water among seven states: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California and New Mexico. The compact specifies how much water each state can take from the river, expressed as a moving five-year average. The allocations were based on the assumption that the river's annual flow was about 16.5 million acre-feet annually, calculated using available data.

The estimates were wrong. The architects of the compact anticipated neither extraordinary population growth nor global warming. To make things worse, their measurements were made during some of the wettest years in the river's history. The actual flow is closer to 12 million acre-feet.

So here we are, apparently entering another period of drought. Eighty percent of our water comes from the Colorado River Basin, through transmountain diversion systems — so shouldn't we be concerned?

We're in great shape, thanks to our ruthless "water buffaloes," who figured out how to get and use senior water rights on the Arkansas River. Those men, including former Mayor Bob Isaac, former water resource manager Harold Miskel and former Utilities director Jim Phillips, orchestrated the tough, nasty deals that made the Southern Delivery System possible.

Decades ago, Colorado Springs Utilities began to acquire water rights from farmers in the lower Arkansas River valley. It wasn't clear at the time how those rights could be used, but the water buffaloes had a plan. They asked the Colorado water court to change the point of diversion for these senior rights to the upper Arkansas valley. Their strategy, aptly termed "buy & dry," worked. The city didn't have to pipe its newly acquired water hundreds of miles uphill from the lower valley.

The farmers who had sold their water rights retired. Irrigated farmland that once underpinned the economy of southeastern Colorado turned into salt-encrusted hardpan. Too bad for Crowley County — Colorado Springs might need the water someday, and our guys had the money, the moxie and the smarts to seize it.

So, thanks to SDS, we'll have more water than we'll ever need. Our future is assured: Our urban forest won't die, we can keep our lawns green, and sustain ourselves indefinitely ... right?

Not quite. Even with some surprising decreases to cost projections (see p. 15), SDS will still run about $1.6 billion total, and has already affected our water rates. To help mitigate costs, Utilities would like to make "temporary" deals with users outside the city.

That's nuts. Doing so will just enable sprawl, further hollow out our tax base, and put us at risk in the years to come. Temporary deals have a way of becoming permanent. It's best not to make such deals, and use the water to fuel our infill growth.

And how do we get out from under these new water bills? To be continued...

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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