You know you're in the right place when you pull up next to a hybrid car with the license plate FRYARK.
That's shorthand for Fryingpan-Arkansas, the massive federal project built in the 1960s that brought Western Slope water to Pueblo Reservoir. The car is driven by Jim Broderick of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, a nine-county area (including all of El Paso County) where property taxpayers have paid more than $98 million toward the project since 1959.
This weekday afternoon, the car sits in a dirt lot at Fountain Valley School. Nearby, district officials and others are closely watching Colorado Springs Utilities hash out a deal with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The goal is to store water in Fry-Ark's Pueblo Reservoir to feed the Southern Delivery System pipeline.
The feds want Utilities to pay $41.56 per acre foot per year, plus an inflation charge, to store 28,000 acre feet of water. That's nearly 2½ times the $17.35 rate paid by Pueblo and comparable to the $46.16 paid by Aurora, which lies outside the conservancy district.
Under the Bureau's scenario, Springs Utilities would pay double over the span of the contract (2011 to 2049) than what Utilities has proposed. Either way, the contract must be finalized before pipeline construction can begin.
In the third negotiating session since May, talks stall again, much to the frustration of those on the margins. One is Fountain, an SDS partner that has already had to drill more water wells to tide the city over until the pipeline is built.
"That's why we're watching this," says Curtis Mitchell, a former Utilities manager now working for the city of Fountain. "If there's a delay, I have to put my supply hat on and see what we need to do."
Fountain may hold only a 3 percent interest in SDS, but it's important: Once the system is operational, Fountain can swap SDS water for a greater capacity through the existing Fountain Valley Authority waterline, Mitchell says.
Broderick and Ann Nichols also are paying attention. Nichols, a Southeastern District board member from Manitou Springs, and Broderick, the district's executive director from Pueblo, know the district is next in line at the bureau's table. They want to secure a long-term storage contract for communities that now rely on year-to-year deals. The district's contract is key to the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a pipeline planned to extend from Pueblo Reservoir through the Arkansas Valley to deliver cleaner and more reliable water than in the Arkansas River to thousands of families and businesses.
Nichols, also a former Utilities employee, is frustrated by the stalemate. "They're functioning as a utility," Nichols says of the bureau. "You have a service to sell, and once you establish that cost, you don't change it for the next guy."
Pacing in the back is Springs City Councilman Tom Gallagher, who draws a comparison to the movie Green Zone. In it, Matt Damon plays an Army officer who searches in vain for WMD in Iraq and suspects his government is providing false intelligence. Gallagher tells reporters he's Damon and SDS is the WMD. He shakes his head over the city choosing not to build its own reservoir.
The city does score one win when the bureau agrees to drop the charge for conveyance of water from the north outlet works, a $31 million structure the city will build and deed to the bureau.
But the storage charge debate languishes, and the dickering halts again the next day. No date has been set for the next session.