Columns » Outsider




Most of us pay absolutely no attention to local government, until we want something. If the water main in front of your house bursts, you'll call utilities. If your neighbor parks his giant RV in front of your house, and leaves it there for a month, you'll call the City. And if you're one of the few citizens who actually vote in local elections, you'll fill out your mail-in ballot and leave it for the postman to pick up.

But unless you're a stone-cold masochist, you're not going to watch City Council meetings on cable TV or read city budgets for fun. You assume that the people who run things are reasonably competent and that life goes on.

That assumption of competence has served us well over the past several decades. Unfortunately, it no longer will. Thanks to a quirk in federal law, and to the incompetence and/or gullibility of our County Commissioners, the future of this community is, for the first time since the 1950s, seriously at risk.

Here's why:

Water. Right now, the city of Colorado Springs' daily average consumption is 83 million gallons per day (mgd). Our existing delivery system can only bring in 82 mgd. We make up the deficit through local storage but, given our steady population growth, we have to add delivery capacity. For the last two decades, the city has been trying to accomplish just this.

From the mid-'70s to the late '80s, the City's efforts were directed toward the so-called Homestake II project, which would have taken water from the Holy Cross Wilderness, near Vail, and piped it to Colorado Springs. Faced with fierce local opposition and adverse court decisions, the City essentially abandoned this effort in 1991 and briefly considered building a dam on the main stem of the Arkansas River north of Buena Vista. This project, bitterly opposed by virtually every resident of the upper Arkansas valley, was quickly dropped.

Realizing (as, perhaps, they should have a decade earlier) that the day of giant mountain diversion projects had passed, the City crafted a simple, sensible plan to increase the storage capacity of Pueblo Reservoir and to build a pipeline north to Colorado Springs. Since the City has plenty of unused water rights on the Arkansas, such a project, once built, would provide for our needs for several decades.

Until very recently, it looked as if the City could overcome the various regulatory hurdles in plenty of time and be able to complete the project by 2007. If it's not completed by then, we'll be in real trouble. And what does real trouble mean? Not just mandatory water rationing (alternate-day watering, no car washing, etc.) but, if delays persist, an open-ended moratorium on all new construction.

Building a pipeline from Pueblo seems straightforward enough -- why should it be delayed? Can't we just work three shifts, if it's this crucial?

Alas, building it isn't difficult -- it's just that there are a couple of political hoops to jump through. Down in Pueblo, the City Council opposes the project as currently configured, fearing that it'll reduce flows in the Arkansas below the dam. Those objections would disappear if Colorado Springs would guarantee minimum flows, which the City can certainly do. The other hoop is a lot more significant, and it's one wholly created by the El Paso County Commissioners.

Pueblo Reservoir is part of the Frying Pan-Arkansas project, created by the Feds in the early '60s. For Colorado Springs to be able to store non-FryArk water in Pueblo, the authorizing legislation has to be rewritten by Congress.

That effort has been derailed because the commissioners, instead of simply seeking such authorization from Congress, also sought support for the so-called Central Colorado Project, the brainchild of Monument water promoter Dave Miller. This airy fantasy, which is opposed by every environmental group and virtually every water provider in the state, has been kicking around for years. No serious person believes that it can be built, so why did the commissioners support it? By doing so, they revived all of the old fights between the Front Range and the Western Slope, and put the whole legislative process on hold indefinitely.

The answer, alas, lies in the crudest politics imaginable, one that has led a majority of the commissioners to put the interests of a few developers in the county above those of the 400,000 folks who live in Colorado Springs.

The plot thickens. More next week ...


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