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Water woes may freeze growth

Future of massive Banning Lewis Ranch unclear

A sea of homes is near Banning Lewis Ranch in - northeastern Colorado Springs. When built out, Banning - Lewis Ranch will have 75,000 homes if theres enough - water. - MICHAEL DE YOANNA
  • Michael de Yoanna
  • A sea of homes is near Banning Lewis Ranch in northeastern Colorado Springs. When built out, Banning Lewis Ranch will have 75,000 homes if theres enough water.

Don't look to growth activists to galvanize the political will to slow the rapid homebuilding pace on Colorado Springs' eastern prairies.

Look instead to the homebuilders themselves. Their rising demand for increasingly scarce water ultimately may slow, or even halt, the city's building boom.

On maps for the massive Banning Lewis Ranch development, filed with city planners, this warning is printed: "The city of Colorado Springs does not guarantee water to the subject area. Allocation of water will depend upon the supply available at the time of application."

By 2012, demand for water will start outpacing supply, according to projections by city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities.

That threatens the future for new homes in Colorado Springs, which right now are coming at a pace of 2,000 to 2,500 a year, says Paul Tice, a city land use review manager.

No guarantee

The most aggressive development in the city, Banning Lewis Ranch is at the core of the problem. Over the next four decades, 75,000 single-family homes, town homes and duplexes are envisioned along the grasslands of the city's eastern border, making room for 140,000 new residents in Colorado Springs.

The first 1,000 homes should be on the market by the end of 2006, and the plan is for each to be connected to the city's water. Tice says he believes those houses will have access to water, but is unwilling to guarantee it.

Executives at the California-based Banning Lewis Ranch Development LLC were unprepared to comment at deadline.

For years CSU has pursued a growth lifesaver of sorts: the Southern Delivery System, which would pipe Arkansas River water from the Pueblo Reservoir north to Colorado Springs. This would help the city meet its water needs until 2030 or 2040, says Brett Gracely, a water supply planning supervisor.

That is around the time Banning Lewis would reach completion.

But it is unclear whether the $1 billion pipeline ever will come to fruition. SDS is mired in politics and environmental reviews, leaving many potential hurdles that could fell the plan.

Capitulating to developers

CSU officials, meanwhile, are keeping water options open, even considering the viability of underground aquifers.

"It's a potential part of the solution," Gracely says.

That makes Larry Stanley anxious. He is the president of Protect Our Wells, a nonprofit group that advocates the interests of private well owners. Stanley says developers in El Paso County quickly are tapping the limited water in aquifers.

"Right now, nobody knows [the total supply of the aquifers]," says Stanley, who has asked county commissioners to hire a hydrogeologist to gauge water availability in the aquifers.

Dave Gardner, founder of the local growth watchdog group Save the Springs, says the city has exacerbated water woes by capitulating to developers' desires without first ensuring the water is available.

He isn't surprised that the city hasn't completely ruled out the possibility of using aquifer water in coming years if SDS fails.

"They are engaged in an irrational quest for water," he says.

Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera says the city right now considers its rights to aquifer water an emergency backup, but doesn't think they can be used to support the city for an extended period of time.

Rivera also says he supports an initiative that has languished in Council before: restricting the size of water-sapping lawns and encouraging the use of more native plants. Currently there are no such rules for single-family homes.

"I think I could support less Kentucky bluegrass, and more indigenous plants," he says.

-- Michael de Yoanna

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