Pipe dreams: Solving the water dilemma

Posted 6/17/09

Years of strategic water right acquisitions have put the Parker Water and Sanitation District in good shape for the future, but the purchases raise a …

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Pipe dreams: Solving the water dilemma


Years of strategic water right acquisitions have put the Parker Water and Sanitation District in good shape for the future, but the purchases raise a big conundrum: how to get the water back to town.

District officials have secured water in the South Platte River and Cherry Creek and remain active in pursuing new resources to wean themselves off deep underground aquifers that are being depleted at a mind-numbing pace. New water resources will eventually help fill the 72,000-acre-foot Rueter-Hess Reservoir, which is being built in Newlin Gulch southwest of Parker. It is scheduled to be completed in less than three years, and decision-makers are grappling with the immense task and astronomical cost of piping the water back to Parker.

In 2006, Frank Jaeger, the district’s no-nonsense manager and visionary behind the Rueter-Hess project, proposed the construction of a massive, 130-mile pipeline that would stretch from the eastern plains to the south metro area. At the time, discussions on how to fund it were premature, and the swift decline in revenue put the idea on hold indefinitely.

Instead of throwing money at high-dollar water rights, officials purchased more moderately priced farms near Sterling that came with certain rights to South Platte water. Now the district owns 9,000 acre-feet of consumptive-use water that could be moved back through the water courts.

“We’re looking at that water as a relatively inexpensive insurance policy,” Jaeger said. “If everything else goes sideways, that’s our least favorite alternative, but that’s an alternative we own.”

Because of heavy industrial uses along the South Platte, the water must be treated with a costly process called reverse osmosis, which strips the water of all pollutants and minerals. The treated water would then be sent through a pump station and piped back to Parker. It would take several partners to pay for a pipeline, and Parker water would be forced to raise rates or ask customers to approve a major bond issue to fund such an intensive project. If all options were exhausted, customers essentially would not have a choice but to go along with the “last resort” project, Jaeger said.

“Practicality will not enter into it. It’s going to take what it takes to get that water back here,” he said. “If all of a sudden we don’t have water and new infrastructure is necessary, the people who live here will have to pay for it.”

Parker Water and Sanitation hopes it will never reach a critical stage that would require it to make those tough decisions. Leaders are heading efforts to explore some promising new resources, including a new project that has created a buzz in both Colorado and its neighbor to the north.

A coalition of Front Range water entities has opened a dialogue with Wyoming’s top brass to find out how much water is is Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, an expanse of wilderness on the Wyoming-Utah border. Preliminary estimates put Colorado’s portion alone at 165,000 acre-feet.

Plans have always included the importation of water back to Parker to meet long-term needs, and the district has found that it costs about the same to purchase rights on the Colorado, Arkansas and South Platte rivers and transport the water back to Parker. State law prohibits owners from exchanging water rights.

Water providers, including members of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, have high hopes for Flaming Gorge because Wyoming would share the costs to build a pipeline to distribute the water and because the clean resource would not require reverse osmosis. Additionally, there would be no need to establish a massive evaporative pond to remove the brine left by lawn fertilizers and other pollutants in the South Platte. Although Flaming Gorge would require more miles of pipeline, the large number of partners sharing the cost would lower the price tag for end users, or customers.

One considerable obstacle for Flaming Gorge is the need for local, state and federal dollars to back the project. However, a tentative cooperative agreement is already in place to conduct due diligence in determining the possible benefits to both states. Agreements are in draft form, and the Parker water district is a founding member of the Colorado-Wyoming Water Coalition. A meeting with representatives from Wyoming’s western slope in late April went “better than expected,” Jaeger said.

“We just laid it out and said we’re not taking Wyoming’s water. We’re developing Colorado water and moving it across the state,” the district manager said.

Some key water providers in the Denver region are competing with a similar proposal to divide up the water. The Colorado River Compact, a decades-old agreement among seven western states that allocates water rights, will determine how much water, if any, Colorado can claim from Flaming Gorge. Agreements must be finalized among Colorado participants before deals are made with Wyoming.

Parker water approached Wyoming’s leadership, including the division of natural resources, with a suggestion that the water authorities and conservation districts dictate where the water ends up instead of allowing private companies and speculators to get there first and set a price.

Depending on how much Parker would get from the deal, water from the multi-billion dollar project could essentially become an infinite resource for Parker because the water can be reclaimed at the district’s water treatment plants, which remove waste and other pollutants before the water is dumped back into Cherry Creek, as required by the Endangered Species Act. A study showed that Parker needs roughly 31,000 acre-feet of water to sustain all homes and businesses at full build-out, Jaeger said. The Statewide Water Initiative Study from 2007 identified a need for 600,000 acre-feet of water for long term municipal and industrial uses across Colorado.

“Flaming gorge is a very important component of everybody in the south metro area’s water supply,” Jaeger said. “It will take a little while, but we'll get there.”

Meanwhile, the often sluggish pace of large-scale water projects will have Parker water drilling deeper to fill its wells. The location of the wells brings an added challenge because they must be spaced at least a mile apart.

Jaeger has long maintained that the Denver basin aquifers should only be used for droughts and as an interim supply, but many have come to rely on the aquifers instead of finding ways to break free of the dwindling resource. The aquifer system lies beneath a 7,000-square-mile area that stretches from Greeley to Colorado Springs and the eastern plains.

“Those wells are not going to meet our needs for the long term future,” Jaeger said. “They have to be replaced with surface water.”

Not only is Parker Water and Sanitation saddled with the debt for Rueter-Hess Reservoir, but it has already delayed a $50 million water treatment facility north of Hess Road near the reservoir. And as Jaeger points out, “we can’t manufacture money or water.”

The district will try to reduce its reliance on groundwater as soon as Flaming Gorge or another renewable source project is developed, and “in the water business, that can take 10 to 15 years,” he said. It will take ingenuity, perseverance, funding and a colossal amount of cooperation to make it happen. The sooner someone gets the ball rolling, the better shape the Front Range will be in for the future.

“I don’t see anyone doing anything,” Jaeger says with amazement. “They’re all waiting for someone else to do it and that’s a poor way of doing business.”


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