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HW 2009 Basin

Metro Providers Hunt for Options

By Jayla Poppleton

As far as surface water and prior appropriation in Colorado go, south Denver metro missed the first boat. It wasn't due to shortsightedness, but rather lack of necessity, that the aquifer-reliant region didn't lay claim to the South Platte River basin waters early enough. Many of south metro's communities weren't even around when that boat shoved off. If they were, they were pumping groundwater.

‘In the 1980s, the area joined dozens of Denver-area providers to promote Two Forks, a project that would have included a 1 million acre foot reservoir to store water from the East and West slopes.

‘'Don't worry about it,' they said. 'Just pump the Denver Basin. It still has 500 million acre feet,'’ remembered Frank Jaeger, Parker Water and Sanitation District manager. ‘When Two Forks went belly up, it was vetoed partly because of 'Lake Erie.' What they didn't take into account is that all of that water is in solid rock. You can't just suck it out of the ground with a straw.’

Indeed, relying primarily on the four Denver Basin aquifers is no longer an option. Jaeger and others have fought a long, uphill battle to convince people: The bedrock aquifers recharge so slowly they are essentially a nonrenewable resource. And though the aquifers still hold an estimated 200 million acre feet of recoverable water, wells are not physically capable of draining them to their last drop.

Drilling deeper to keep up with falling water tables is costly. Plus well-to-well interference—the phenomenon where each successive well drilled causes the productivity of existing wells to drop—is expected to make drilling cost-prohibitive within 20 years.

By 2035, state demographers project the area's population of nearly 300,000 will more than double. Such rapid growth is not a recent phenomenon for Douglas County. Between 1990 and 2000, the population swelled by 191 percent. As people moved into Parker, Castle Rock and Highlands Ranch, water levels in aquifers dropped in localized areas. Up to 40 feet per year was withdrawn, according to the State Engineer's records.

In 2004, the Colorado Water Conservation Board's Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, assessed the gap between projected water demand in 2030 and estimated supply based on current and planned future projects. The area with the largest gap in the state was south metro, which includes Douglas and parts of Arapahoe counties.
The region's water providers are searching diligently for renewable water supplies to diversify their water portfolio. If they succeed, and can use more surface water in combination with groundwater, they should be able to look to ‘Lake Erie’ as less of a staple and more of a backup plan.

Their tangled web of planning includes everything from water rights acquisitions, to reuse and recycling, to aquifer storage, to interconnecting systems for maximum efficiency. A few elements of the framework stand out.

Save more, demand less
Douglas County, after years of work on water conservation, is counting on 15 to 20 percent savings across the board.
‘We take very seriously that we're on a diminishing resource,’ said Tim Murrell, Douglas County water resources planner. ‘As we look to acquiring renewable water, the less we can prove we need, the less expensive it will be to the end user.’

Indicative of their confidence in their ability to use less, county water planners use lower than average numbers to calculate projected demand.

The figure generally used for an average family's annual water consumption is between 0.5 to 0.65 acre feet, but Douglas County uses 0.4 acre feet for an average household size of 2.8 people. The county aims to drop to a mere 0.3 acre feet per household.

‘We're working on the last 25 percent of conservation that's even possible,’ said Douglas County Commissioner Steve Boand.

In 2009, Douglas County plans to kick off a county-wide conservation plan and hopes to team up with water utilities through coordinated conservation efforts. The first step will be to take on the county itself.

‘I call it a lead-by-example program,’ said Murrell. ‘We're going to take a look at all the county facilities and at how we, as a water user, can save water.’

Current Douglas County regulations limit the amount of high-water use landscaping—to 1.5 percent of the total site footprint—for commercial developments in urban areas. The county doesn't intend to impose such restrictions on homeowners, but they will explore rebates, education and regulatory protocols. One proposal allows residents to use approved gray water devices in new developments in order to reuse household water.

Murrell also expects to see the issue of small-scale rainwater harvesting come up in the general assembly next session. The practice is currently not allowed.

‘There's a lot of fear,’ said Murrell, ‘that the diminished surface water return flows will impact senior water users. But you could make the argument that urban areas have more impervious surfaces and already provide more direct surface water flows from rain.’

If the state approves, Douglas County will adopt regulations to allow rainwater use for outdoor watering.

Waste not, want not
Rod Kuharich likes to emphasize another strategy: efficiency.

Kuharich is the executive director for the South Metro Water Supply Authority, a conglomerate of 13 water providers. Together, they serve 80 percent of Douglas and 10 percent of Arapahoe County.

We're in a water poor area, so every drop of water has to be accounted for,’ said Kuharich.

One way SMWSA shows off its drop-for-drop frugality is through its water recycling program. Currently, the group recycles 11,900 acre feet of water from its own wastewater stream. By 2030, the goal is to increase to 24,000 acre feet. At that point, they plan to recycle or reuse 90 percent of their water.

In some cases, under Colorado water law, water reuse is not allowed. Return flows are supposed to reach downstream users. Denver Basin groundwater, however, is considered nontributary; it was never linked to surface rivers and streams, therefore it doesn't fall under the same regulations as native water and can be used to extinction.
SMWSA is exploring collaborative projects with Denver Water and Aurora Water to optimize each of the three systems.

‘This is one of the most important things that is happening,’ said Kuharich. ‘Our communities are realizing we're all in this together.’

Though the details have to be worked out, Boand said both Denver Water and Aurora Water have reusable water supplies from imported water they're not using. The water is designated fully consumable, which means, like the non-tributary groundwater, it can also be used to extinction.

If SMWSA can capture and transport the water from downstream of Denver and Aurora, it may be able to purchase it from those entities. Boand said the plan could provide close to 40,000 acre feet of water that would come from wastewater treatment plants or irrigation return flows.

‘That's the challenge,’ said Boand. ‘The water is not pure pristine mountain water. The quality is not as high. We'd have to treat it by reverse osmosis.’

Reverse osmosis is used when total dissolved solids are high. The technology, while expensive, is half the price it was 10 years ago, said Boand. It will be implemented at several SMWSA projects, including the Joint Water Purification Plant, and East Cherry Creek Northern Project Water Plant. With a total capacity of 19 million gallons per day, the group expects the plants to go online in late 2009.

The facilities will complement the $29 million Lone Tree Creek Water Reuse Facility, constructed to treat recycled water. It began operations in September and can treat between 3.6 to 7.2 million gallons, or 11 to 21.6 acre feet per day.

Import new supplies
The strategies are part of the SMWSA's three-stage regional water master plan. The first relies on existing infrastructure and temporary renewable supplies. The midterm focuses on phasing in the infrastructure to begin sharing water among SMWSA members to optimize each system, while acquiring 25- to 30,000 acre feet of the new renewable water to meet demands through the 2020s.

The long-term plan is to identify one or more major projects and acquire the remaining renewable water to meet projected demand at buildout—75,000 to 148,000 acre feet of new supplies, depending on whether the water is fully reusable.

As a temporary fix, SMWSA is participating in a pilot program with Denver Water through 2011. Denver makes surplus water from the South Platte River available for purchase. In the spring, SMWSA purchased 1,500 acre feet, and it bought another 2,300 acre feet last fall. The water is only available at times of surplus.
‘In the long term, this allows us to extend our supplies,’ said Kuharich. ‘But the devil's in the details. It may not be available next year.’

To acquire a more permanent supply, the organization studied agriculture in the South Platte and Arkansas basins, in addition to pumpback projects on the West Slope. Douglas County officials said they are determined to look for water from their own basin first, yet the South Platte basin's water is fully appropriated. Traditional or alternative ag transfers are the only means of acquiring South Platte rights. At the same time, commissioners announced Oct. 1 they would not seek a buy and dry project due to their expressed commitment to protect north-central and northeastern Colorado agriculture.

Instead, they will work with Denver Water and Aurora to cooperate through various water reuse strategies. Buy and dry, as Boand put it, will be a last resort.

Parker Water and Sanitation District is assessing additional alternatives, backed by a $1 million study in partnership with Colorado State University. CSU is testing methods to reduce crop water use. What's saved could be used by municipalities. Jaeger said the results are encouraging.

‘There is adequate water in the state of Colorado,’ affirms Jaeger. ‘The questions are: How do we treat it? How do we manage it? How do we move it?’

Bank the water
Storage is part of the strategy. Said Kuharich, ‘What you've got are two components: the actual water itself, which is often not available when you need it, and the need for storage so you can utilize that water year 'round.’

In 2000, SMWSA found itself way below the line in a region already short on storage. The entire organization had 4,000 acre feet of surface water storage. Today, it has 27,200, including 6,400 in Centennials's South Platte Reservoir and additional storage in Chatfield Reservoir. The goal is 93,200 acre feet by 2015.

The region is also about to complete the Front Range's first major storage project in more than 30 years: Reuter-Hess Reservoir. Three miles southwest of downtown Parker, the reservoir will store stormwater, groundwater and reusable return flows. It's slated to be operational in 2011. An approved expansion means more storage, to 70,000 acre feet from 16,200.

Parker originally filed for the project in 1985. The moment it got the permit, said Jaeger, neighbors asked if they could join.

‘When they came in at that late date,’ said Jaeger, ‘we said we'd go after the expansion, but they'd have to pay for it.’

With the increase, Castle Rock, Castle Pines North and Stonegate secured space, and Parker doubled its original storage. Now they're opening it up to others to purchase the space for their own reuse water or new renewable supplies.

Aquifer recharge
Without storage facilities, some utilities went underground. Centennial, Highlands Ranch's provider, has an aquifer storage and recharge project that has allowed it to sustain aquifer water levels for the past 15 years. Centennial injects treated surface water back to aquifers and capitalizes on spillover during wet years. In 2007, 924 acre feet went back into the ground, and to date, approximately 8,200 has been injected. Aquifer recharge has other advantages: no water loss to evaporation or exposure to surface contaminants.

With a $100,500 grant from the Metro Roundtable of the Interbasin Compact Committee, the SMWSA will explore an expansion of Centennial's program.

‘We'll begin looking at areas where we can expand our recharge,’ said Kuharich. ‘Look at the Denver pilot program as an example--when water is available in wet years, we could take it and put it in the ground.’

Boand was one of the visionaries behind the proposed Palmer Divide project, yet another example of recharge. The project, which is still undergoing feasibility studies, would make use of excess divertible flows under Denver Water's existing rights from the Blue River system, which passes through Lake Dillon. During wet years, excess flows for which Denver has no firm storage capacity could be diverted for use in portions of Douglas County. Current customers would take a share, and the rest would go underground. In dry years, Douglas County would return stored water to Denver.

‘It essentially allows Denver to increase their firm yield,’ said Boand.
Firm yield is the amount of water that can be counted on even in dry years. Palmer Divide could provide 10,000 acre feet of firm yield to Denver water and another 7,500 to 10,000 annually to Douglas County.

By recharging aquifers, water levels would oscillate so that the water supply in the aquifers becomes permanently sustainable, said Boand. Groundwater would continue to be a source of supply, but on a much more limited scale.
It's not a done deal. In fact, the SMWSA has been asked to look at including the Palmer Divide project in its master plan to help move it forward.

‘We think it has technical merit,’ said Kuharich. ‘The question is, would the aquifer accept that much water in that area, or sustain that level of withdrawal.’

According to Boand, if Palmer Divide and the SMWSA's mid-term plan are successful, the group is 80 percent of the way to securing a permanent water supply for everyone in the county at buildout.
‘Six years ago we were still denying that we had an issue,’ said Boand.

Rural water users come together
Particularly vulnerable to drops in water levels and lower well productivity are people who live in unincorporated areas, outside of a municipal or water utility umbrella. To provide a forum for individual well owners, the Rural Water Association of Douglas County started up Oct. 1. The association includes more than 8,000 individual well owners and 25 small water providers, which in total represent between 30,000 and 40,000 people or about 12 percent of the county.

The association gives these users the ability to discuss their issues and collectively participate in projects that were formerly out of reach.

Said Jack McCormick, an individual well owner who has been engaged in the search for a more sustainable water supply for his small community, Plum Valley Heights, ‘It gives us a little more clout.’
McCormick's involvement has paid off. Commissioner Boand said it's no accident that Palmer Divide's pipeline cuts through the northwest part of the county, right by Plum Valley Heights—not just because of one 29-home community, but because it is the part of the county that needs water the most.

Rethink land use planning
As south metro's providers and local governments work to provide for growth, others question whether past zoning decisions should be revisited.

State Rep. Kathleen Curry (D-Gunnison) thinks Coloradans should at least ask the question: Should landowners be compensated to reach an agreement to lower previously agreed-upon densities for development?

‘We're stuck with zoning that didn't take into account water supply challenges that we face today. That's the train wreck,’ said Curry.

In the meantime, Curry's HB08-1141, ‘Concerning Sufficient Water Supplies for Land Use Approval,’ passed, giving local officials the necessary facts to make informed development decisions. Developers will have to show an adequate water supply exists before a development is approved.

‘In 2002, during the drought, we saw new subdivisions being approved at the same time municipalities were enforcing strict watering restrictions,’ said Curry. ‘It was an example of a disconnect between the people approving the development and those trying to provide water to service those areas.’

Curry said this was the first time in more than a decade the general assembly linked land use and water planning.No one wants to touch the issue.

Some claimed the bill was an anti-growth measure, an accusation Curry felt was unfounded.

‘It's a smart growth piece of legislation,’ she said. ‘Growth should not be allowed to occur if it doesn't have an adequate water supply behind it.’

The bill's creators, including state Sen. Bob Bacon (D-Fort Collins), looked to Douglas County as a model.
‘My only concern with the bill,’ said Boand, ‘was that I wanted to make sure it didn't cause us to go backward. It's basically where we were six years ago. We are continually changing our requirements to make sure folks have a permanent water supply.’

What Douglas County already has, and what Curry and others at the state capitol want to encourage, is an ongoing conversation between planning commissions and water providers.

‘They ought to be meeting regularly to compare notes,’ said the Gunnison Democrat. And, she adds, ‘The West Slope will be more comfortable when the Front Range can point to its process and say, 'Look, we are going about this the right way,' rather than approving development and then coming back and saying, 'Now we need more water.' It doesn't create a very good working relationship between the two sides.’

When Jaeger considers the future, he said Coloradans have to come to grips with the fact that it's all Colorado's water.

‘We need to develop it in a manner that benefits everyone in the state. Everybody's got to move a little bit, including me.’

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 Scott Hummer

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