Water for the Future

Donala's Long Range Water Plan

By: Dana Duthie, GM
Donala Water and Sanitation District

Since the November newsletter went out I have received several notes, emails and phone calls about our water supply, rationing and growth control. I have spoken to several groups, and I’m available at any time to explain our current position and plans for the future. This paper is intended to set the record straight and explain our long range water plans.

The Problem:

We know and have always maintained that our source of water is depleting and non-renewable. The Denver Basin of aquifers is often described as “Lake Erie” underground. That is very misleading, because although there may indeed be that much water down there, it cannot all be retrieved without drilling many more wells deeper and deeper, and eventually reaching a degree of marginal returns. The State Engineer (SEO) sets our water supply by permit at 100 years from the time the water was adjudicated in court. In most cases that was within the last 20 years, leaving at least 80 years of water on paper. It basically sets an amount of water under the land that we cover, and our current total is about 2500 acre feet (over 814 million gallons) that can be used every year for the duration of the 80 years. The county further restricts some development to a 300 year water supply, basically saying the development must have three times as much water available than the SEO’s allocation. That only affects a very small portion of our district, because it is not enforced on areas platted before 1986. If indeed we had 80 years left, most of you wouldn’t care. Your children wouldn’t care. It would be many generations before anyone would be concerned. However, your Board of Directors cannot work that way. We must look for a renewable and lasting source of water to leave to the generations that follow us while there is water out there to be had. Most importantly however, the rate of depletion of the aquifer makes the time line even more critical, and it is obvious that we don’t have 80 years.

I am always asked “How long do we have?” I wish I could answer that question. The fact is that hydrology and geology are what I call “soft sciences.” The only “hard” evidence we have about the water down there comes from a well log when a well is drilled. Unfortunately, because of the strata layers in the aquifers, what is true about a well in one spot can be completely different a mile away. That is why we have recently found that the wells in Woodmoor are depleting much faster than those in Donala. The other major factor in the depletion rate is the number of wells in close proximity. As the growth around us continues, more wells are drilled to support it. The cones of influence of those wells overlap, and the result is a faster depletion rate all around.

The Solution:

It is for all of these reasons that all of the districts and towns in northern El Paso County have been working together for the past 3-4 years to solve our problem. We formed the Palmer Divide Water Group for the sole purpose of finding a renewable source of water. We are about to “graduate” to a Water Authority to give us more power and the ability to actually start projects. We are cooperating to extend the life of our wells and to find a source to replace them. No one of us can go it on our own. The water and the infrastructure needed to deliver it to your tap will be very expensive. We need the pooled resources of all of our systems to make it work, and even then we will probably have to enter into public-private partnerships to get the job done.

So what are we doing? We have commissioned an engineering study to help point us in the right direction, but the general thrust is in four inter-related areas. First is the conservation plan announced in Donala’s November newsletter. All of us are following the same program – every third day watering and encouraging xeriscaping. A formal conservation plan is mandatory to get state and federal funding for some of the projects we are looking at. It is also becoming paramount before we can convince those who have the water – the Western Slope – that we are maximizing our own resources, and we need their help. It is not enough that Donala has a graduated water rate (those who use the most pay the most) and that we use reclaimed water on the golf course. We need to do more. We need to convince the folks with huge plots of bluegrass that they need to cut back. A good conservation plan will increase the life of our aquifer system.

Secondly, we need to maximize the use of the water we have. It comes from deep in the ground. It is ours until we put it in Monument Creek and lose it downstream. Then it becomes surface water that is owned by downstream users with historic rights. If we can keep it up here, or at least claim credit for it and sell it to downstream users, we need to do so. We are looking at ways to use the reclaimed water from the creek for irrigation and even potable use. Our engineering study is geared to show us the way.

Next, because of the phenomenon of overlapping cones of influence, we need to find a way to manage our wells. That might include using a satellite well field, pumping from areas outside our immediate vicinity and bringing it in, again, extending the life of our wells and aquifers. This is sort of a “band-aid” that will give us the time to accomplish the final step of bringing in the renewable water. It will also help us “drought proof” our supply – at least for many years. As you remember, Colorado Springs and others on “snow melt” water were severely affected by the drought, while we were able to keep pumping. The longer we can extend the life of the aquifer, the longer we will have a supply that augments our renewable source when its quantity is limited by drought.

Finally, our thrust is to find and deliver the renewable surface water source. We have already started by entering into an agreement with a developer who is planning on expanding the Brush Hollow Reservoir and another storage area on the Arkansas River. By getting in on the ground floor of his project we are guaranteed a “bucket” in which to put the water we will be negotiating to deliver. We are often asked “Why build a reservoir if you don’t have the water?” It is a chicken or the egg question. With surface water one has to have a place to store it. In fact, we will be looking for a site in our immediate area to build the “bucket” to receive the water before we treat and deliver it. The opportunity to get on board with the Brush Hollow project is now, and if we don’t act now, we will lose it

In the meantime, we are working with other entities to enter into agreements to buy agricultural water. The farmers on the Arkansas are in dire straights. They can’t compete with the Central American countries and even Texas, California and Florida – areas that produce two to three growing seasons a year. The Arkansas valley has been over-farmed to a degree that the water is high in salinity, and the recent court case giving much of the water they used to Kansas has led many farms to go bankrupt. They know however, that they have a valuable resource in at least the quantity of water they own. Many of them are willing to sell out and retire. However, drying up the farms in Colorado is a very politically sensitive subject. It is not accepted well in many circles, and although the farmers own most of the water on the Front Range, the communities that need it for residential, commercial and industrial use are having a hard time finding a strong voice of support. That fact is not likely to get much better – at least not until the shortage gets to a point where real estate values start going down and/or folks get real thirsty.

One program we are working on to make the whole issue more palatable is “rotating fallowing.” It is done in California, where water is even more valuable than it is here. The concept pays the farmer to hold a portion of his acreage out of production for a season, and selling or leasing that water to the buyers like us. The farm stays in business. In fact, the price the farmer gets for that water is more than he would get for the crops grown on that part of his farm. It still has the label of “drying up” part of the farms. That is the issue we have to overcome, and why we are binding with others to have a loud enough voice to be heard.

Once we have the water, we will have to find a way to collect it, or trade it up stream, so that it gets into the Brush Hollow Reservoir. There it will be used a couple of times to generate hydro-electric power (for which we will be paid for at least the last time through), and then it is transferred down to Stonewall Springs, a gravel quarry. There it may or may not be treated for its salinity and then pumped up a pipeline to our local area and another reservoir. From there we will treat it to potable standards and deliver it to your tap.

As you can imagine, all this is very expensive. Although Donala has some money in reserve, and the election of May, 2006 allowed us to keep more for this purpose, the millions of dollars required to purchase the water, build the pipelines and treatment plants, and construct a reservoir will be substantial. Our “Taxpayers’ Report” on the donalawater.org website shows you the status of your tax money and how we are being “good shepherds” with your money to achieve these goals.

What We Cannot Do:

Donala cannot control growth in our area. As a Donala homeowner I understand and sympathize with many about the rapid growth in our neighborhood, its affects on traffic, schools and the general quality of life. However, the water district board can only concern itself with the effect of growth on our water supply. Having said that, it is not the responsibility of the district to control growth based on a limited water supply. Our charter calls for us to provide the best water service we can to the LANDOWNERS of the district. “Landowners” means the owners of undeveloped land as well as the residents of finished homes. They have deeded their water to us to serve them, and we must do so under the guidelines set forth by the state and the county. It is also important to note that Donala is almost built out. There is some commercial property along Struthers Road yet to be developed, and the Brown Ranch off of Roller Coaster Road. Because of the water supply the Ranch brought to the table, we are restricting them to 60 patio homes and 30 2 ½ acre lots. They have no immediate development plans at this time.

Limiting or controlling growth is a political decision that can only be made (in our case) by the County Commissioners and the Monument Town Council. We have no rights other than to voice our opinions and squeal for help. In reality, what we would be asking for is the use of the water underneath the land that other developers own, rather than let them develop themselves. Hardly a fair request. As mentioned previously, the projects that will be required in this endeavor will be very expensive. To that end, the commercial growth planned in the area becomes very important. Although you may not believe it every year when you get your property tax bill, single and multi-family homeowners don’t pay enough in taxes to fund the kind of projects we are talking about. We need the commercial and industrial tax base to pull it off. For that reason the growth around us is a good thing. Our cooperation and coordination with our neighbors in the area is paramount, and although their growth may indeed be part of the problem, it is also part of the solution. It is an inevitable fact of life we all have to understand or accept. The only other solution is to buy up all the land around us and live in isolation. I would submit to you – it is too late for that. The other, painful fact is that the depletion in the aquifers is happening with or without growth. It is a fact that the Denver and Arapahoe aquifers do not replenish themselves. It is also a fact that the water migrates laterally, and if we don’t use it, someone else will.

As always, I am available to discuss this concept and any of these issues in any forum you wish. You can contact me at the Donala office at 488-3603, or by email at D2@donalawater.com.