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Aurora aims for "speed of light’ delivery

Allen Best

The new stadium, of course, was built adjacent to the old one near downtown Denver. But the bid does suggest Aurora’s image of the future, one in which the suburb may someday rival in size and population that of the older city. While Denver is landlocked, forbidden by state law to annex, Aurora is free to march toward Kansas, something it did to the tune of 94,000 people during the last decade, well ahead of Denver’s gain.

But the prairie that inspired some to call the city “Saudi Aurora” has little native water. Like several of Denver’s suburbs, Aurora in a pinch for water. Inevitably, the city’s gaze turns to the Rocky Mountains that dominate the westward skyline.

Already Aurora gets a quarter of its water from the Colorado River drainage, from both the Eagle and Fryingpan rivers, and another quarter from the Arkansas River basin. The other half comes from the South Platte River basin, particularly in South Park. Except for the Colorado River water, virtually all this water comes from purchasing farms and ranches for their water.

In the near future, Aurora hopes to get more water from two High Country sources. First, in the Eagle River basin, it owns considerable water rights. It may try to participate with local interests, as well as Colorado Springs and possibly Denver, to expand the Eagle Park Reservoir. A component of that project may involve pumping spring runoff from Homestake Creek into the underground aquifer at Camp Hale, creating a sort of underground storage tank.

“We’re wanting to bring that online in the next six or seven years, which is light speed for water projects,” says Doug Kemper, Aurora’s manager of water resources. It is, he says, perhaps the last smaller transmountain diversion Aurora envisions.

At the same time, Aurora has been at work near Leadville, working in a cooperative arrangement with Lake County. Aurora purchased a 2,000-acre ranch, Hayden Ranch, to get at the water rights. The city wants to build a reservoir, and is offering to let Lake County have 20 percent of the reservoir. Also involved in various ways are the city of Pueblo and Colorado State Parks.

Altogether, Aurora expects to accommodate 50,000 new residents each decade. It expects that these new supplies from the Arkansas River will meet a third of that demand, while another third will be met with additional water from Eagle River and a third from increased efficiency and reuse, i.e. conservation. As well, the city can sink more wells to tap underground aquifers, but that’s a short-term solution. Eventually, those aquifers will go dry.

Like Denver’s suburbs to the south, Aurora is guardedly watching the fate of The Big Straw, a proposed diversion of water from the Colorado River near Grand Junction to the metropolitan area. At some point, says Kemper, Aurora will need a significant new supply of water, allowing more storage of water in the South Platte River basin from those years when rivers are crowding their banks.

Aurora had been thinking about all this long before, as does any city. The drought has just pushed along the thoughts into public debate. Although the city’s lawns haven’t suffered particularly, if the drought continues into next year, Aurora, as well as Denver and other suburbs, will ban outdoor watering.

But the drought has caused Aurora to rethink its water issues. The city, and many others, are thinking it’s not just enough to get water from the mountains. It’s also necessary to store water in wet years, for use in droughts. That thought was clearly articulated in a recent column by one of Aurora’s most prominent residents, Gov. Bill Owens.

Two Forks was just a warmup for 21st-century battle

The High Country News in November 2000 reviewed the veto of Two Forks Dam and analyzed the repercussions. The article, written by Ed Marston, predicted a future battle over Colorado’s water would make the Two Forks battle look like a warm-up act.

The future story in Colorado, at least as seen two years ago, is of the increasingly powerful – and thirsty – outer suburbs ganging up on Denver and the Western Slope. The story envisioned this thuggery happening around 2010, but it didn’t countenance potential for a significant drought pushing an earlier debate.

In particular, Marston’s story pinpointed Denver’s southern suburbs, which rely on underground aquifers that are being depleted.

In coming up with this analysis, Marston consulted several experienced officials in Colorado, including former Gov. Dick Lamm and Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Speaking almost two years ago, Kuhn said the EPA veto of Two Forks changed the point of attack rather than the ultimate outcome.

“The veto set up a situation of haves and have-nots,” he said. “Denver and the inner suburbs it serves don’t need more water. But the suburbs around it are still hanging onto the notion that a billion-dollar project is the answer to their future.”

Lamm saw increasingly powerful suburbs essentially forcing Denver to share its water and infrastructure.

“Denver has the water rights and infrastructure to supply the outer suburbs, and the economic interests that run Colorado will use the Denver Water Board to get additional water,” he said.

Kuhn sees the suburbs – including Highlands Ranch, Parker, and the Denver Tech Center – possibly trying to change Colorado law, even moving against the doctrine of prior appropriation – which grants first-in-time, first-in-right and generally requires later-comers to build storage to capture spring runoff. Those suburbs, affluent and heavily Republican, are the late-comers.

The High Country News: “If Lamm and Kuhn are correct, then the shape of the next Two Forks battle is already visible. It will pit the outer suburbs against Denver and the West Slope, with traditional water law and control of Denver’s water system as the prizes.”


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