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How much water will a sponge yield?

Allen Best
Special to the Daily/Allen BestHighland Park and other communities in the Denver metro area are rich with green lawns and parks. Outside irrigation alone accounts for 45 to 55 percent of all water use in the city.
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The answer is something of a six-headed creature, depending upon when and where.

In the high mountain valleys, an argument could have been made until fairly recently that using water for indoor purposes was a lot like drinking coffee or beer – basically, you just rented it. About 95 percent of diverted water by the Upper Eagle River Water and Sanitation District is returned to streams and rivers after being treated.

But there’s a stronger argument now for being frugal now, as the upper valley needs to tap stored supplies from Black Lakes and Eagle Park Reservoir to make it through winter. Using more water creates a need to build another dam, and dams are expensive no matter how you look at them.



Summer, the story changes. Landscaping causes water use to balloon, here and elsewhere. For a time – during the spring runoff – it usually doesn’t matter all that much, except that it costs good money to treat water to drinking level standards. Unlike a few limited attempts by Front Range cities, the Eagle Valley has not tried to institute a dual system of pipes for potable and non-potable water.

But, as was evident this year, landscaping becomes something of a burden in drought years. And even in normal years, lawns still want water in August, after the time of plenty has passed. Ultimately, to sustain such landscaping probably calls for more reservoir storage.



In Front Range cities, water planners have been pushing conservation in homes for years. Home use accounts for 70 percent in metropolitan areas. Outside irrigation accounts for 45 to 55 percent of water use alone in Denver.

With that in mind, Denver water planners in 1981 used the word Greek “xeri,” which means dry, to label describe a set of principles for using less water for landscaping than the popular and water-guzzling Kentucky bluegrass. This concept is called xeriscaping.

Chris Call, a conservation specialist with Denver Water, reports that water use can be reduced 20 to 80 percent, although not in the first year. “Once the plants have had an opportunity to get their roots established is when you begin to realize savings,” she explains.



Front Range planners have good reason to squeeze existing supplies tighter. Western Slope leaders and environmental groups have clearly indicated that additional transmountain water diversions must be preceded by conservation.

“The short-term answer (for the drought) and the long-term answer (for growth), for the Front Range in particular, is to curb demand for water,” says Bart Miller, water program director for the Boulder-based Law and Water Fund of the Rockies. “What’s going to get us out of this drought is to revise expectations of what the landscape requires, of how much we are entitled to use.”

How bad is Denver? Metro-area residents use more water than do drought-hardened Southern Californians and Phoenix residents. However, compared with many cities of the Southwest – El Paso, Albuquerque, and Grand Junction – Denver fares reasonably well.

But Miller would like to see the Front Range adopt Santa Fe as its model. Denver Water’s customers each use 155,000 gallons annually on average, while Santa Fe customers use 81,600 gallons per resident. Because of Santa Fe’s limited water supplies, conservation measures have been mandated for decades. The city also charges a premium for water.

A crucial point is whether Denver exhausts the water it takes from Dillon Reservoir, a prerequisite for taking more. Part of the answer lies in a $85 million water recycling plant now being built. When it opens in 2004, the plant will deliver 45,00 gallons daily of irrigating water to the Denver Zoo, City Park, Washington Park and a couple of golf courses. Eventually, the plant is to also serve Stapleton and Lowry redevelopments, as well as areas around Denver International Airport. The water can only be used for irrigating and industrial purposes.

Will city residents – and perhaps even those of us in the mountains – someday be drinking treated sewage? To an extent, we already do. Almost everybody lives downstream of somebody else. For example, Arrowhead and Edwards water comes in part – after treatment, of course – from Red Cliff’s sewage plant.

But the public has resisted directly treated sewage. “For people to drink treated potable water is a big step,” says Hal Simpson, state engineer. “We might be able to get there, but it’s a long way to go down the road.”

Phil Scaletta, water resources manager for Colorado Springs, predicts it’ll be 20 to 30 years before closed-loop reuse is adopted. “Technologically, you can do it, but the costs are pretty high. But I think in 20 to 30 years reclamation will be the ticket.”

Denver may try to add one additional step to gain public acceptance – pumping the treated water upstream into a river bed, to be filtered by gravel. “It’s a possibility in our future,” says Myron Nealey, a hydraulic engineer with the Denver Water Department.

Are the Front Range cities doing all they can and should? Currently, water conservation results in 17 percent reduction in municipal water demand in the South Platte River basin. Water officials say they understand they must do more if they are to get cooperation from the Western Slope.

“The message we’ve received from the Western Slope is that if you want to divert any supplies from over here, you’re going to have to use it in the most efficient manner, and that’s what our intent is,” says Pat Mulhern, who is supervising a study of solutions for South Metro needs.

The point of disagreement, says Chips Barry, who heads Denver Water, is “the degree to which you can conserve your way to abundance.” He and others believe the Front Range needs more Western Slope water – and soon.

Settlement in West originally had to be induced by subsidies

Looking back over time, there has been a massive change in assumptions about settling of Colorado and the rest of the West.

A century ago, the federal government was intervening with financial aid to induce people to move to the Western states. It provided subsidized power, subsidized land and subsidized crop prices.

Among the first projects in Colorado was the Uncompaghre project, which diverts water from the Gunnison River to the Montrose area. Later, during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the federal government subsidized the Colorado-Big Thompson project, helping make the Greeley area one of the nation’s most productive farming areas. More recently, in the 1960s, water from near Aspen and Basalt was diverted in the Fryingpan-Arkansas project to farms and cities of southeast Colorado.

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, points out that critics said such programs were socialism, social engineering, trying to move people to the West. Purely from an agricultural production point of view, it couldn’t be justified.

An irony is that these states once considered inhospitable became the fastest-growing states in the nation during the 1990s. The projects designed to bring farmers to the West are in turn being appropriated for municipal use.

There has been, says Kuhn, “a sea change in the sociology of the region.”


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