Here the office buildings gleam, the green yards glow and the red-bricked franchises radiate heat as the sun melts over the mountains of lavender. Everything about this place looks like a new car should smell.
This is Douglas County, heart of Denver’s southern suburbs.
A place of education and affluence, Douglas County had a population growth rate of 191 percent during the 1990s, the fastest in the nation. It is also the hub of Colorado’s information technology, now tops in the state, ahead of both agriculture and tourism. Jobs in this South Metro area – Parker and the Denver Tech Center, Park Meadows and Iverness – now rival those in the high-rises in the distance of downtown Denver. Some even venture to say this is the new political center of Colorado.
But there’s an irony about this shimmering center of superlatives in that nearly all of this area, South Metro, a place now of more than 200,000 people, depends upon underground water aquifers. Nobody knows when – perhaps 30 years, although some say 1,000 years – but inevitably these aquifers will be depleted.
For the moment, the band plays on. Airline travelers this summer noted this second irony. While other parts of Colorado withered under the combination of heat and drought, the image from the southern suburbs showed an oasis in the desert. Underground aquifers do not depend upon how much it snowed last winter.
Just how these suburbs will deal with this demand-supply pinch is the biggest water story for the next 20 to 50 years in Colorado. Cities of the northern Front Range – Fort Collins, Boulder and Greeley – are “awash in water,” in the words of one expert. In part, they are supplied by Colorado’s largest transmountain diversion project, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which draws water from nearby Grand Lake. Colorado Springs has alternatives on the Arkansas River. Even Denver, growing in density but land-locked, has a handful of options.
South Metro, however, has few options beyond the huge but exhaustible trust fund of water below it and the fact that it is, by virtue of its wealth, becoming well-connected politically.
Looking for answers
Pat Mulhern is supervising a study for the South Metro Water Supply Board that seeks to figure out how to accommodate a population that is expected to triple in the next 50 years. An essential premise is that what has sustained this growth until now cannot sustain it in the future.
Nobody, he says, knows exactly how long the underground aquifers will be depleted – probably not soon, but nobody really knows.
“Does it matter if it’s depleted in 30 years or 80 years or 200 years?” he asks.
What engineers do know is that the last decade’s tremendous growth has stressed the aquifers, lowering well levels. Wells are already being sunk deeper, and over time more wells must be dug. Always, the water must be pumped. All this costs money.
Stop issuing building permits? That idea sounds alien – and unworkable, says Marie MacKenzie, a county commissioner in adjoining Arapahoe County, which also is partly dependent upon aquifers.
“We can’t use water to stop growth. You can’t do that. It doesn’t work. As much as people would like to say, “just stop growth,’ people will live where they want to go.”
Drawing on this trust fund of underground water, public officials in the two counties have put off the hard decisions for years. Some had thought Two Forks, the dam and reservoir that would have drawn from Summit and Eagle counties, was their answer. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency vetoed Two Forks in 1990.
Arapahoe County also pursued water from the headwaters of the Gunnison River, near Crested Butte, a project called Union Park. Although that idea was torpedoed as configured, it led directly to what some see as perhaps the most preposterous idea ever hatched in Colorado, The Big Straw.
The idea, to be studied next year, would involve a pipeline built near the Utah border to pump water from the Colorado River back to the Continental Divide. The Colorado is the only river leaving the state with possibly more than minor amounts of water. However, most observers believe it’s a long shot. Even Butch Clark, the man given credit for first putting the notion onto paper in 1988, says The Big Straw is the last resort. The Front Range hasn’t examined all its other options, he says.
But make no mistake in this year of drought, momentum has shifted. The anguish over “lost” water is louder than it’s ever been, the Front Range is talking about more Western Slope water, and everybody is talking about more storage.
Among those talking High Country water is Denver. Although the city managed to accommodate 90,000 more people without expanding supplies during the 1990s, officials there say more raw water is needed.
“I think we’ve pretty well got all the wet we can out of this sponge,” says Dave Little, the city’s manager for water resources.
Denver has several options. It might be able to draw more water from near Fraser and Winter Park through the Moffat Tunnel. It might be able to expand Elevenmile Reservoir, located in South Park, to hold more water in extremely wet years.
A large part of Denver’s answer could be additional water from the Upper Blue River. To do so, it would draw down the reservoir more in those extremely wet years, then fill it again. The additional diversions would occur from May through July. If perhaps not to the extent seen this year, mud flats would ironically become more common in years of plenty.
Other ideas involve a pipeline from Green Mountain Reservoir or even a dam at Wolcott. Small reservoirs along the fringes of the metropolitan area, including near Parker and Aurora, are also being pursued.
Conjunctive use is the most intriguing idea. In times of plenty, spring runoff would be injected into the underground aquifers below Douglas County, then pumped out during times of drought. Denver and the suburbs may try to cooperate on this plan.
However, many questions remain. As South Metro’s Mulhern concedes, the technological feasibility of this has never been proven on this large a scale. A related issue is whether injecting water-borne biological agents into underground areas could have unknown but ultimately devastating consequences.
Keep your eye on the statehouse in the next couple of years. As heated as the Two Forks battle was in the 1980s, the full boil may be yet to come. Already, there’s aggravation in the voices of Western Slope leaders as they review the situation in the southern suburbs.
A “well-fare’ project
Eric Kuhn, general manger of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, says the real issue is whether growth in metro Denver will be asked to pay its way. In the past, it hasn’t. And now, elected officials from this – the greatest concentration of wealth in Colorado – are asking for a bailout of their problem, he says.
“Lots of local politicians in the Southern Metro area are looking for what we are calling a new “well-fare’ project, to bail out their constituents,” says Kuhn. “The local politicians who approved them and the developers who did these projects will be long gone and dead before anybody has to face any of the reality of what they did.”
Water devoted to agriculture could be obtained for the suburbs, but politically agriculture seems off-limits, he says. That limits the options of the suburbs. But he does suggest that eventually the suburbs may try to topple the very basis of Colorado’s water system, the Prior Appropriation Doctrine. That’s ironic in that the southern suburbs tend to be very conservative politically – white, upper to middle class, and overwhelmingly Republican. This is the comfortable turf of Bill Owens, arguably Colorado’s first suburban governor.
“But the reality,” says Kuhn, “is that the appropriation doctrine doesn’t work for the last ones in line.”
These and other issues promise to make the next legislative session a “political minefield” next winter, says Kuhn. But if it starts snowing again, and reservoirs run full, will anybody will remember the drought in three years? As a society, we have a short-term memory.