Which comes first, water supplies or housing approvals?
If you’ve lived in Colorado long, you’ve probably heard that said. But does it really?
In places, it has.
Red Cliff, for example, has some of the best water rights in the Eagle Valley. However, for several years it lacked water treatment capacity to serve additional houses, causing a moratorium on new water taps.
More often, sewage treatment capacity limits growth. Such was the case in Eagle several years ago. The town stopped approving new subdivisions – although it continued issuing building permits for existing property – while the sewage treatment plant was expanded.
The Vail Valley, defined here as Wolcott to East Vail, is a more complex story. Water and sewer in this corridor is provided by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
However, building decisions are made by two towns, Vail and Avon, and by the Eagle County commissioners. At issue is which comes first – water or the building approval?
In this year of drought, that has become a more pointed issue. Even several elected officials have asked why additional building has been allowed in recent years when, as this year is making evident, there isn’t quite enough water for everyone now – or at least enough water as has been customary. Some fear the situation could worsen.
That fear is grounded in the underlying zoning previously approved. If property owners with their vested property rights decide to develop, according to this scenario, their buildings could overwhelm water supplies.
In truth, hard questions about water and growth rarely get asked. The presumption seems to be that if housing or commercial projects are getting approved, a way will be found to service them. Typically, the process works this way:
When a town or the county is reviewing a project, they ask the water agency for a commitment-to-serve letter. The water agency, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation, for example, perfunctorily replies with a letter affirming its willingness to serve.
If the agency can’t, it’ll build a new treatment plant, expand a reservoir, or whatever else it takes to deliver the water or treat the sewage, says Dennis Gelvin, general manager of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation.
“We assume that if the county or the towns approve the development, we will find a way to serve it.”
Usually, the water provider requires water rights before agreeing to provide treated water. That, for example, was the case for the Village at Avon, the soon-to-be-home to Home Depot, a Super Wal-Mart and a massive array of residential real estate. The water district’s policy is to require 120 percent of what is expected to be needed.
Complicating the process is that water rights customarily provided are agricultural, previously used during summer. To make this conversion work, water must be held back for winter. That can be done on-site, such as Eagle County has proposed for the Miller Ranch property at Edwards.
The water district has a policy of not accepting on-site storage, says Gelvin, because of the difficulty of administering it. Instead, it prefers to consolidate storage at Eagle Park Reservoir or similar, larger sites.
Larry Brooks, Avon’s assistant town manager, says Eagle Park Reservoir made figuring out water for the Village at Avon easier. If not for that existing reservoir, he said, some other reservoir would have been necessary.
Vail, although largely built out, plans to increase density while redeveloping Lionshead, creating demand for the equivalent of 500 single-family homes. Russell Forrest, the town’s community development director, says the town began studying the valley’s carrying capacity six years ago, beginning with a 1996 study done in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey.
“I think we have gone beyond just asking the water district: Can you provide the water if we turn on the faucet?’ I think we have also looked at it in terms of whether there is wet water and what is the effect on Black Gore Creek and in the reservoirs at the top of the pass.”
Bottom line: There’s water enough for Vail this year, even if the situation becomes so bleak Gore Creek runs dry. The town’s water comes from wells near the Vail Golf Club, and the water district may drill extra wells there to ensure a satisfactory supply.
Although the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District does not try to decide whether development is good, it does have some judgments to make. For example, how much ahead of development should supplies be? And what should be the worst-case scenario for drought?
Before this year, water planners used the 1976-77 drought as their benchmark. By that standard, the Vail Valley was set by a comfortable margin. But this year, coming on the heels of two previously low-flow years, eclipses that previous benchmark. By some estimates, streamflows this year have been the lowest in 150 years, and other estimates rate them the lowest in 300 to as many as 500 years.
This year’s drought may well cause local water authorities, as well as those in cities across the state, to revise what they believe necessary to ride out future droughts. It also may well spark a discussion about whether some jurisdictions should mandate low-water landscaping.
Gelvin says the water district is suggesting to several high-end residential communities in the Eagle Valley that they stop requiring large areas of bluegrass, which requires a relatively large amount of water.
“I hope they will quit mandating that,” Gelvin says.