Duped by Drought?
City leaders say an expanded Halligan Reservoir is needed to combat drought but is it really for the sake of new development?
By Gary Wockner
In 2002, the rain never came.
It was a long, hot,
sunny summer and fall, and with the nauseous heat and sun came a gamut of
water development plans all premised under the relentlessly-waved "drought"
The reservoir was
constructed on the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre
River in 1909 and is one of several sources of Fort Collins’ water, historically
supplying 6,400 acre-feet of water to the 645 shareholders of the North Poudre Irrigation Company. Of those,
Now it’s ready to exercise that option in order to add an additional 12,000 acre-feet of storage. For those who know no better, now seems the perfect time. After all, the drought of 2002 nearly caused all of our faucets to run dry, right?
In fact, the reservoir
expansion has almost nothing to do with the drought even though city leaders
say otherwise. Despite the myth that the city is in danger of drying out should
the drought continue,
The popular conception
In 2001, before the impacts of the drought were widely felt, the city delivered 30,621 acre-feet of water to its customers. At the height of the drought in 2002, staff at the city’s Utilities Department predicted that 32,316 acre-feet of water would be needed if residents followed the normal patterns of use. But conservation efforts by citizens resulted in less water used in 2002 than during the previous year; 29,457 acre-feet were used, a 3.8 percent decrease from the previous year.
At the very end of the 2002 drought, just prior to the huge snowstorm in March 2003, the city still had 5,000 acre-feet in storage and definite commitments for at least 70% of 2003’s water needs. Though no one knew it at the time, the city could have met all its water needs during 2002 without any panic or without any conservation effort.
"We survived the
drought with very little hardship," says city councilman David Roy. "Indeed,
Over the past year,
The federal government
added to the air of panic. "Unless water storage capacity is increased, last
year’s extreme drought conditions might come to typify an average year," warned
Secretary of Interior Gale Norton during a trip to
At the regional
level, several projects are under discussion including the Windy Gap Firming
Project and the Northern Integrated Supply Project which are proposing several
new dams across the northern
Further, the city
is in ongoing discussions with other water districts about developing other
A glance behind
the curtain of those earnest statements, however, shows that
"People are moving
For some, the reason for this apparently contradictory policy is clear. "Citizens are really getting duped," says David Wright, the executive director of Citizen Planners. "This is all about new reservoirs for new growth, and it’s all under the guise of drought."
Dennis Bode, a water supply expert with the Utilities Department, believes an expanded Halligan "would be useful for a little extra drought protection." "For our current population," he says, "we probably have enough, but a little extra would be nice in very dry years like 2002."
But the citizens themselves seem to be doing quite a bit to provide that "little extra" without the need to spend millions on a reservoir expansion. Based on Bode’s predictions -- which use statistical analysis to take into account temperature and rainfall during the lawn-watering season -- by the end of 2003 the city was originally predicted to have used 29,587 acre-feet of water. Actual use, it turns out, will be approximately 25,413 acre-feet -- an easily sustainable amount of water given the city’s current storage and supply.
Why the low use in 2003?
"Water conservation," says Bode. "We still have the new rate tier system in place, but we lifted all the watering restrictions. People, however, are still conserving water beyond their normal, average use even though they don’t have to."
Because of this
How long this voluntary conservation will go on is unknown, but citizens clearly have an interest in cutting down on their water use. On a survey commissioned by the Utilities Department last December, 95 percent of city respondents say they support increasing efforts towards water conservation and efficient water use.
If the city is paying attention to that desire, it’s not reflected in the budget; compared to the millions of dollars already spent on the Halligan expansion, the city spent a scant $150,000 on a "drought outreach program" in 2002. The Utilities Department called the program "an expensive endeavor." Additionally, the city spends only $45,000 per year on its regular water conservation program.
When asked about
the lopsidedness of these expenditures,
Water conservation also offers an ironic challenge to growth-control advocates because water saved can be given to new development. As David Roy puts it: "By having and implementing strong conservation programs that save water, we are in a very real way making it possible for additional growth in need of that water."
"That’s a narrow-minded
Nevertheless, growth control advocate David Wright takes the irony pointed out by Roy one step further, "If you don¹t want growth, what does that make you want to do with water? Turn on the tap? It’s unspeakable, but it’s a fact."
Halligan reservoir would add 12,000 acre-feet to the city’s current storage of approximately 35,000 acre-feet. Bode has recommended to council that a total of 45,000 acre-feet are needed to meet the demand of 165,000 people.
Citizens, however, give conflicting opinions about growth, at least depending on how you read surveys conducted by the Utilities Department. In the same survey in which 95 percent of respondents supported water conservation efforts, 79 percent also supported expanding reservoirs to increase water storage, although it’s unclear if that stems from drought protection or to accommodate new growth. Fifty-two percent of respondents, however, stated that the pace of development in the city should be reduced.
"People are exhausted from the growth," says Wright. "Our organization believes our quality of life is decreasing and the consequences of rapid growth far outweigh the benefits."
and when growth occurs, almost everybody agrees that new development will
need more water and therefore new reservoirs. "As a responsible community
official, I have to plan for that growth," says
"First, yes, you can stop growth by not giving out water taps," replies Wright. "And second, why should current citizens have to cutback so new people can move here? This is a perfect example of how our quality of life is negatively affected by growth. These two issues are directly connected and a democratic process is critical. Is this what people want? Let’s have a city-wide vote on it. Water conservation has worked wonders, too. Would citizens rather build dams or conserve water? Let’s vote on that, also.”
"As it is," he says, "the city politicians are going to build more houses and strip malls and more dams and they aren’t going to ask for permission. That ain’t right."
By Gary Wockner
Horsetooth Reservoir holds thousands of acre-feet of water from the Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) Project that is sometimes for sale. But the asking price isn’t cheap. Currently, an acre-foot of C-BT water (which is enough to submerge one acre of land in 12 inches of water) sells for $12,000.
The city expects to get 12,000 acre feet of water from Halligan at a base cost of $20 million ($5.6 million for purchase of the site and $14 million of dam construction with partners). The cost per acre-foot comes out to $1,667. Environmentalists will argue that other non-accounted for costs should be considered in this equation, including loss of habitat, effects on endangered species, river destruction, aesthetic values and others.
"The environmental costs of dams are enormous and aren’t even considered," says city councilman David Roy. Still, it is hard to quantify such costs.
What can be quantified
-- at least theoretically -- is the expense of purchasing the same amount
of water from C-BT: 12,000 acre-feet at $12,000 per acre-foot is $144 million.
Staggering, yes, but an interesting choice.
Conservation offers a significantly more cost-effective opportunity. In 2003, the city will save 4,174 acre-feet of water from predicted use due to citizens’ water conservation efforts. The total cost of the drought program the year before was $150,000. Add to this the ongoing $45,000 program, for a total of $195,000. Hence, it could be argued that it costs $47 to conserve each acre-foot of water.
Let’s compare: new C-BT water costs $12,000 per acre-foot. A new Halligan reservoir will conservatively cost $1,667 per acre-foot. Conservation has a track-record of costing $47 per acre-foot. Assuming citizens could conserve 12,000 acre-feet (the amount to be added to an expanded Halligan), the total cost for conservation would be $564,000, versus $20 million for Halligan, versus $144 million for C-BT water. What would happen if the city invested more money in an ongoing water conservation education and landscaping rebate program? How much water and money could be saved?
alternative is to reclaim wastewater. In this
situation, treated wastewater that normally goes back in the river is re-routed
to either the water supply treatment plant or to raw-water irrigation needs. Other
Mayor Ray Martinez’s own personal efforts provide an example of progressive water conservation. He has recently reseeded his home’s lawn with drought-tolerant blue fescue grass and has installed a high-tech sprinkler system with a computerized control system that even senses barometric pressure and oncoming rain. When the pressure rises, the sprinkler doesn¹t come on. "It really works," he says. "My water use is much lower than it was."
The mayor’s choice
highlights the true issue in this expensive and chaotic water conflict --
lawn watering. All these millions of dollars spent by the citizens of
In fact, average
winter water use for the city as a whole is 1,500 acre-feet per month. In
the summer, this number jumps up to 3,500 acre-feet and on hot, dry months,
it can reach 5,000 acre-feet. And almost all of it is for watering lawns.
If most lawns were not watered, it’s conceivable that
Even with build-out at 165,000 people, current water supplies would be more than adequate. "Don’t water your lawn, or better yet, Xeriscape your yard," says activist David Wright. "It’s cheap. It’s ridiculously simple. It’s beautiful."
as it sounds, such an approach could save the city tens of millions of dollars
and thousands of hours of negotiations currently expended in the ongoing
conflict -- conflict which City Council member David Roy sees as inevitable:
"We live in a semi-arid region, a high-plains desert with no reliable precipitation.
We are growing at a rate that will see our population double in the next 26
years or so. Even when we build larger storage capacity, there will be no
guarantee that the snow will fall every year. We have to be prudent and conservative
in what we think we can squeeze from the precipitation which we get. Our
agricultural lands dwindle along the