Fort Collins Weekly

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.

Newspaper headlines across Colorado bellowed "Drought!" and the public went into a panic, fueled mostly by politicians and their "sky-is-falling" prognostications.

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" banner. In Fort Collins, that meant the long-rusty wheels of the dam-building machinery started turning, fed by the political panic and the endless sunny skies: to combat the drought, city leaders are advocating expanding Halligan Reservoir.

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, Fort Collins is by far the largest and has owned the option to expand the reservoir’s storage capacity since 1993.

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, Fort Collins survived the worst one-year drought in its history with a surplus of water. The main reason the city seeks to expand its water storage is to prepare for future growth.


The popular conception that Fort Collins’s water supply was severely limited during the 2002 drought is false; because of last March’s massive snowfall and the subsequent return of rainy weather, the city’s water supply was never in question. In fact, in the very deepest months of the drought, the city had adequate water storage and supply for several more months.

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, all of Northern Colorado got through the worse drought in Colorado history. That’s the story."

It seems clear that when citizens conserve water
Fort Collins has enough to meet the needs of its current population without resorting to building new reservoirs that will cost millions of dollars and flood natural areas, but you’d never know it listening to the politicians.

Over the past year, Fort Collins residents were bombarded with proposals for new reservoirs by local, regional, state and federal officials who use "drought protection" as the justification. In the months leading up to the Nov. 4 election, Mayor Ray Martinez joined Gov. Bill Owens and dozens of other state and municipal leaders in calling for the passage of Referendum A, a measure that would have allowed the state to go into $4 billion in debt in order to fund unspecified water projects. "Storage" was the buzzword of that campaign and "drought" was the reason it was supposedly needed.

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 Denver to lobby for Referendum A. "New dams may be needed but expanding existing storage facilities will be the first priority."

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 Front Range. The Windy Gap Project states that its need, among other reasons, is "evidenced by the unprecedented drought conditions in 2002."

Here in Fort Collins, the Halligan expansion is couched in these same terms. Though the project is called an "expansion," Halligan will require a new dam twice as tall as the existing one, which will be built 1,000 feet downstream and will back up three times as much water and submerge twice as much land.

Further, the city is in ongoing discussions with other water districts about developing other reservoirs. Both Roy and Martinez say that "drought protection" is one of the reasons they support the Halligan proposal. 

A glance behind the curtain of those earnest statements, however, shows that Fort Collins hasn’t been acting as if there were a shortage of water due to a drought. During the drought of 2002, new development in Fort Collins continued at its typical pace. The city issued 341 water taps during 2002, and has issued 220 in 2003 at the very same time it was requiring current citizens to restrict water use. Is that hypocritical?

"People are moving here," Martinez says. "What can we say, ‘No, you can’t have water?’ There was a drought, we all have to conserve, and we have to give new taps to the new houses. Through our conservation efforts, we had enough water to handle the new growth."

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."

At a Fort Collins City Council meeting in early November, the council unanimously approved a resolution to exercise its option to buy the rights to expand Halligan Reservoir. For the last 10 years -- at a cost of $1.2 million -- City Council has carried the option to expand Halligan, and now at a cost of another $4.1 million over the next 30 years, the city has bought the rights to expand it. That is a total of $5.3 million spent without an ounce of cement being poured. The additional cost to build the dam is estimated at $14 million if the city is able to partner with other water users, like the city of
Greeley, or $26 million if the city has to go it alone.

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 conservation, Fort Collins now has about 10,000 acre feet in storage, way more than adequate to last until snowmelt in the spring of 2004. Given this surplus the last two years, even during severe droughts, Fort Collins has proved that there is an adequate water supply to meet the current population’s needs.

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, Martinez says, "We are already asking the people to conserve, and they did by 15 percent. This isn’t Russia. We can’t force people to conserve water. If we enact laws against using water, then we have to hire 10 enforcement police to go around and enforce it and that makes a whole new batch of problems."

Boulder is often compared to Fort Collins as a "sister city," and in that vein, water conservation efforts are equally comparable. During 2002 and 2003, Fort Collins conserved 9 percent and 15 percent respectively over normal water usage. In Boulder, 2002 conservation was 30 percent and in 2003, 22 percent.

Boulder spends almost 10 times more on conservation programs on a yearly basis ($405,000 in Boulder compared to $45,000 in Fort Collins) and offers more programs and rebates than Fort Collins. Of particular interest, Boulder offers a rebate program on "drought-tolerant landscaping materials" including buffalo grass seed, moisture sensors, drip irrigation systems and irrigation audits.

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 statement," says Martinez. "The growth is coming. To not plan and not build new reservoirs is irresponsible. If we run out of water, council seats will turn over every two years and the people will be up in arms."

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."

The current City Plan predicts
Fort Collins’ population will be roughly 200,000 people by the year 2040, about 165,000 of whom will live in the city’s water utility service district. To deal with this predicted growth, Dennis Bode and his staff at the Utilities Department are operating from the city’s Water Supply Policy, which was developed and adopted by council first in 1998 and again in 2002. The policy directs staff to prepare a water supply for future growth.

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."

If 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 Martinez. "Build-out is around 200,000 people. We’ve had a steady 3 percent growth rate since the 1960s. There’s no reason to expect it won’t come."

Roy hesitantly agrees: "Part of the reason I supported Halligan is because of the build-out forecast of 165,000 people (within the city’s water service area). I would probably support the lower end of the expansion, though."

"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."


Dam Alternatives

By Gary Wockner

Even though growth appears inevitable, new dams are not. There are alternatives to building new reservoirs.

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. If Fort Collins citizens are willing to pay, they may not have to build a dam. Ten years ago, that same acre-foot of C-BT water cost $1,350; 30 years ago it cost $350. When the project was first constructed in 1938, an acre-foot of water cost $1.50. Should the city have been looking ahead? With the same amount of money it will take to expand Halligan, the city could possibly have bought the same amount of C-BT water 10 years ago.

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?

Another hard-to-quantify 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 Colorado cities, including the City of Aurora, aggressively pursue this option.

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 Fort Collins -- past, present and future -- are spent almost exclusively to keep lawns green. Forty six percent of residential water use is spent watering the grass.

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 Fort Collins could probably get by on 21,600 acre-feet of water per year (calculated assuming an average of 1,800 acre-feet per month for 12 months).

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."

Simple 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 Front Range. The Ogallala Aquifer begins to empty. States downstream sue us for more water. Communities raid other communities of water rights. And we probably haven¹t seen anything yet."

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