Water, Under Pressure: Episode 4 - Growing Demand
Water, Under Pressure is a five-part narrative podcast series about the increasing demands on water in Colorado. The series is narrated by Kristan Uhlenbrock, Director of the Institute for Science & Policy. For more information and resources from this episode, check out the episode summary page. To listen to the audio version visit waterunderpressure.org.
BUILDING HOMES FOR THE PEOPLE
HAROLD SMETHILLS: You’ll see on the roads, we have bike lanes everywhere. This is a biking, walking, scootering, golf carting community.
KRISTAN UHLENBROCK: I’m zipping around in a golf cart in a new subdivision in one of the fastest-growing areas in Colorado. My guide is Harold Smethills. He is the Founder of Sterling Ranch, which is branded as a water-smart housing development. He’s searching for savings everywhere… even in the flushes of toilets.
HAROLD: One of the biggest water wasters you have is your toilet. The flapper valve wears out after five years. You don't even hear it, but it's leaking. So, millions of little things like that.
KRISTAN: Harold was a banker for 37 years and has been passionate about water his entire career. His mission with Sterling Ranch is to build a development that provides that wide open space that many come to expect in Colorado. His focus is to do so as sustainably as possible, particularly around water consumption. There are these wide streets with roundabouts and bike lanes, golf cart paths tucked next to open fields with grazing cattle.
HAROLD: We're trying to get goats but we haven't had success. Goats are at such a premium. We haven't been able to find any. But the goats will eat the noxious weeds the cows won't touch.
KRISTAN: Brand new houses can be seen in almost every direction, some of them aren’t even finished yet. All are back dropped by the mountains off to the west. Sterling Ranch is located in northwest Douglas County. They first broke ground in 2015 on more than 3,000 acres. Harold and his family are planning for 12,000 homes. In order to gain permission to build, they had to outline a clear plan for providing sustainable water for the community for the next 100 years.
HAROLD: We are building what's known as a closed loop system where everything you use in your home we recover at a water reclamation plant, and then exchange that for freshwater on the river. So every drop you use in the home, we get back.
KRISTAN: Harold wants to be part of the solution.
HAROLD: We're the state's only rainwater harvesting site, we changed the law, we went through the legislature in 2008. To let Sterling ranch be a test site. So we can catch rainwater, put it in lakes, and then retime it to go back on the lawn.
KRISTAN: Harvesting rainwater might not seem like a big deal. But when you’re in a state with water rights, every drop counts.
HAROLD: And so each home has a water budget. And the way we administer that, we have on station, an employee of our district, a licensed architect who goes through with you what you how much water you're going to use. And each home, depending on the size of the lot, has a water budget for outdoor usage.
KRISTAN: What Sterling Ranch is trying to do is make the homeowner water conscious. Including one of the biggest uses of water in suburban environments: lawns.
HAROLD: Outdoor irrigation is the enemy of water sustainability. So to the extent, you're able to reduce outdoor irrigation, you are able to better sustain the water you have because what you use in the home we get back at the water reclamation facility that stays in the system.
KRISTAN: Sterling Ranch is working with Dominion Water, trying to serve as an example in water sustainability. Their hope is to inspire others to move away from nonrenewable groundwater sources.
HAROLD: From the very beginning we wanted to renewable based system. Because if the aquifer declines, everybody knows who built it. And so when your name is on the door, you're very careful about having a reliable water supply. So we invested the money to get renewable water.
KRISTAN: The need to use every drop of water – multiple times over – matters. 80% of the precipitation falls on the western side of the continental divide, but 90% of Colorado’s population lives to the east, in the Front Range. As the urban corridor continues to grow rapidly, the need for water is even more urgent. And often that water is coming from somewhere else.
Flowing through San Luis
Water in our veins
The lifeblood of our culture
Aquafers and rains
KRISTAN: This time on Water, Under Pressure, the Front Range perspective. What are the water needs for a growing city? And is water from the San Luis Valley really the only solution?
Theme music continues...
We are all Colorado
Our future to choose
With water on the table
There’s so much to lose
KRISTAN: From the Institute for Science and Policy, this is episode four.
CAN WE BUILD FOR GROWING DEMAND?
RON REDD: I know when I moved to Castle Rock, in 2000, there was 18,000 people in
Castle Rock. And now there's 85,000. So it shows you the amount of growth.
KRISTAN: This is Ron Redd. Castle Rock is one of four cities in Douglas County. Back in the 80’s, Ron says it was a “one streetlight” town. At the time, the water source designated for the township was the Denver Basin, a series of aquifers that span a major part of the Front Range. But because of population growth, the water is being pumped way faster than it can be replaced – commonly known as nonrenewable in water speak.
RON: And because the Denver Basin wells are so deep, they don't get recharged from snowmelt or rainwater. And there's a lot of impervious material between us and them. So our, our best aquifers, like the Arapahoe aquifer, it's 2,000 plus feet down.
KRISTAN: This is the third aquifer down out of four in the Denver Basin. Eventually digging deeper to pump water might become cost-prohibitive. Not to mention that it’s not sustainable. So water suppliers are constantly looking for better solutions for their customers.
KRISTAN: Will you describe what we’re looking at right now?
RON: Sure. So what you’re looking at is about 18,500 acre feet of water. It’s currently sitting about 92 feet deep so it’s a fairly deep reservoir. It looks pretty impressive.
KRISTAN: I’m standing on the shores of the Rueter-Hess Reservoir with Ron who is the General Manager for Parker Water and the Engineering Director, Rebecca Tejada. They provide water to about 60,000 Douglas County customers today… and they’re planning for double that in the coming years.
RON: Ultimately, it’ll have 75,000 acre feet of water and it’ll be 165 feet deep. So we’ve got a ways to go.
KRISTAN: Parker Water is aware of its supply and demand challenges. The aquifers are already in steady decline. And it’s been getting worse for years. That’s why Ron’s predecessor started planning for the Rueter-Hess Reservoir storage project back in 1985.
RON: He realized that they needed to find storage, because when there is renewable water, river runoff type water, it comes in bunches, and then there's none for a long time. So we needed a place to stop that water when it was available. And it was actually completed in 2012.
KRISTAN: The Reservoir can hold 75,000 acre-feet of water. It’s July 2022 and it’s about a quarter full.
RON: So it's doing what it's supposed to do. We built it up when the water is available, and we're drying it down as we use it. Currently, it's about 35% to 40% of our water supply.
KRISTAN: Parker Water also uses groundwater, treated wastewater, and water bought from other providers to supply their customers. And while they have the reservoir, they currently have a gap in their supply side based on projected population growth in the coming years. So they’re making plans for another big project. This one is along the South Platte River.
REBECCA TEJADA: So we are under a compact agreement with Nebraska and Wyoming where we have to send a certain amount of flow there every year on an annual basis. And we regularly exceed that amount. And so when we see exceed that amount, that is water that technically is Colorado water that's leaving the state.
KRISTAN: This is Rebecca Tejada. She’s leading up efforts to capture that excess water and secure additional water rights. Parker Water currently owns farms and has some senior water rights in the South Platte watershed, which meanders through the northeastern plains of Colorado, hundreds of miles away from Douglas County.
REBECCA: But in order to access those, we would need to dry up those farms, which has been something that Colorado has done in the past. But it's not something that we want to do here at Parker Water, we want to keep those farms in operation and keep that culture of agriculture along the South Platte.
KRISTAN: She and Ron have been sitting down to listen and learn from communities. They want to do things differently.
REBECCA: And so we really wanted to ingrain ourselves into that community so that we could start understanding how they operate on the South Platte so that we wouldn't have a negative impact on them. And so we started talking with them and telling them how we needed to shore up our supply.
KRISTAN: The wide world of water management is full of different ways to use, move, and conserve. And in a complex system, it’s helpful to have coalitions and partners. That’s what Parker Water is trying to do with this new project called the Platte Valley Water Partnership, or the co-op as they refer to it.
REBECCA: It hasn't really been contentious. And I think the reason is, you know, we
were working with a co-op. And we, we are fully transparent when we say the original
plan was the traditional, buy the farms dry them up and bring the water. That's how you
develop water and in Colorado, but the coop is where we started hearing and listening
to the farmers out there and what best works for them.
KRISTAN: The partnership was established to create storage for Douglas County to draw on that excess water when needed. That storage is also a valuable asset for farmers who are part of the co-op.
REBECCA: It's absolutely a win-win. And that's the way we're trying to design the project.
KRISTAN: With water in such high demand, instances where there is excess, seem like big opportunities. That’s what Parker Water is banking on. This project could provide water for almost 300,000 people in Douglas County...if it gets completed.
REBECCA: The fact that we started five years ago, honestly, in this process, for a
project that will likely be online in 2040 -- it builds that trust
KRISTAN: Trust. Something that seems to be in short supply in the water conversations I’ve been part of. Whether it’s the history of buy and dry deals, or concerns about drinking water, or projects that harm the environment, mistrust is real and runs deep. In order to build these massive infrastructure projects, trust between communities and water providers seems to be key. But also a solid plan, political support, and… money.
THE POWER OF MONEY AND A PLAN
COMMISSIONER ABE LAYDON: You know, I think part of my job is not to do things to people, but with them.
KRISTAN: This is Abe Laydon – one of three Douglas County commissioners. He’s been in office since 2018.
ABE: And, you know, an issue as controversial as water does spark a lot of emotion -- a lot of just intrinsic value issues and cultural issues related to particular communities.
ABE: I'll be honest, Kristan, most people will never know what a county commissioner is. I knocked on probably 10,000 doors when I first was running for office. And, you know, people are like, “Are you a football Commissioner, like you know, Commissioner Gordon from Batman? What is this?”
KRISTAN: Douglas County commissioners are making decisions for things like zoning, health, and safety for their nearly 400,000 residents. And while he appreciates the work of congress members, he wants to be the local guy. The one that you bump into at the grocery store. Abe’s a fifth-generation Coloradan and loves Douglas County
ABE: It's a beautiful county that has a lot of parks, open space and rural communities. But interspersed within the natural surroundings, our urban landscapes and suburban areas
KRISTAN: Douglas County is also one of the wealthiest in the nation. Abe attributes these factors to why the area is one of the fastest-growing in Colorado.
ABE: We're adding about 24 people per day to the county. And so the demands on the county and on our homebuilding community to ensure that when you turn the tap water comes out of it, is really significant.
KRISTAN: Providing water is fundamental to whether that growth can continue to happen. Limiting growth isn’t something that you hear politicians campaign on. But the constraints on such a vital resource, like water, mean that decisions need to be made with a long-term lens.
ABE: We're not different from most counties in the state, and like most locations in the West, we're dry. And we realized that as a result of changes in the climate, and just the real lack of water resources that we have across the board, we're in a position as county leadership to really identify projects that makes sense for water and wastewater, not just for now, but 5-10-15-20 years into the future.
KRISTAN: And now there is some extra money for these projects.
ABE: So we received about $68.2 million in ARPA funds.
KRISTAN: ARPA is the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus bill that passed in March 2021.
ABE: And a big part of our conversation as commissioners has focused on these water needs and the scarcity that we're facing both in the county and in the West.
KRISTAN: The money needs to be spent soon. So proposals have been flooding in to help solve some of Douglas Counties’ water needs. Including the Platte Valley Partnership. But also a much more controversial one, proposed by Renewable Water Resources. As we’ve discussed, the RWR proposal is a trans-basin pipeline to pump water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range. And they’re seeking $10 million in ARPA funds from the county to help build it.
RWR would then charge $19,500 per annual acre-foot for that water. Some say realistically, they would need to charge the county way more than that. Meaning any municipality that agreed to this deal would be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars to make up the difference in cost. Costs that would have to be passed to the customer. Some experts say the proposal is also contrary to the Colorado Water Plan. The guiding document that many point to when making decisions about water. It outlines water projects that make the most sense for the state.
KRISTAN: The idea of a water plan started back in the ’70s, when the federal government asked every state to come up with one. Colorado’s first stab at it didn’t go over very well.
JAMES EKLUND: It was dead on arrival when it went out to the rest of the state. So that was not going to happen.
KRISTAN: This is James Eklund, a water lawyer. He says the problem with the state’s first draft water plan was that it was a bunch of bureaucrats sitting around a table making decisions.
JAMES: We put really smart people in a room in Denver, and then they baked up cake in that kitchen. And then they tried to sell the cake to all the other parts of the state.
KRISTAN: That plan was shelved. Until decades later, when the state was hit by a significant drought. At the time, James was serving as chief legal counsel to then-Governor John Hickenlooper. And in 2013, Hickenlooper signed an executive order directing the development of the state’s first water plan.
JAMES: And when he signed it, he handed me a pen and said, make sure this gets done.
KRISTAN: With that charge, James had to come up with a better strategy than in the past.
JAMES: Instead of putting a bunch of smart people in the room in Denver, we put those smart people at these basin roundtables. And then they came up with regional plans and sent those into Denver as opposed to Denver making the cake and sending it out to them. That was was much better received. And then I got the opportunity to put that all together into the state's first water plan.
KRISTAN: The water plan was finalized in 2015 – and heralded as a landmark achievement in the water space. It focuses on collaborative projects that provide the most beneficial use to Coloradans while addressing the large gap in water availability to meet all of the demands. It was a bottom-up effort. The updated plan will be released in 2023. And so far, over 240 water projects have been funded. The RWR proposal… it’s not on this list.
COMMISIONER ABE LAYDON FROM MAY 24 WORK SESSION: “I want to express my thanks and gratitude to RWR for coming forward with a really interesting yet challenging proposal.”
KRISTAN: At one point, there were more than a dozen proposals before Douglas county commissioners, all looking for a share of that ARPA money. And the RWR proposal kept sparking the most debate.
COMMISSIONER LORA THOMAS MAY 24 WORK SESSION: “There were too many hurdles, too many fatal flaws in this proposal.”
KRISTAN: Over the course of several meetings in 2021 and 2022, Douglas County Commissioners heard input from people in the valley and across the state, arguments for and against.
COMMENTER AT DEC 9 TOWN HALL: “I believe that if you approve the RWR proposal, you will be doing detrimental things to our fellow Coloradans.”
KRISTAN: Some said that the water of San Luis Valley is over appropriated as it is. That there isn’t enough for the locals, let alone to spare for the Front Range.
COMMENTER AT DEC 9 TOWN HALL: (cont’d): “The optics of this proposal appear to be taking water from a water-stressed, rural, Hispanic population to provide water to a predominantly white, affluent Front Range community.”
COMMENTER 2 AT DEC 9 TOWN HALL: “The volume of the water in the aquifer literally supports the sand dunes, so without the water, we don’t have any sand dunes.”
KRISTAN: At one meeting, a farmer stood up and spoke in favor of the proposal. He said it would give folks the chance to cash in on their water rights. And, after all, he said, RWR was promising a $50 million community development fund that could help the Valley. At another meeting, one person accused the Valley’s residents of hoarding water for thirsty crops. He argued that it wasn’t fair for so much water to be owned by such a small amount of people.
COMMENTER 2 AT DEC 9 TOWN HAL (cont’d): “And these are really important decisions that you’re making, and I ask you to make them with Colorado in mind and with the nation in mind. These are really important resources for all of us.”
KRISTAN: The RWR proposal came up for a vote in May of 2022. One council member voted yes. Another voted no. There was a tie, with one vote left.
ABE: And so I suppose as the deciding vote I had to lean on the expertise of our water attorney... it's all about evidence. And I wanted to hear from experts far wiser than I.
KRISTAN: Over the course of the RWR meetings, Abe had listened to each stakeholder, to the information presented by RWR, and to legal counsel.
ABE: The facts we were hearing couldn't have been farther apart. One side had one set of facts about how positive and beneficial this could be for all the communities involved. You know, the other side couldn't have been more adamant that it was really a net negative for everyone.
KRISTAN: All eyes were on Abe and his vote. He had to sort through a heap of information and perspectives.
ABE: The proposal promised a lot and it looks like there might have been some options to move forward. But as we went through this series, you know, our water law expert really was only able to come back with a conclusion that at this time moving forward on this RWR proposal did not make sense. And that's not to say that we would close the door to any citizen or entity. I mean, we're always open to hearing innovative ideas and potential solutions.
KRISTAN: His vote was a “No…” for now. The legislative hurdles were too big.
ABE: We were looking for a win-win solution where there was community support, there was buy-in from, you know, all of the stakeholder groups
KRISTAN: Are there win-wins in the water world? It seems as though there will be sacrifices, and those sacrifices might not feel like a win, particularly for farmers.
THE VALUE OF WATER
KID IN A VIDEO: “We’re shooting watermelons.”
KRISTAN: Greg Brophy is semi-famous in the wide plains of Eastern Colorado.
VIDEO SOUNDS: Two shots being fired
GREG BROPHY: The thing I'm probably most famous for with watermelons is at the end of harvest. We take the watermelons that are left in the field... and we shoot them. And it's a lot of fun.
KRISTAN: Greg is a family man and a fourth-generation watermelon grower.
GREG BROPHY: We found some old writings of our ancestors writing letters to each other about where they were setting up homesteads. And even back in 1918, 1920 they were commenting that it's pretty good soil for growing watermelons which fascinates me because I don’t know how these Irish potato growers ended up being watermelon farmers.
KRISTAN: Greg’s been consulting for RWR, and he’s also a former state senator.
GREG: I just have this political itch and I just can't get rid of it. So I continue to play around the edges of politics here, even now, eight years after I'm out.
KRISTAN: He has strong beliefs about the value of water for agriculture. Like many of the farmers we’ve spoken with, Greg talks about how water supports his livelihood.
GREG: It means everything to the value of our farm. For instance, the biggest value for our family farm comes from the irrigated acreage that is worth 10 times what the pasture or dryland acreage is worth. That's all because of the water.
KRISTAN: And whether it’s on the eastern plains, the western slope, or in the San Luis Valley, water to farmers can be like a 401k, particularly for the ones with senior water rights. For these farmers, water is an asset that is passed from generation to generation that guarantees some kind of financial future for a family. If there ever comes a time when a farmer wants to get out of the farming business – and cash out that 401k, so to speak – selling to a company like RWR could be one way to do that.
GREG: There have been people who proposed to severely limit an individual farmer’s right effectively to sell that property to the highest bidder for the highest possible use. Those people are usually not the ones who own that water. They're usually folks who recognize the value of that water staying in that community and in their mind’s eyes, the value to the community outweighs the property right value that the water owner has. So it would be like telling you that you can't sell your car to somebody who doesn't live in your neighborhood. Or your neighbors like us so much that they don't want you to sell your house and move out of your neighborhood because they'll miss you. Because you just add so much to the neighborhood.
KRISTAN: For Greg, if farmers want or need to sell their water rights, that is their choice.
GREG: Knowing that I have that out - to sell it if I want to - gives me actually the, you know the comfort, the insurance, of being the eternal optimist that all farmers are. We always think next year's crop is going to be bigger and the prices are going to be better. We always think that.
KRISTAN: Farming is full of challenges and uncontrollable factors. It's a very risky business. But Greg sees that ability to sell water rights as a possible lifeline for farmers, even if other residents of the Valley object to that water leaving the community forever.
GREG: Water is one of those things I think that most people take for granted. But in agriculture, and in rural Colorado, it's everything.
KRISTAN: He believes that public awareness of the issues needs to be
happening now. And we need to stop punting difficult choices into the future.
GREG: I think what's missing is the same thing that's missing when they don't think about electricity, or their sewage system, or running out of toilet paper. Or the other foodstuff. We've had it so good for so long. We have multiple generations now that have never been without. And so we just take it for granted. And we just assume that it's always going to work until it doesn't. And then it's too late. People get hurt. And I kind of want to avoid that. And I think we can but it's not going to be easy.
KRISTAN: This problem is not easy to solve. I hear that over and over and over. And I think one of the biggest reasons comes down to a clash of values. Because while we all value water, we value it differently. What water means to a farmer is different than what it means for a river guide. What water means to you is different than what it might mean to me.
So how can we re-think these differences and the tradeoffs that inevitably come with change? In a way that doesn’t pit urban versus rural? In a way that shifts from conflict to
compromise? In a way that brings long-term thinking into short-term decisions? Next time, in our final episode, we point our eyes toward the future, and what might be a path forward.
Next episode: Searching for Solutions
Water, Under Pressure is a production of the Institute for Science and Policy at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and in partnership with House of Pod.
Episodes are hosted and written by Kristan Uhlenbrock and producer Cat Jaffee, with the help of producer Ann Marie Awad, Nicole Delaney, and Kate Long.
Our theme music is by Alex Paul of Birds of Play. Our episode composition is by Jesse Boynton with tracks from Epidemic Sounds.
To listen to the audio version, or for more information and additional resources on water in the San Luis Valley and greater Colorado, please visit waterunderpressure.org.
The Institute for Science & Policy is committed to publishing diverse perspectives in order to advance civil discourse and productive dialogue. Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or its affiliates.