A Primer on Water
My name is Marco Fiorito, and I am a previous member of the Board of Directors of the Triview Metro District. Along with staff, other Directors, and the district’s consultants, I assembled this primer on water after repeatedly observing inaccurate, misleading and erroneous information during various public forums and on social media.
Common misconceptions include how Triview bills for water and sewer services, how water is used in the Tri-Lakes Region, and whether there is a general “lack of water” in our area. It is my hope that this primer might assist residents to better understand water and the use of water, including by cities, towns and municipalities.
While I am not a hydrologist or an expert in water, I have consulted many people who are in order to create this information. This primer is by no means a comprehensive analysis on water in Colorado. I encourage you to consult some of the thousands of books and papers that have been written about the history of water in Colorado and predictions for the future of water in our state.
I hope that this very broad material will motivate you to learn more and enable you to challenge your elected officials about water conservation, regional efforts designed to enhance water supply reliability, and how future development may affect and/or improve water operations. Before we go too far, here are some terms to be familiar with when talking water:
- Volume of water is referenced in acre-foot. Picture an acre of land filled with water at a depth of one foot – that is an acre-foot of water. One acre-foot of water is equivalent to 325,851 gallons and is sufficient to supply the inside uses and limited landscape irrigation to about 2.3 homes annually.
- Non-renewable water is a term used to define water that is pumped from an aquifer that is not replenished by rain. Use of non-renewable water supplies are in essence “mining” of the aquifers, and each gallon withdrawn is a gallon that will no longer be available. Water that is present in the Denver Basin formations, which contains four distinct aquifers, is considered non-renewable water.
- Nontributary Groundwater is a term used to describe water that has little to no connection to surface streams. Water in deeper Denver Basin aquifers in the Tri-Lakes Region (the Laramie-Fox Hills, and sometimes the Arapahoe) is generally considered non-tributary (it does not affect the flow of renewable water) to surface water streams such as Monument Creek, Fountain Creek and even the Arkansas River. This is a very important distinction and allows cities, towns and special districts to use and reuse non-tributary nonrenewable water to extinction.
- Not-Nontributary Groundwater is an admittedly confusing double negative that actually does mean what it says. Not-nontributary groundwater describes water in the shallower Denver Basin aquifers in the Tri-Lakes Region that is neither tributary/renewable water, nor nontributary The use of not-nontributary groundwater does have some impact on surface water users, and therefore depletions from its use must be replaced, or “augmented”, in time, place and amount to prevent injury to other users. Once such pumping is suitably augmented, not-nontributary groundwater may be used and re-used to extinction. Entities that can quantify the non-tributary portion of their wastewater plant discharges retain dominion and control of this water and use and reuse this water to extinction, provided of course adequate water rights and delivery mechanisms are in place to allow for the use of this water. Use of return flows are critical to water conservation as we will see later.
- Renewable Water is a term used to define water that is naturally replenished by snow melt and/or rainfall. It is typically associated with natural bodies of water like rivers, creeks and lakes, or manmade water systems that are also naturally replenished like dikes, reservoirs and ditches. While renewable water resources can vary in availability from year to year based on rainfall variations, unlike non-renewable water resources, there is no “mining” of a finite resource, with mother nature annually providing such renewable supplies. Renewable supplies are therefore viewed as sustainable resources.
- Return Flow is a term used to describe waste-water that has been treated back to stream standards prior to discharge from a wastewater treatment plant/water reclamation facility to a river or creek. Depending on the nature of the initial waste-water stream, return-flows may be re-usable or fully consumable, and if reused can act to reduce demand on non-renewable sources, and maximize the use of water supplies.
Big Picture – The State of Colorado and Water (the 30,000-foot Level)
Since native people first settled here, water has been a valuable and critical resource to this region. Paleo hydrologists (archeologists that study ancient water structures) have identified reservoirs, ditches, aqueducts and cisterns used by native peoples as far back as 750 A.D.
From the time that Colorado was a territory of the fledgling United States, the value of water to the homesteaders and miners was such that the Colorado Doctrine was drafted, breaking new legal ground in how water was used. The Colorado Doctrine states that:
- All surface and groundwater in Colorado is a public resource for beneficial use by all
- A water right is a right to use a portion of the public’s water resources, and a water right establishes where the water can be used, what the water can be used for, and how much water can be withdrawn from a stream system at any given time for such uses
- A water right is created by diversion of previously unappropriated water from a stream and placing such diverted water to beneficial use; a water right so created is a real property right
- Water rights owners may use streams and aquifers for the transportation and storage of water
- Water rights owners can build facilities on the private land of others to divert, extract, or move water with consent of the owner or upon payment of just compensation (i.e. a private right of condemnation/eminent domain)
There are nine major river systems that originate in the State of Colorado, and these nine rivers go on to feed at least 15 other states west of the Mississippi on either side of the Continental Divide:
(1) The North Platte River flows north into Wyoming, and on to Nebraska before joining the South Platte, eventually the Missouri and ultimately the Mississippi, (2) the Rio Grande flows south to New Mexico and Texas, and ultimately to Mexico, (3) the San Juan River flows southwest into New Mexico before joining the Colorado in Utah, while the (4) Yampa, (5) Gunnison and Dolores and (6) San Miguel Rivers flow west of the Rockies to join the (7) Colorado River in Utah as well. The (8) Arkansas flows east to Kansas before joining the Mississippi, and (9) the South Platte River flows east to Nebraska as well, and ultimately on to the Mississippi.
A tenth river system, the Republican, also flows east into Kansas but is not the subject of any administrable water rights in Colorado and is primarily allocated by compact to the State of Kansas. Renewable water supplies which might be utilized in the Tri-Lakes Region are presumed to be tributary to the Arkansas River system, though the potential for water tributary to the South Platte exists. Groundwater tributary to each of these major river systems is administered in much the same manner as surface diversions, recognizing the hydrological connection between alluvium and surface flows.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) identifies several water aquifer systems underlying the State of Colorado, though for folks in the Tri-Lakes Region, only the Denver Basin aquifer formations are of significant import. The USGS and the Colorado Geological Survey (CGS) conduct regular surveys of the wells that tap into the various aquifer systems to track the amounts of water pumped, the levels of activity at each pump as well as regular water quality assessments to ascertain if there are any changes in water quality and pumping volumes.
These regular studies also allow the USGS to build computational models to enable water engineers to assess how much water can be expected to be pumped out in a given time period in the future. The Colorado Division of Water Resources also maintains a database and groundwater model to attempt to monitor Denver Basin aquifer levels.
There are nine interstate water “compacts” or agreements with neighboring states guaranteeing that Colorado will share surface (or renewable) water from the river systems originating in Colorado. Hence, roughly 2/3 of the water that originates in our state goes to other states.
Colorado makes do with the remaining 1/3; of which approximately 86% goes to agricultural use (as of 2017). This means that, despite rapidly growing urban and suburban populations, residential and commercial water users in Colorado continue to make do with only 14% of the renewable water available to Colorado, resulting in significant reliance, to date, on non-renewable water supplies (i.e. the Denver Basin aquifers, in the case of the Tri-Lakes Region).
What is most important about our Denver Basin aquifer formations is this: they are a non-renewable resource. In a perfect world, the aquifers would be ideally used as a fallback during a severe drought situation when renewable sources are limited. More and more water districts and municipalities are moving away from the finite Denver Basin aquifers as their sole resource of supply and looking into renewable surface water sources of supply.
Regional Picture — El Paso County (the 10,000 ft level)
The Denver Basin Aquifer System is made up of four separate aquifers. From the shallowest to deepest they are the Dawson, Denver, Arapahoe, and Laramie-Fox Hills. The Denver Basin formations cover an area approximately 7,000 square miles reaching as far north as Greeley and as far south as Colorado Springs; and west from the foot of Front Range all the way east to Limon.
Although it is difficult to fully quantify how much water remains in each of the Denver Basin aquifers, and how many years such water may remain should extensive pumping continue, it is roughly estimated that there are approximately between 30-100 years of water remaining in the Denver Basin Aquifer – this fairly wide range of estimates varies based on locations within the formations (water levels on the edges appears to recede faster than at locations near the center), as well as the purposes for which a study may be completed. Colorado statutes require allocation of Denver Basin groundwater on a minimum of a 100-year aquifer life, and water court decrees allocating such supplies rely upon the Colorado Division of Water Resources “SB-5 Model” to ensure such requirement is met.
When I reference “water remaining” in the Denver Basin formations, what I am referring to is water that can be withdrawn economically, and at such a production level that the wells can be used to supply water users. As water is withdrawn from these aquifers, water levels decrease, as each Denver Basin aquifer is presumed to have minimal, if any surface recharge. This eventually leads to reduced pumping volume, requiring more wells to produce the same amount of water supply.
Simply adding more wells in the same aquifer is not a sustainable option, as these wells are all hydraulically connected (within each aquifer) which can lead to what is known as “well to well” interference if such wells are located too close to each other. Likewise, eventually adding additional wells to produce reduced supplies will simply not be economically viable, and ultimately available water in the Denver Basin aquifers would ultimately be exhausted completely.
However, not all water within El Paso County is non-renewable. In fact, of the more than 30 municipalities and special districts that provide water and wastewater services to El Paso County residents, several rely solely on renewable and reusable water sources. This includes the City of Colorado Springs, whose utility enterprise relies on an impressive system of reservoirs, rivers and pump stations throughout the Pikes Peak Region and beyond extending as far away as Aspen.
Other water providers, such as the Donala Water District, have expanded their water rights portfolio so as to rely largely on renewable water supplies purchased on the Arkansas River during their peak season (summer), reducing their reliance on finite Denver Basin groundwater supplies. Other water providers continue to rely exclusively on non-renewable Denver Basin groundwater supplies.
Regardless of water source, for development to occur in the county, a developer must show a water availability for that specific development for a given time period. Regardless of where water comes from, there are rules within El Paso County, in addition to those imposed by Colorado Water Law, dictating restrictions on water use and development.
Within El Paso County, as opposed to the state’s 100-year aquifer life requirement described above, a developer seeking land use approvals must show a water supply that will be sustainable for 300 years, though within municipalities with their own land use authority, it remains 100 years. For development to occur within a special district like Triview (which is subject to the Town of Monument’s land use authority), for instance, a developer must provide water rights to the district sufficient to provide for 100-years of water supply for the specific size of the proposed development.
For a special district subject to County planning, that same developer would need to provide a 300-year water supply. In other words, if a developer wants to build 300 single family homes, the developer has to provide water rights equivalent to what 300 homes would use in a 100-year time frame (in a municipality) or 300-year period of time (in the County). In some communities an “in-lieu-of” fee is collected from the developer for the amount of water that the development is short, to allow the water provider to go acquire such water on the developer’s behalf.
The Local Area — Tri-Lakes Region (the Ground Level)
In the Tri-Lakes area, the following governmental entities provide the bulk of municipal and quasi-municipal water services: Town of Monument, Town of Palmer Lake, Woodmoor Water and Sanitation, Forest Lakes Metropolitan District, Triview Metropolitan District, Donala Water and Sanitation District, and Colorado Springs Utilities.
There are also a large number of private residences that have their own individual wells drilled into the Denver Basin formations, typically the shallowest Dawson aquifer, which is utilized far less by municipal providers (i.e. within the Black Forest, primarily). As mentioned previously, Triview currently relies on non-renewable Denver Basin groundwater supplies. However, for the past 2 years, Triview has been working to purchase renewable water rights, in the form of shares in the Fountain Mutual Irrigation Company (FMIC), with the intent that the FMIC water will in the future be used as the primary source for provision of supply to district residents, with Denver Basin aquifers as a fall back/drought water source.
FMIC water rights are among the most senior water rights on Fountain Creek, and Triview is working with its neighbors to determine the best way to physically take delivery of such supplies in the Tri-Lakes Region. Woodmoor similarly relies primarily on Denver Basin aquifer wells, though it also has renewable surface water rights on Dirty Woman Creek, tributary to Monument Creek. Woodmoor has recently purchased a ranch located just south of Fountain that includes the rights to renewable water in the Chilcott Ditch, also among the more senior water rights on Fountain Creek, ultimately to provide renewable supplies for their residents.
The Donala Water District also relies on non-renewable Denver Basin aquifer water supplies, but has purchased a ranch with water near Leadville, as well as the Laughlin Ditch on Fountain Creek, and through agreements with Colorado Springs Utilities, is already able to utilize such renewable water sources during the summer months. The Town of Monument relies on non-renewable Denver Basin aquifer ground water, though it owns some water rights on Beaver Creek (tributary to Monument Creek) and is looking into a reuse and/or renewable expansion in the future.
The Forest Lakes Metropolitan District currently relies on non-renewable Denver Basin groundwater, though they have an exchange with Colorado Springs Utilities allowing impoundment and use of renewable surface water supplies on Beaver Creek in their reservoirs, and in the future, they will utilize a combination of renewable water and Denver Basin aquifer supplies to provide their residents with a diversified water source.
The Town of Palmer Lake relies on a combination of Denver Basin aquifer water supplies as well as a portfolio of senior renewable water rights diverting from Monument Creek into the Glen Park reservoirs for provision of water services to their residents. The remaining commercial and residential properties in our Tri-Lakes Region rely on either Colorado Springs Utilities, smaller special districts or water companies not described in this “primer” or their own private wells from the shallow Dawson aquifer for water.
As mentioned above, some water providers have taken concrete steps toward diversifying their respective water portfolios to include renewable water, and others continue to plan to that end. Most renewable water rights available for purchase happen to be well south of the Tri-Lakes Region, so the question these water providers now face is, “How to get the water up here?”
To answer this difficult question, the municipal and quasi-municipal water providers within the Tri-Lakes Region have previously cooperated in studies to analyze various infrastructure projects that might provide a conduit to deliver water from Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River to northern El Paso County, and continue to work together on potential regionalization efforts that might assist with the same. It is much cheaper and more efficient for multiple water providers to band together to design and build one delivery system than for each of them to do it individually.
Recently, the municipal and special district water providers in the Tri-Lakes Region have participated in discussions with Colorado Springs Utilities (CS-U) to potentially coordinate a regional effort to cooperatively deliver water supplies acquired by each entity individually to the Tri-Lakes Region. Should these discussions progress, perhaps as early as 2021, the Tri-Lakes Region could be physically utilizing diversified renewable waters, ensuring more stable long-term water sources for its residents and businesses.
Wastewater – Reusable Effluent
Which brings us to waste water. A key piece to municipal uses of water is to remember that when wastewater is treated (i.e. cleaned) to non-potable standards, such treated effluent is either returned to the river system from which it originated to be available for downstream water users to utilize in priority, or if it is fully consumable, such treated effluent can be returned to the provider’s own water distribution system for re-use, by treating further to potable standards.
By using such fully consumable re-usable effluent, or “return flows” a second (or third…) time, a water provider is able to use such water supplies to extinction, further reducing dependency on nonrenewable water supplies, extending their potential life, and maximizing the use of and thereby conserving renewable water supplies.
With these concepts in mind, in 2017 Triview and its regional partners began a conversation with Colorado Springs Utilities to address water and wastewater regionalization efforts. Colorado Springs Utilities is very much in favor of the regional wastewater efforts due to available capacity in existing CS-U treatment facilities, and further because of the Air Force Academy Visitor Center development plans and its need for wastewater services.
This regional wastewater conceptual plan would bring a wastewater pipeline up to the Northgate area (the North Monument Creek Interceptor, or NMCI), which would enable Tri-Lakes Region waste water providers to easily connect to it and deliver waste water to CS-U for treatment at CS-U facilities. This plan, if implemented, would address two issues for Triview and neighboring municipalities and Districts: (1) the coming need for expensive wastewater treatment plant upgrades, and; 2) the ability to use fully consumable, reusable effluent/return flows to supplement each entity’s respective water portfolio.
By regionalizing the wastewater process, the Tri-Lakes Region’s water providers can potentially remove the need to independently run two wastewater plants, plants that are becoming increasingly expensive to operate and maintain, thereby saving residents and commercial wastewater users significant money in the long run. More importantly, these efforts reinforce and encourage a regional approach to water and wastewater to act as a funding force-multiplier. The pipelines required for water and wastewater transportation are not cheap, and by pooling resources, Tri-Lakes Region water and wastewater providers can achieve a level of efficiency not possible individually.
I hope this “primer” has helped you better understand the complexities of providing an adequate municipal and quasi-municipal water and waste water supplies to our region, and the efforts that local water and wastewater providers are making on behalf of their residents and citizens. Water education and conservation requires all residents to be and remain involved because water is truly a public resource.