Did you know that within El Paso County there are more than 30 different water providers? One is so small that it only serves 28 homes on a mountainside and utilizes a small, man-made reservoir in a cave to collect mountain groundwater seep to provide potable water. The majority of these water districts rely on groundwater to serve their customers. Some water districts use alluvial groundwater. Most of the water districts in the Pikes Peak region rely on Denver Basin groundwater.
Denver Basin groundwater has been instrumental in the growth of the Pikes Peak region. Roughly one-quarter of El Paso Counties’ residents use this precious resource. But there is growing concern with users from all along the Front Range, that with the continued and rapid growth of this area, Denver Basin groundwater is not a sustainable water resource.
Both the Colorado Water Plan and the Arkansas Basin Implementation Plan have stressed the criticality of transitioning away from the Denver Basin as a reliable source of water. Since El Paso County is on the very southern end of the Denver Basin aquifer system, and therefore where the thickness of each layer is at its shallowest, the pumping rates are not as robust as in other parts of the Front Range.
I work for Colorado Springs Utilities, and my long-term water planning is focused on providing safe and reliable water for people inside city limits and the military installations Colorado Springs Utilities supports. Colorado Springs Utilities relies on an extensive surface water system developed over 13 counties and in three different river basins. Unlike many water providers, Colorado Springs Utilities only uses groundwater in very limited cases.
I could go on for days about the water sources of other regional water providers because we, at Colorado Springs Utilities, recognize that economic vitality of the Pikes Peak region depends on having access to safe and reliable water.
In the shadow of Pikes Peak
Recently the Colorado Springs Utilities Board adopted policies that encourage Colorado Springs Utilities to join with other water providers in the Pikes Peak region to look for opportunities to collaborate on water infrastructure, reuse, and supply projects that will reduce dependence on non-renewable groundwater supplies and aid in water security for the metropolitan area. Colorado Springs Utilities is seeking opportunities to maximize efficiency while enabling each regional water provider to maintain independence.
Colorado Springs Utilities has proposed a joint planning effort with the Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority to study the water infrastructure needed to support collaborative regional water and wastewater services, and the timing and costs of potential alternatives. The Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority is a natural partner because it represents many water providers in the region.
We are in the very early stages of working together to develop long-term water and wastewater solutions. Solutions that address water scarcity, climate variability, regulatory uncertainty, growing populations, and the increasing monetary and environmental costs of projects. It’s hard to know how long we have before the use of non-renewable Denver Basin supplies hits a crisis point. We do know that long-term water planning spans decades, so it is better to start now.
We may not know the specifics of how we all will continue to meet the challenges, but long-term water planning will focus on a few givens:
Developing reusable water strategies
Colorado Springs Utilities reuses every drop, whether it is through non-potable reuse, exchanges (read about exchanges on page 15 of WEco’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law), or even innovating methods for direct potable and indirect potable reuse. Many other regional water providers are still fully developing their water reuse portfolios. Being a good steward of water resources means reusing water to the full legal and physical extent. Joining forces to develop reuse mechanisms means more opportunities to share the capital costs associated with reuse to be spread over a larger customer base.
More efficient operations of infrastructure
Our water systems have all been designed to meet peak day demands. For planning purposes that’s about 2.5 times an average day demand and they usually occur on the hottest summer days. It is essential to design infrastructure to meet peak day demands, but there may be opportunities to operate large infrastructure in a way that optimizes its use during off-peak periods throughout the year. Additional storage may be the key to leveraging water treatment facility capabilities for multiple users. Maybe a planned pipeline could be enlarged to serve multiple water districts, rather than multiple pipelines being dug across the county. Having a better understanding of the needs of water providers now and in the future will aid in planning regional infrastructure that can serve multiple entities.
Developing more cooperative storage
As entities transition away from Denver Basin groundwater, additional storage will be needed to maintain reliable water services. To create resilient water supply, storage must be utilized to collect and store water from wetter years to use during drier years. Additional storage has numerous other benefits as well. Storage can also be used for local recreation and can help maintain augmentation schedules and efficiently operate exchanges as well as give entities more operational flexibility.
Our concern for water doesn’t end once it’s been delivered to your home. On average, 90 percent of the water that gets used indoors ends up going to a water resource recovery facility, also known as a wastewater treatment plant. Keeping water resource facilities upgraded to continually meet more stringent discharge standards is incredibly expensive. Both the federal and state governments are encouraging the consolidation of smaller facilities to regional water resource recovery facilities to minimize the number of discharge points, simplify regulatory compliance, and to gain economies of scale. If compliance with a discharge permit requires $12 million in upgrades to a water resource recovery facility, the rate impact is much smaller per family if the costs are spread out among more customers. The rate impact on 5,000 customers would be much greater than for 500,000 customers sharing the costs.
Most reusable water comes from treated wastewater. Fewer water reclamation facilities not only means fewer discharge points, but potentially another opportunity to collaborate with more entities on reuse solutions since more reusable return flows would be aggregated at one point.
Planning for the future together
I am excited to join with other water and wastewater planning professionals in the region to collaborate and help develop a suite of regional water and wastewater projects. I believe that we have an incredible opportunity to unite behind common goals, increase efficiency, and develop robust solutions to complicated problems that will ensure that all living in the shadow of Pikes Peak have access to clean and reliable water.
Jenny Bishop is a Senior Project Engineer in Water Resource Planning. In this role Jenny is responsible for the Regional Water and Wastewater Services Program, a planning project to enable Utilities to provide long-term water sustainability and wastewater treatment solutions for the benefit of the Pikes Peak Region. Jenny has been with Utilities for 14 years, has a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Dayton and is a licensed Professional Engineer. Jenny also holds a J.D. and MSEL from Vermont Law School. She loves spending time with her husband and daughter, cooking, traveling, and playing piano for her little girl to dance and sing along to.