From the Publisher
Spend time with a group of Colorado water lawyers, planners or officials, and you're reminded how impenetrable and opaque water policy can be. At times, the ambiguity seems intentional, as if those who control our water future would prefer we know as little as possible about "prior appropriation" or "beneficial use."
Perhaps the thinking is that we're better off knowing less. And maybe that's right. By some accounts we face some rather grim choices in the coming years, tradeoffs to be mulled as a result of growing demands on a finite resource.
Then talk with Ron Redd, utilities manager for Castle Rock, and one is struck by the contrast of a water official eager to talk as well as listen, to engage in an honest conversation about a complex, tough issue. He's curious about developments throughout the state but focused, happily so, on his task.
Not that Castle Rock has suddenly found the 100-year supply of water that developers promised as recently as five or six years ago. The opposite is true. Redd's community is in a water bulls-eye, a town almost wholly reliant on a nonrenewable water supply, underground aquifers that elude even the best efforts to quantify their lifespan. By any measure, the city's water future is far less certain than anyone believed a short decade ago.
When I visited Redd three years ago, he'd only recently moved to Castle Rock, and he seemed a bit shell-shocked in his new role, alarmed by the series of events in the mid-2000s that had moved water to the front page of newspapers in the state and South Metro (including Castle Rock) to the center of the discussion. Drought, overuse, myopia, hubris - you name it - had coalesced in a way that wrenched the state from its collective indifference and officially ushered in a stark new era of water scarcity.
For Redd, the clarity was startling. He admits now that he wasn't prepared for what he found, for the magnitude and immediacy of South Metro's problem, and the relative precarious state of the town's water supply. At that time, the stress on the town showed on its newly appointed water steward.
Today, Redd is more relaxed, more optimistic about the prospects of Castle Rock and its South Metro brethren meeting the water needs of the region in a more sustainable way. True to his engineering background, Redd has reduced the challenge facing his city to terms he's comfortable with - numbers and measurements: acre-feet, flow rates, wellhead pressure, pipeline capacity and the like.
Much of his optimism relates to regional cooperation between Aurora, Denver Water and the South Metro Water Authority (to which Castle Rock belongs) around the Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency (WISE) project, an initiative that promises to "enhance the reliability of water supplies for the Denver Metro area by using excess system capacities and unused reusable water." (Source: Tracy Kosloff, MWH Global, American Water Resources Association, Colorado section newsletter).
I caught up with Redd earlier this year.
ColoradoBiz: You left a plum job working for Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to move to Castle Rock - a lifestyle change - but unknowingly leapt from the frying pan to the fire. Finally sleeping easier at night?
Ron Redd: I'm sleeping better, but it's difficult to relax until the problem is solved. I had a civil engineer's dream job in Southern California - I got to be part of huge, multibillion dollar water projects. But I'm from Montana, and my wife spent many of her formative years in Montana, and we wanted to get back to the Western lifestyle.
I was concerned with the transition from a water district that served 15 million customers to one that, at the time, served less than 20,000. My wife's concern was whether or not I would be challenged enough. But developing a sustainable water supply for Castle Rock is one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced. I'm optimistic that WISE can be the solution that addresses Castle Rock's, as well as the South Metro region's, long-term water needs.
ColoradoBiz: Explain how WISE will benefit South Metro and Castle Rock.
Redd: WISE is the agreement between the South Metro Water Authority members (such as Castle Rock) and Denver Water and the city of Aurora. The goal of the agreement is to effectively utilize each other's facilities and water rights.
During normal to wet years, South Metro can purchase Denver Water and Aurora's return flows. The water will be captured north of Denver via alluvial wells, and conveyed south through Aurora's Prairie Waters project to the Peter Biney Water Purification Facility near Aurora Reservoir. Once treated, the water can be wheeled west thorough the East Cherry Creek Valley western line (located parallel to E470) to Chambers Road. The South Metro members will be responsible to move the water to their service areas from that master meter.
During dry years, that same water can be wheeled further west to Denver Water's system to provide them more flexibility with their mountain water. During the dry years, it is essential to South Metro to have storage, such as Rueter-Hess Reservoir, which allows us to build up a water supply, so during the dry periods we can rely on our storage to bridge the gap when water isn't available through WISE. We still have a lot of work to do defining what a dry year is, and how long we in the South Metro region can go without deliveries of WISE water, but negotiations are going well, and our partners are solution oriented.
ColoradoBiz: So much uncertainty surrounds the condition of the groundwater aquifers that supply almost all of South Metro's water. What have you learned in the past few years?
Redd: The Denver Basin Aquifers produce very high quality water and are relatively easy to access. But they're isolated from any recharge from surface water due to the geologic formations and depth.
In Castle Rock, we have some wells over 2,000 feet deep. As we produce water over time, the pressure head of the wells declines, resulting in less water production and higher costs to produce. We've learned that we can reduce the well declines by managing the wells more efficiently. For example, in Castle Rock, our current winter demands are around 3 million gallons per day.
In the summer time, our demands peak at 14 million gallons per day. It reduces efficiencies of the aquifer when they get pumped so hard for half the year and only have the other half of the year to recover. In Castle Rock, we have four main pumping centers across the town's 35 square miles. We now rotate water production between these four centers, giving the pumping centers more time to recover.
South Metro is also working a pilot program to inject treated surface water back into the aquifers. This process is known as aquifer storage and recover and has been successfully implemented by Centennial Water and Sanitation District.
ColoradoBiz: Will cost, and not water, soon be the most pressing challenge of relying on groundwater?
Redd: The cost of groundwater will continue to rise. On average, it costs 87 cents per 1,000 gallons of water for power to pull the water out of the ground. Our first tier in our rate structure is $2.52/1,000 gallons - so 65 percent of the cost is for power alone.
Over time, as the wellhead pressure decreases, the cost of power to pump water will increase further. In addition, the production will decrease, so additional wells need to be constructed to produce the same water, resulting in even more cost.
ColoradoBiz: Despite good intentions, several years ago it seemed that communities in South Metro would end up going their separate ways in pursuit of water. Is the South Metro Water Authority now speaking as one?
Redd: Yes, we are. In years past, I believe there was less communication between water providers. However, as these long-term water programs start to come into focus, there is no way any one community can afford to do it alone; we need a partnership. So out of necessity we have to work together, but over the last few years, it seems we have learned to trust one another more and see the value of teaming on issues.
ColoradoBiz: Any thoughts on whether the state should continue to pursue new projects - potentially new west-to-east diversions of the Colorado River, for example?
Redd: I come from the camp that we do all of the above - from conservation to new projects. We need to fully develop our water rights and utilize every drop we can legally use. I might be naïve, but I also think water projects can address concerns from the various stakeholders so everyone benefits. It will require leadership and resolve to address these difficult issues, but others in our industry have.