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Environment

As aquifers drain, El Paso County is hoping a nearly endless loop of water can fight future shortages

Could a $134 million pipeline recycling suburban water help wean communities off depleted aquifer sources? The latest complex solution for the arid, fast-growing West.

Fountain Creek is seen on Friday, August 20, 2021, in El Paso County. The 74.5-mile-long Fountain Creek is a tributary of the Arkansas River. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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FOUNTAIN — Water drawn from deep wells in the southern Denver Basin has a wild ride ahead, if a $134 million proposal to build a pipeline and reusable water “loop” through much of El Paso County moves forward. 

With drought and climate change piling on top of population growth, getting creative to the point of crazy is the new water reality. The federal government underlined just how precious water is last month when it shut down 2022 deliveries to Arizona from Lake Mead’s Colorado River water.

Every drop of water inside the boundaries of Colorado must be counted, coddled, diverted, bought, rented and, if necessary, looped. 

For the H20 molecules lying thousands of feet underground in the Denver Basin aquifer, trapped by millions of years of geologic shifts, there would be a long journey ahead.

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Should they get sucked up a well owned by a northern El Paso County water agency, the water drops may first be sprinkled on a lawn in, say, the Woodmoor district east of Monument. From there, the water would sink back underground and flow downhill toward Monument Creek. On into Fountain Creek, and south toward the Arkansas River. 

Then the drops would ripple past Colorado Springs, which is desperate to entrap more water of its own for future growth, and is pushing for unloved dams 100 miles away to bring more Western Slope water over the Continental Divide. 

On the water would glide past Security, Widefield and other communities, which are struggling to secure clean water supplies of their own in the wake of contamination from polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) running off firefighting foam used for decades at a local military base

Still going, the hardworking aquifer water then would pass farmland that will eventually be dried up by Woodmoor and other northern suburbs buying agriculture water for their own growth. At the town of Fountain, the water would pass a town that has slowed new homebuilding because it doesn’t have enough future supply for new water taps. 

Fountain Creek Chilcott Ditch irrigation water diversion The Loop
The Chilcott Ditch headgate on Fountain Creek near Fountain, Colo., takes water off the stream for farming and other irrigation uses. Suburban water districts want to build a pipeline from here to the northern suburbs called The Loop. Aug. 24, 2021. (Michael Booth, The Colorado Sun)

And then those precious H20 molecules would hit a curve of Fountain Creek where the Chilcott Ditch headgate looms like an ominous fork in the road of life: If Woodmoor and its allies get their way, the molecules they pulled from the timeless aquifer will get diverted here and sent into a $130 million-plus pipeline, to be shipped back north to the top of El Paso County. The journey for those molecules would begin all over again, in a project appropriately dubbed The Loop, until — in the official water rights phrase — the original aquifer water has been “used to extinction.” 

But that only happens if El Paso County and local water agencies convince the keepers of the federal American Rescue Plan that the stimulus funds can be used for water projects like the Loop, and not just highways. 

Can this tortured trip for the ancient, sandstone-filtered water really be the best solution to Colorado’s relentlessly expanding water demands? 

“There’s something in it for everybody,” said Jessie Shaffer, Woodmoor Water and Sanitation District manager and a key proponent of the Loop.

“Mother Nature isn’t sending more water down into those aquifers naturally. So when the water’s gone, it’s gone,” said Shaffer. 

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“Water is gold,” said El Paso County’s northern district commissioner, Holly Williams. The Loop may seem complicated, Williams said, but the problem it would solve is pretty simple: suburbs from El Paso County to north of Palmer Divide and on up to Greeley are relying too much on aquifer water that won’t last. 

“The more straws you’re putting down into that aquifer with wells is just like everybody’s drinking out of the same soda,” Williams said. “And eventually, that is no longer going to fill up, because let’s face it, we may be a drier, arid state for a while.”

Backers of the Loop idea say it would solve many problems at once.

It would reduce unsustainable withdrawals from the Denver Basin aquifers, with local water providers already on notice they need to find alternative sources. The pipeline would allow the homes in subdivisions north and east of Colorado Springs to use southern water rights they’ve already purchased but can’t access. And it would promote water recycling, considered a key to Colorado’s water use future, by allowing those northern areas to reuse aquifer water after it’s run off into Fountain Creek and shipped north again by the Loop. 

From a purely practical standpoint, drilling new wells into the aquifer is getting so expensive that the suburban districts think twice even when they own the rights. As the aquifer sinks from overuse, drilling prices soar. 

Williams mentioned a northern exurban community that spent more than a million dollars on a well to water its new golf course. 

The growing communities north of the Air Force Academy and south of Douglas County are “very popular areas to live, obviously,” Williams said. “And anytime individuals come in, property developers come in, to build, we have to go through this water conversation.”

Loop El Paso County Colorado Springs water projects pipeline Fountain Creek Woodmoor Water and Sanitation
A map being shown around El Paso County by suburban water agencies traces the path of the Loop, a complex $134 million pipeline and pumping project that would allow northern and eastern communities in the county to reuse aquifer water returning to Fountain Creek, and pipe along water rights they have bought up on the southern side of the county. (Provided by Woodmoor Water and Sanitation District)

El Paso County grew by more than 17%, and more than 100,000 people, between 2010 and 2020. As developers work to build out planned communities in areas like Flying Horse or Banning Lewis Ranch, the county’s population is projected to expand by hundreds of thousands more in the coming decades. 

State water engineers who control withdrawals from aquifers have allowed cities and other water buyers to take out water at a rate protecting a 100-year life for the underground pools. Alarmed at the drops in the Denver Basin pools, El Paso County changed the local standard to preserve 300 years of life for the aquifers. That was another push to local water providers to find other sources. 

The Loop pipeline, Shaffer said, is a key to shifting “off of a finite and exhaustible water supply onto a long term, renewable and sustainable water supply.” 

It wouldn’t be the first time El Paso County has found water through grabbing back its own lawn runoff. Nor the most expensive. 

Colorado Springs Utilities built the Southern Delivery System for more than $800 million, over more than 60 miles of pipeline, to recapture use of Fountain Creek water running down to the Arkansas. Colorado Springs had the right to reuse “to extinction” the water it brought from other river basins across the Continental Divide. But after one use, the water ended up downstream. 

The Southern Delivery System in part exchanges rights to that water for water stored in Pueblo Reservoir, then pumps that water uphill from the reservoir back toward Colorado Springs. The complex system allows for two or three times’ reuse of the water transferred from other basins. 

Colorado Springs itself isn’t done looking for new water sources. It’s pairing with Aurora Water to pursue a second dam and reservoir on Homestake Creek, which flows into the Eagle and Colorado Rivers west of the divide. The agencies want to drill dam construction test holes for a proposed Whitney reservoir on Homestake Creek, though they are vehemently opposed by conservation groups saying no more water should be diverted from the Colorado River to the Front Range. 

That’s the kind of dispute the handful of northern El Paso County communities would love to avoid by gathering support for the Loop project. 

“It’s a great vision,” said Williams, whose district includes a number of the unincorporated subdivisions in need of water. 

With the county commissioners generally supportive of the coalition pursuing the Loop, the big question becomes money. Woodmoor, with its 8,000-plus customers, can’t raise the $134 million alone. 

“For any smaller agency, to be able to pay for that by themselves, it’s just not realistic,” Shaffer said. “So it’s going to take a group of individuals to band together and to be able to pool their resources to construct a project like this.”

That’s where the American Rescue Plan, signed by President Biden in March, comes into the picture. State and local agencies will battle over the $1.9 trillion stimulus funding for years to come, but Colorado water officials are hopeful some grants can be used for drinking water supply projects. There also may be far more stimulus and infrastructure funding to come, in a building package awaiting final U.S. House approval and a greatly expanded recovery budget that may pass under reconciliation. 

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“A lot of folks seem to be really focused on transportation projects: roads, bridges. And unfortunately, water projects tend to sort of go by the wayside,” Shaffer said. But, Shaffer and other supporters told county commissioners in a presentation on the Loop, “water is everything.”

“You know, that smooth ride down a brand new interstate is going to be less enjoyable if you’re wondering where that next glass of water you need is going to come,” he said. 


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