When A.J. Krieger stepped in as Firestone town manager in 2018, he realized right away that one particularly pressing issue needed his attention, something that various iterations of the town’s board of trustees had been wrestling with for 15 years: The town’s water supply was limited and vulnerable.
“It sounds funny,” Krieger said, “but the town outgrew its ability to grow because it didn’t have a water supply.”
Sometime around the beginning of April, Firestone, a town of about 16,000 people 30 miles north of Denver, will flip the switch on a long-standing project designed to address those concerns: a new water treatment facility that will process water from an entirely new supply.
The structure, known as the St. Vrain Water Treatment Plant, will treat groundwater pulled from a nearby field of alluvial wells, which are shallow and connected to an adjacent source of surface water. Firestone will then use water rights it has acquired along St. Vrain Creek to replace what it takes from the ground.
Firestone has long been entirely dependent on water produced by the Colorado-Big Thompson project, a massive water collection and delivery system owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and jointly operated by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Known as C-BT, the system collects water from the headwaters of the Colorado River near Grand Lake and delivers it to more than 1 million people and 615,000 irrigated acres along the Front Range.
As communities on the northern Front Range continue to grow, however, demand for C-BT water has increased. The number of shares in the conservancy district are finite, and prices have skyrocketed. Currently, the price of a unit of Northern Water is pushing $70,000 a share, a sevenfold increase from a decade ago. Exactly how much water a unit delivers varies. Northern Water sets the amount for the year in April. The historical average is around 0.7 acre-feet annually, which is also the amount the district set for delivery last year. (An acre-foot is the amount it takes to cover 1 acre in a foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons; one acre-foot is roughly enough to meet the needs of three Colorado households a year on average.)
“At $65,000-plus for a share of C-BT, you can’t make those numbers work,” Krieger said, referring to Firestone. That high cost of water, paired with expensive land prices and inflation in the construction market, make it difficult to build a new house that can be considered more affordable, he said.
When the town first started using C-BT water in the 1970s it was plentiful and cheap. Even 10 years ago, you could likely get a unit of Northern Water for less than $10,000. As recently as 2018, a share averaged around $30,000.
Scarcity of supply
Firestone’s long-standing reliance on water that originates in the Colorado River headwaters highlights the connection between communities on the Front Range and water that flows on the Western Slope. Krieger considers this connection often in the context of how best to manage Firestone’s growth.
“We think transitioning away from Colorado River sources is potentially a smart way to go,” Krieger said. “It diversifies our supply.”
Firestone was founded as a mining town in the early 1900s and remained a rather small community until a boom began in 2000. During the next 10 years, the population spiked from fewer than 2,000 people to more than 10,000, making it the fastest growing community in Colorado during that time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Now, Krieger said, Firestone wants to grow in a way that will allow for more of what he called quality of life improvements, such as adding new restaurants, retail stores and public parks. Krieger said a town needs a certain amount of density to attract or justify those types of projects. With the help of the new water system, he hopes adding around 1,200 residents a year over the next 10 years or so will mark the right balance between growing but not growing too fast.
“If you look backward at Firestone’s history, that’s kind of what happened,” he said. “They grew super fast but didn’t have the operating systems in place to support all of it.”
But, Krieger said, all of this talk of measured growth and quality of life improvements is just an academic exercise if you don’t have the water to support it. “I think over the course of the last several months, as we’ve seen more and more news stories about the pressure particularly in the Western United States, and reports of Lake Mead being at its lowest historic level, and pressures in California — even a couple months ago the story about the state of Nebraska wanting to work on the Platte River to secure supplies — it doesn’t take much to figure out that there’s a scarcity of supply here.”
About five years ago, Firestone hired LRE Water, a Denver water engineering and consulting company, to help the town with its new water plan. “Even five years ago, we knew that the town is entirely dependent on the Colorado River and that there’s a lot of turmoil and uncertainty and that, you know, things will be different,” Gregg Ten Eyck, an LRE engineer, said. “Having a diverse supply seemed to make a lot of sense.”
Northern Water serves several of the fastest growing communities in Colorado, the district’s spokesman Jeff Stahla said. “What you’re seeing is communities up and down the northern Front Range are looking to diversify their portfolios and are doing so because of the challenges that are occurring throughout the region. And Firestone is among them.”
None of this is cheap. Firestone has invested about $76 million into the new supply and treatment facility, which also includes plans for an initial 1,250 acre-foot storage reservoir across the street from the treatment plant as well as some additional future storage. However, Ten Eyck said, he estimates the price of the new water will still be only about 60% of what new C-BT water would cost the town.
Right away, the new system, Ten Eyck said, will account for no more than 10% of the town’s water supply. But as the town grows, he said it has the potential to process closer to 50%.
Water is the key word whether you live on the Front Range or in L.A. or Phoenix or Las Vegas, said Donald Provost, a founding principal of Alberta Development Partners LLC, which has residential projects in Firestone. “They’re all challenged by water. How it gets stored and treated and delivered to the customers.”
Provost said he thinks Firestone’s new setup will encourage more development. “It makes us as developers more interested in investing capital in a city that has invested in their water distribution infrastructure.”
Ten Eyck has wondered if not just developers but residents will also start to consider the security of a town’s water supply as a factor when deciding where to buy a new home. “I’ve asked homebuilders and I’ve asked Realtors and people in the business,” he said. “They say that they don’t think buyers will look at that unless their mortgage company or their insurance company or somebody tells them to.”
Krieger said he thinks the question of a potential new resident considering a town’s water supply depends on where the buyer is coming from. He said some people are moving from places where the challenge is what to do with too much water.
“For people who migrate here from other parts of the country, that’s maybe less of a concern,” Krieger said. “But if you’re moving here from other parts of Colorado, or other parts of the Front Range, I think you’re already pretty in tune with how difficult, at times how expensive, the whole water proposition is. So yeah, I think you’ll see it more and more.”