A high-level overview of how water-supply issues affect Adams County communities.
Water: A key ingredient for life, a necessity for survival, a source of recreation and entertainment, and so much more. Providing this precious resource to millions of citizens in an arid state is a challenge Colorado has been dealing with for a very long time.
In fact, Colorado was one of the first states to recognize this dilemma. According to the Division of Water Resources, we were the first state to task public officials with fair water distribution all the way back in 1879.
While society as a whole is leaps and bounds ahead of where we were in the late 1800s, sourcing water and water supply in Colorado remains a challenge.
Water is a resource easily taken for granted. Many people, whether residents or business owners, simply know that when they turn on their faucets, water comes out. We understand paying our monthly water bill to ensure water really does come out of our faucets, but the mechanisms of how that water gets to us, where the water comes from, why it’s a challenge, and who is in charge of addressing those challenges are not as easily understood.
For many communities in Adams County, those mechanisms are presenting some significant issues, and, in some cases, affecting development in those municipalities.
Let’s dive into what each community’s issues are and how they’re preparing to meet those challenges head on in the coming years. (Yes, pun intended…)
Water Sources: Denver Water Department; Clear Creek Basin
Challenges: The city of Arvada’s comprehensive plan helps guide development and investment decisions, and it estimates what the city will be like when it has reached its maximum population or “buildout.”
“Calculations show that we don’t have sufficient water supply for that buildout yet, so we’re a little short on our water-supply situation,” shares Arvada Director of Utilities Jim Sullivan. Sullivan adds that there is time to find another water source. The buildout, with an estimated population of 165,000, isn’t expected until 2065, and Arvada is diligently working on the issue.
While the city’s needs are being met for now, Sullivan and his team are always looking into ways they can improve their resources, whether that’s conservation programs, water budgets, or proactively managing water rates. For example, to ensure the plan stays on track, and residents and businesses aren’t affected, Arvada only sells a tap when there is a permanent water supply to back it up. Because of the comprehensive plan and the city’s efforts, neither citizens nor developers have experienced negative impacts, but that could change without more hard work.
“We’re starting to feel the pinch a little bit around development in the northwest,” Sullivan explains. “That’s the area that’s still growing quite a bit, and where we’re starting to tell folks we don’t have the supply to meet the buildout. We need to think carefully about what’s going to get built out here in case that necessary supply doesn’t materialize in the next 8-10 years.”
Arvada continues to plan ahead to meet future demand for water and is negotiating to secure a water supply now.
“We’ve been working with Denver Water on the expansion of the Gross Reservoir,” says Sullivan. “We have a contract with them that allows us to financially participate in that project, and we’ll get about 3,000 acre feet of water, which is what we anticipate our shortfall is.”
Strategic, innovative, and collaborative approaches are helping the city of Arvada provide a reliable supply of safe, high-quality drinking water to citizens now and well into the future.
Water Sources: Colorado River Basin, Arkansas River Basin, South Platte River Basin
Challenges: “Our challenge is always going to be two-prong,” says Greg Baker, Manager of Public Relations for Aurora Water. “It’s going to be drought—and drought is being enhanced by climate change. Aurora gets about 15 inches of precipitation per year. Last year in the metro area, we saw about 8 inches.”
Aside from weather conditions outside their control, the city’s biggest challenge is growth. “Aurora is a city of over 370,000 people, and we anticipate that number doubling in the next 40 years,” says Baker. Addressing that issue takes a unique and innovative approach.
“We looked at 53 different scenarios and only one really made sense for a quick, logical win,” Baker shares. “If you’re bringing water in from three different river basins, you own those water rights. Why not reuse that water as much as you can? We’re fortunate that 95% of our water is completely reusable. If it comes from a different basin, it’s foreign to this area. After you use it the first time, it goes right back to the Platte River Basin, but now it’s foreign water, so we can reuse that.”
Baker adds that existing businesses and citizenry have seen the effects of Aurora’s water challenges because the city does have to be careful with the water they have. The costs associated with hardening their system—building new reservoirs, building the Prairie Waters Project—bring impact. Fortunately, development hasn’t been majorly affected in the city, and, in many ways, developers are part of the solution.
“A lot of development in Colorado, you pay a development fee—a flat fee—that’s bound to tap size,” Baker explains. “Ours is based upon demand, and it includes residential development as well. Most of that fee is to acquire new water. As water becomes more difficult to obtain and more expensive, those fees are going to rise. It’s a self-enforcing method to encourage conservation.”
Aurora’s council has always used an innovative approach to water, and they will continue to do so. “When you come late to the water game, you have to be innovative,” adds Baker.
Water Source: Groundwater from the Denver Basin
Challenges: “We’re strictly on ground water, which is a finite resource,” says Trish Stiles, Bennett’s Town Administrator. “Those aquifers eventually—there’s only so much water in them—run out. Our main concerns have been surrounded by the need for a future, renewable source.”
Stiles shares that the town’s Board of Trustees is working to set a goal or policy that will set guidelines on having a certain amount of renewable water in place by a certain date. Along with finding a renewable source, Bennett’s location in the eastern part of the county presents its own set of challenges.
“We’re sort of an island out here,” shares Stiles. “We’re not connected to the metro area as of today, and that’s something we really want to change. It opens up opportunity, but it also opens up resources in times of need or distress.”
Stiles believes that becoming part of the metro area, while a touchy subject, would be good for everyone involved. “We’re going to have to be more regional with this resource, and I get why others might be nervous sharing that—because it’s precious,” concludes Stiles. “We call it the ‘Blue Gold’ around here because it’s that valuable.”
Both the citizens and development have been affected by Bennett’s isolation and lack of a renewable source, but there’s hope that the two can help each other for future projects.
“Most, if not all, of our developments tend to be water shy. What we’ve done in the past is if a development site doesn’t have enough water, they look for water next door and use it to develop,” Stiles says. “When that happens and you want to develop that land, you have to do the same thing the first developer did. It exacerbates the problem. We have enough groundwater available to get development going, but we really want to solve that issue for the long term.”
With a population of only 2,700, Bennett’s residents can be subject to higher rates when a large water project is on the horizon. They just don’t have the economy of scale that other communities do.
“It’s hard to divide up a $6-million dollar project between 800 households vs. 2,300 households,” Stiles says. “Development, in some respects, can help that come along a little bit easier because we are starting to get more economy of scale—there’s more people paying into the system to make it more robust.”
Water Sources: Shallow alluvial groundwells
Challenges: “These wells require augmentation to operate,” says Mike Woodruff, Brighton’s Director of Infrastructure and Public Works.“Brighton gets its augmentation water from the South Platte River irrigation ditches, such as the Folton Ditch and the Burlington Ditch.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, augmentation water is the water that junior water right holders must replace so that the senior water right holders have access to the water they need and don’t incur injury, explains Austin Creswell, Brighton’s Water Resource Engineer.
“I think Brighton faces a lot of the same challenges that other communities in Colorado and the Western United States face, and that’s making sure that we have an adequate, safe drinking water supply for future growth in years to come,” Woodruff shares. “The other thing is regulations. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has discharge and treatment standards that have to be met, so we’re always looking for methods in which to meet those.”
While these issues don’t affect the day-to-day lives of Brighton’s residents, there are increased costs that come with treating and securing water for the future, which has an indirect impact to residents in the form of fees, shares Woodruff. It’s a similar situation for development, which hasn’t been severely impacted by any of these issues.
“When new developments come in, we look to them to bring water to that development. It’s always a challenge for the developer to find water at a reasonable cost and that is available,” says Woodruff. “But it hasn’t slowed development.”
To address these challenges, it’s important for Brighton to seek additional water opportunities, seek new sources of water, look at what our future capacity may be, and look at planning pipeline upgrades to better deliver both well water and treated water to the community, Woodruff says.
The city also encourages residents to participate in water conservation programs and rebates and they post water conservation tips on their website throughout the year.
“We’re pretty aggressive in our approach toward water conservation,” explains Woodruff.
Commerce City/South Adams County Water and Sanitation District
Water Sources: 70% from alluvial groundwater supplies—South Platte Alluvium; Other sources: Treated water from Denver Water, South Platte surface water credits from Denver Water, Burlington Ditch, Fulton Ditch, Brighton Ditch, Lupton Meadows Ditch, Platte Valley Irrigation Company and groundwater supplies from the Lost Creek Designated Groundwater Basin
What’s unique about their situation: The South Adams County Water and Sanitation District (SACWSD) was formed shortly before Commerce City in the early 1950s. Since then, the district has supplied the city’s water and wastewater services. They also serve some areas of unincorporated Adams County.
Challenges: “We’re really in pretty good shape. Our current demand is about 10,000 acre feet of water per year, and we have the rights to approximately 30,000 acre feet of water resources, so we have enough water to basically triple in size to meet the needs of our participating developers,” says Jim Jones, District Manager at SACWSD. “The water that we have won’t meet the full buildout demands of our community, so the question is how much more do we need, and we’re currently going through a master planning process to make that projection.”
“If we determine we can continue to develop additional alluvial water supplies, the one thing we probably will have to do is go out and buy more senior surface water rights for the augmentation of the alluvial water,” Jones adds.
Thanks to a 90s-era policy, the district and Commerce City haven’t had any demand-related concerns due to development. That policy requires developers to pay their own way and dedicate water resources or make a payment in lieu of dedication for the district to buy water resources, says Jones.
“It’s been a good partnership,” says Jones. “Over the last 20 years, we’ve been able to acquire over 20,000 acre feet of water to meet the demands projected by new development.”
Even though the city and the district don’t have demand concerns now, they do participate in water conservation programs with Resource Central to provide irrigation audits, seminars, and other conservation-driven resources to their citizens.
Water Source: Standley Lake
Challenges: Federal Heights has contracted with the City of Westminster for their long-term water usage needs since 1968. Those contracts have anticipated the fully developed state of Federal Heights’ future water needs, so the city isn’t expecting any significant capacity challenges associated with development.
“That said, the region can experience long-term droughts which lead to periodic water restrictions,” says Tim Williams, Community Development Director for the city. The water restrictions are also anticipated in the water contracts.
“As a responsible partner in the greater Westminster water distribution system, Federal Heights participates in water use education programs, xeric landscaping education, and periodic water restrictions when they are imposed by Westminster across the system,” says Williams. “The city’s development standards for landscaping allow for xeric plantings and replacement of turf grass with native grasses, and other landscape surface treatments that are more water thrifty.”
While residents in the community haven’t seen major repercussions from water supply issues, they may see a change in their water bills in the future.
“As jurisdictions within the metro area become more fully developed within their existing boundaries, many cities have had to increase water service rates to pay for infrastructure improvements that have traditionally been funded through initial tap fees on new developments,” Williams explains. “Federal Heights anticipates that these rate hikes will affect us moving into the future due to the cost of water provision and system maintenance over the long term.”
Water Sources: Clear Creek System; Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (FRICO)-Standley Lake System; Church Ditch System
Challenges: “We have two substantial issues that we’re dealing with right now,” says Tami Moon, Northglenn’s Water Resources Administrator.
“First, we don’t have an extra water supply. There’s not a lot of the FRICO-Standley Lake and Church Ditch shares to be purchased anymore,” she explains. “The chunk of water rights we have right now are what we’ve got.”
Northglenn is always pushing for and buying, when they can, new water rights. That’s the easiest way to build their supply. The second challenge is storage. Currently, Standley Lake is Northglenn’s only storage reservoir. “We’re really focused on finding new storage--whether that’s surface storage or aquifer storage--to put our existing water rights in so we don’t have to rely solely on the lake,” Moon says. “In the coming weeks, we’ll hopefully get somebody on board to help us start evaluating what aquifer storage and recovery looks like for Northglenn.”
To minimize the repercussions residents see and in direct response to their available supply, Northglenn implemented waste-of-water guidelines through ordinance in October 2017. Fortunately, development in the city hasn’t seen many repercussions yet either, but Moon shares that they encourage developers to use more water-wise type features within their developments: Xeriscape planting, as opposed to sod; high-efficiency fixtures in homes and businesses, etc.
Water Sources: South Platte Basin; Clear Creek Basin
Challenges: “Planning for the future is a big challenge for us right now, which is why we’re engaged in the Thornton Water Project,” says Thornton’s Communications Director Todd Barnes.
“It’s a water project to build a pipeline from Larimer County, north of Fort Collins, all the way down to Thornton,” says Barnes. “This is water we’ve owned since 1986 and had the rights to, but haven’t needed until now. We want the water to be online and available for residents for use by 2025.”
Thornton has been working on this project--on and off--for several decades. One of the reasons we’ve been able to put off our need for the northern water supply is because of our very, very effective water conservation program, Barnes shares. This is also why residents, businesses, and development haven’t seen many repercussions directly from a lack of water supply.
“We have one of the lowest per capita water usage rates in the metro area, and that’s allowed us to expand the water supply we have for as long as we have,” he adds.
The other challenge Thornton faces with water is the taste and odor of the supply from the South Platte. The West Brown treatment plant is new and helps the city address that problem, and there’s a brand-new treatment plant under construction off of Thornton Parkway and Washington Street. Both plants will help address the South Platte quality issue until the new, northern water supply comes online.
“We’re committed to getting our new water supply, which is one of the most high-quality water supplies in the state,” says Barnes.
Water Sources: Standley Lake; small amount from Denver Water
Challenges: Westminster’s water supply is in many ways already built out. However, we foresee reaching our community’s buildout, from our comprehensive plan, in the next working generation, says Sarah Borgers, Westminster’s Water Resources and Quality Manager.
“Our next big chunk of water is likely going to be very expensive to procure. The question becomes, how do we balance needing to expand our water supply for future growth with the cost of doing so? Trying to find that happy medium is really the biggest challenge,” Borgers shares.
“What we’re really focusing on is using the water supply we have or we know we will have in the near future, and how we best utilize that to have the most sustainable development possible,” she says. “A key component to that planning process is the ongoing effort to update the city’s comprehensive plan and water supply plan in a coordinated, parallel effort.”
Having these two plans built through back-and-forth discussions provides Westminster the opportunity to develop creative solutions to ensure water supply is appropriately leveraged for a vibrant economy and city, Borgers explains.
“We are really just getting into the meat of that discussion and will have opportunities for customers--both citizens and business owners--to participate in the development of that plan,” she says.
In addition to long-range planning efforts, Westminster offers a water efficiency program to encourage water-wise use for customers, Borgers adds. It has consistently reduced water use for the past 15 years.
By and large, water supply on the Front Range--for all communities--is a big deal, and development absolutely puts pressure on water supply. It takes a concerted effort among a wide variety of people to make sure that how we’re using our supply makes the most fiscal sense, she concludes.
While many cities in Adams County face challenges with water supply, there are ways that we, the citizens, can help those communities. Most cities offer water conservation programs that are available to citizens--both residential and commercial.
While the programs vary from city to city, examples of what they include are: Rebates or incentives on water-wise, high-efficiency appliances and low-flow toilets; turf replacement; xeriscaping; irrigation audits; and smarter sprinkler systems. Other programs offer water conservation seminars or encourage residents to become water ambassadors.
If you’d like to get involved, check your city’s website or contact their office for more information on how you can help.