Colorado Springs City Council approves controversial water rule

Jan. 24—The Colorado Springs City Council tweaked and approved a controversial water ordinance Tuesday that will benefit existing developers within the city and could block large annexations planning to build new neighborhoods.

The updated ordinance will require Colorado Springs Utilities to have 128% of the water necessary to serve existing city demand and the projected demand from new properties. Two weeks ago, the City Council backed a 130% water standard. The slightly lower buffer would allow the city to annex 8,500 homes, up from 4,200 homes, said Abby Ortega, general manager of planning.

The council also committed to study regional water needs more holistically. Numerous neighborhoods in El Paso County rely on diminishing groundwater and may need water from Colorado Springs Utilities in the future.

The lower buffer passed on a 6-3 vote after extensive testimony on both sides of the issue. Many who testified pointed out the need to protect the city during the Colorado River's megadrought and how it could push up the price of housing and force more building out into the county on diminishing groundwater. Councilmembers Dave Donelson, Bill Murray and Mike O'Malley voted against the ordinance.

Mayor John Suthers backed the water rule, saying it addresses questions about water availability residents constantly ask him.

"Our citizens want a clear message that we are looking out for them, that we know how much water we have, we know how much water we are using and we are going to maintain a buffer between the two," Suthers said.

Suthers explained a proposed annexation of 3,200 acres east of Fountain, known as Amara, prompted Colorado Springs Utilities to look more closely at how many people it can serve. He believed based on statements by Utilities leadership it could serve 800,000 when a pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir was complete. Utilities told him and others it can serve 670,000 people now.

"That was a huge wake-up call," he said.

The new estimate prompted Norwood Development Group, the most powerful developer in town, to float the idea of asking voters to adopt a more restrictive water rule.

Norwood's measure would have required Colorado Springs Utilities to have enough water, an estimated 125,000 to 130,000 acre-feet, for the properties within the city to develop before allowing annexations, a measure that could block the city from adding property for 20 to 30 years, Suthers said. The proposal would prioritize water service to developments within the city — including the 18,000 acres in Banning Lewis Ranch owned by Norwood on the eastern edge of town.

"Did I have some difficult conversations with Norwood? You bet," Suthers told the council.

Donelson successfully proposed reducing the water buffer Utilities must provide from 130% to 128%, noting that the Housing and Building Association asked for a lower standard. He was also among those who called for more time to better understand the implications of the rule and how it could drive up the cost of housing.

He called it "too big of a decision to run into at the prodding of one developer."

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Former El Paso County Planning Director Craig Dossey said the county's planning efforts, including the city's intergovernmental agreement with the county, was intended to guide dense neighborhoods to annexing into the city to help prevent neighborhoods from relying on groundwater.

"It is a dire outlook when you are talking about water providers in the county," said Dossey, president of Vertex Consulting Services, a Colorado Springs-based planning and land development company.

The Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority was set up to work on some regional groundwater concerns and reuse plans. For example, Colorado Springs Utilities, Monument and six groundwater districts started work last year to see if they could reuse groundwater. Instead of using groundwater once, treating it and then allowing it to flow into local creeks, the group planned to study if the water could be captured downstream and used again.

Acting Utilities CEO Travas Deal said the new rule could help in discussions with regional water providers, such as those in the authority.

"If you want to bring people to the table, you have to have something to start with," he said.

Several critics noted the starting point does not need to be an adopted ordinance.

The council also seriously considered delaying a vote on the rule until September, proposed by Councilwoman Nancy Henjum.

Henjum, who voted for the water rule two weeks ago, proposed the delay to form a regional water task force in March that could deliver recommendations by September.

The task force had broad support, but a delay did not. Henjum could have forced the delay as the swing vote, but voted against her own motion to delay.

She said she leaned on the recommendation from Utilities' to adopt the new water buffer in her decision.

However, she also expected a new task force to drive "a regional collaborative conversation."

The council did not commit to a date to setting up a new task force and in April the city will have a new mayor and four new city councilmembers, who often face a steep learning curve.