The secret to solving the impending and already highly divisive water shortage concerns on the Front Range could be as simple as modeling future growth after the great cities of the East and Midwest, a high ranking Denver Water official said this week.
On Tuesday, Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water, met with the Summit Board of County Commissioners during a workshop in Frisco. Lochhead provided the commissioners with an update on Denver Water’s service system following September’s historic flooding on the Front Range.
Although Lochhead said the system worked “perfectly” in the sense that service to customers was not interrupted and no dams were breached during the flood, Denver Water sustained $15 million to $20 million in damage to roads, exposed conduits and one of its gravel pits located near the South Platte River.
Despite the damage, and Denver Water’s commitment to assist its partner communities in recovering from flood damage, Lochhead said there is a silver lining to take away from the event. According to the most recent reports, Denver Water’s reserves, which consist of 15 fully or partially owned reservoirs across more than 4,000 square miles of watershed in eight counties, is at 96 percent capacity.
Gross Reservoir near Boulder, for example, gained 7,600 acre-feet of water and went up in elevation by 19.6 feet as a result of the flooding, Lochhead said, which equates to an increase in storage of about 26 percent. Gross Reservoir¹s capacity is 41,811 acre-feet, according to Denver Water¹s website.
Lake Dillon, Denver Water’s largest reservoir at 257,304 acre-feet, also is reporting some of its highest seasonal levels in history, Lochhead said.
But the increased water capacity presents a handful of short-term challenges, Lochhead said, including spring water management should the High Country receive dense snowpack this winter. All of its water comes from mountain snowmelt, according to the Denver Water website.
More important, however, is the fact that the recent increase in capacity does little to ease future water shortage concerns as Denver, the Front Range and the rest of Colorado continue to grow in population.
According to the State Demography Office, Colorado’s population is forecasted to increase from a little more than 5 million people in 2010 to close to 8 million people by 2040. Much of that growth is expected to take place on the Front Range, pitting urban residents and elected officials against their Western Slope neighbors in the battle for future water rights.
The division is unnecessary, Lochhead told the commission, saying stakeholders should begin to shift their focus away from what’s best for their individual regions and start addressing future population growth in a way that benefits the entire state.
Prior to joining Denver Water in 2010, Lochhead was a shareholder at the Denver law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, where he worked on a variety of water resource issues both nationally and internationally. He’s also served as the governor’s representative on interstate Colorado River operations, and had appointments to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Upper Colorado River Commission, Great Outdoors Colorado and Colorado’s Roadless Area Task Force.
“Whenever I get a chance to speak on the Front Range my focus is on our inability to sustain growth if it continues to sprawl halfway to Kansas,” Lochhead said. “We can talk about efficient showerheads and low-flow toilets, but until we get to the issue of sprawl we’re just scratching the surface.”
Lochhead’s idea is fairly simple — encourage upward, rather than outward growth along the Front Range and the challenges surrounding water conservation will begin to remedy themselves.
For example, a single-family home with a garden in Denver uses the same amount of water as a four-unit building constructed on a similar-sized lot, he said. However, much of the growth on the Front Range is sprawling away from urban centers; meeting growing water needs is only exacerbated by the current trend of purchasing or building single-family homes on quarter-acre lots.
It’s a type of growth that is unsustainable not only in terms of water use, Lochhead said, but also in terms of providing services, such as transportation and energy delivery, because property tax revenue cannot meet the needs that come with a sprawling population.
“We’re totally committed to conservation, totally committed to conserving as much as we can, but there’s also a lot to be said about growing a vibrant, urban landscape in Colorado,” Lochhead said. “It protects our open space, doesn’t require water to be taken from the West Slope, and a denser population creates more economic, educational and cultural opportunities for everyone in the state.”