Douglas County officials believe they've come up with a solution to the water problem. But their reliance on Denver to help them out of their dilemma may lead to the county's biggest battle yet.
The county commissioners want to spend as much as $600 million to tap into "excess" Denver water supplies, running a massive pipeline all over the county that would be used to replenish the aquifer. The project would probably be funded by bonds backed by higher water bills. Known as "conjunctive use," the idea is to collect huge amounts of water from the spring runoff that Denver has the rights to but now allows to flow down the South Platte River. That water would be taken out of the river, treated, and pumped back into the aquifer at spots all over northern and central Douglas County.
"The river floats right by Douglas County, but we don't get any of it," says commissioner James Sullivan. "Five hundred thousand acre-feet of water went down the South Platte River last year. We're willing to pay Denver for this water. We'll buy the water Denver can't recover, and we'll inject as much as we possibly can into the ground."
Sullivan fancies denim shirts and turquoise bolo ties, and he speaks with the folksy inflections of rural Colorado. He's well-known all over the county and has taken the lead on the water issue, trying to get the county's multiple water districts to work together. He doesn't deny that Douglas County is facing a huge water problem, but he's firmly convinced that he and the other commissioners have it under control.
"We have some areas south of Chatfield where wells have gone dry," he says. "If they've got no water at their house, the value of the house will plummet. In the long range, we think conjunctive use is the answer."
Sullivan believes the scheme could benefit Denver as well, allowing the city to store water in the aquifer during dry years. "There's some great things about storing water underground," he says. "It's environmentally acceptable. It never evaporates. If you look at it this way, Douglas County is standing on the biggest reservoir in the state of Colorado."
State officials like Lochhead say conjunctive use could conceivably work. "I think the technical feasibility of conjunctive use has been proven," says Lochhead. There are several projects under way around the country to replenish aquifers, and the Centennial water district in Highlands Ranch pumped 300 acre-feet of excess water back into the aquifer last year.
But others say there are technical problems that still have not been fully explored. "It's much more difficult than people think," says Steve Boand. He points out that most of the runoff on the Platte comes during a six- to eight-week period in the spring--and "we'd need a very large reservoir to store it."
Once a potential water supply from Denver was stored, it couldn't just be poured into the aquifer; it would have to sink into the sandstone under pressure. That means injecting millions of gallons of water into the ground on a scale that would make the project one of the largest of its kind. "The water may go in as fast as we take it out," Boand says--or it may not.
Whatever the technical problems with conjunctive use, they're overshadowed by the political difficulties. The water department won't make a decision one way or the other until a major study of Denver water supplies is completed next year. But its officials make no attempt to hide their skepticism. "There's absolutely no commitment [to Douglas County] from anybody in Denver," says Chips Barry, general manager for Denver Water.
Issues of water and development in the southern suburbs are ticking time bombs, says Barry. "There's a serious political question out there. To what extent should we allow urban development when the water supply is based on nonrenewable groundwater?"
And in that scenario, Denver Water, sometimes described as the most powerful political entity in the state, holds nearly all the cards. That's because the city is in the enviable position of having surplus water supplies. And ever since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency killed the proposed Two Forks Dam in 1989, many suburban areas have had to scramble to find new water sources. Douglas County was counting on Two Forks as part of its long-term water supply. Now it finds itself standing in line next to other thirsty suburbs: Denver Water has been courted recently by cities from Broomfield to Morrison, all wanting to tap into its supplies.
Barry acknowledges that Denver will be in a difficult position when the water starts to run out underneath its southern neighbors, whether or not the city opts for conjunctive use. "It will become a big issue when a substantial number of people are affected by wells that no longer work," he predicts. "Once their wells go dry, they'll be on our doorstep. There's a question of what our moral obligation is. Those are very tough questions. They'll have to be debated at length over the next ten years."