In few places is water as much of an issue as in Colorado and the West – just look at markers around town indicating the height of the 1997 Spring Creek flood or the irrigation canals that criss-cross campus.
As students, most of us have the luxury of not thinking too much about water; it’s often included in our rent bills. But for most of us, who’ll live in Colorado or the West for much of our lives, it defines both our past and our future.
The future of water in northern Colorado, though, faces an important decision in the next few years. How will we meet the water needs of a growing population? Will we continue to build massive reservoirs – a 19th-century solution – or will we start to think about water in new, creative ways?
At the crux of the matter is the Northern Integrated Supply Project – a massive undertaking being launched by more than a dozen towns and communities across the Front Range and the nearby plains. The linchpin of this project would be Glade Reservoir, a lake larger than Horsetooth north of Fort Collins, which would draw water from the Poudre River for communities from Windsor to Fort Morgan.
The costs of taking the traditional approach are severe, and the environmental cost is perhaps the most obvious.
In the past century, we’ve learned a lot about how to keep the environment healthy. When it comes to managing forests and grasslands, we’ve learned that the occasional fire is a natural part of a healthy ecosystem. With a river, the counterpart to the managed burn is a “flushing flow” – the peak flows that the river sees each spring and summer.
Flushing flows wash away sediment and algae, improve water quality and keep a river healthy – but they’ve become less and less common along the Poudre. While the undiverted Poudre of a century ago saw flushing flows three years out of four, a post-Glade Poudre would only see them roughly once every four years.
When the Poudre River doesn’t see these flushing flows, it starts to become more polluted and algae-filled – in short, not a pleasant place to be around. Building Glade would have negative impacts on the environment and quality of life stretching down the Poudre to the South Platte River and as far downstream as Nebraska.
The financial costs are just as staggering as the environmental costs. Small towns out on the plains are literally betting their future on Glade Reservoir, speculating that sprawling development will demand exponentially increasing water supplies. The town of Erie, for instance, is going into debt to the tune of $15,000 per family in order to buy into Glade Reservoir.
At over $370 million dollars – about as much as CSU spent on instruction in the past three years – Glade Reservoir is an old-fashioned environmental and financial boondoggle.
Fort Collins has, despite an increasing population, kept total water use stable over the past decade through basic water conservation measures – encouraging conservation, allowing xeriscaping or low-water landscaping, promoting water recycling, and improving and repairing water distribution infrastructure. These creative tools for efficiently using water can be implemented across Colorado, and they cost far less to consumers and taxpayers than subsidizing massive reservoirs.
Once we all face the fact that water is scarce in Colorado and act accordingly, we can move towards new, sustainable, responsible solutions – 21st century solutions. CSU and Fort Collins should lead the way – just like we’ve become leaders in wind power, we should also be leaders in water conservation. It just makes environmental and financial sense.
Seth Anthony is a chemistry Ph.D. student. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.