Controversial Colorado Springs water service extension ordinance moves forward

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
City Hall in Colorado Springs.

Colorado Springs City Council will again consider a controversial ordinance next month that specifies if and when the city-owned utility can extend water service to new areas. It would affect future annexations of land into the city and potential new development.

It narrowly passed its first reading two weeks ago. During the second reading on Tuesday, there were many twists and turns, with different council members making motions to postpone the vote until fall, one to close debate and call for a vote prior to more discussion, and even some council members voting against their own motions.

Eventually, Councilman Dave Donelson offered an amendment requiring the city utility to keep its water supply at 128 percent of demand, instead of 130 percent as was approved previously. 

Kevin Walker of the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs said lowering it to 128 percent was a compromise recommended by the association. “It [gives] a little bit more cushion for current annexations and other(s) that are in the works,” he said, “and for us to work towards a more comprehensive solution.”

The new ordinance as originally passed would have unintended consequences, according to Doug Quimby of La Plata Communities, the developer of Briargate and the proposed Amara annexation. He also said it would harm housing affordability and sustainability.

“This will, intended or not, create a monopoly for one developer inside the city of Colorado Springs,” he said. "There's no developable land left in the city of Colorado Springs, except what Norwood [Development Group] owns.” He gave the example of Banning Lewis Ranch, which Norwood Development Group owns, and was annexed into the city decades ago.

In proposing the change, Donelson said the city can't just focus on water. 

"We also have to consider the effect it'll have on things such as a [possible development] monopoly, on things such as housing,” he said. ”I think this does make it a little more usable when trying to balance those other extraordinarily important concerns.”

The ordinance was originally brought forward by Colorado Springs Utilities last fall to make sure there's enough water as the city grows. City Council members also make up the utilities' board. 

Under the current code, the utility is required to have a surplus water supply for the foreseeable future, but it doesn't specify how much that actually is. More than half of the city’s water comes from the Colorado River, which could be curtailed due to drought and overuse.

“Our biggest concern is we have several petitions for annexations that are in the queue today… that we'll be reviewing without a definition of surplus and with a lot of unknowns around the Colorado River and what that administration is going to look like,” said Abigail Ortega, who manages water resources and demand for Colorado Springs Utilities.

And when it comes to evaluating new annexations using data like how large the required water surplus buffer should be, CSU Acting CEO Travas Deal said, “the more you don't have definition around those variables, the more contingencies you have to put in.”

According to a recent story in the Gazette, Norwood said it had considered bringing forward a ballot issue for an even more restrictive charter change. That’s what forced the city utility to propose the ordinance currently under consideration.

If the city does limit future annexations, it's likely to push additional development into the county, according to former El Paso County planner Craig Dossey of Vertex Consulting Services and Norris Ranch. Norris Ranch is another proposed annexation from La Plata Communities that would likely be affected by the new ordinance. New homes in the county would likely be served by non-renewable Denver Basin water wells, a resource that is already stressed.

The county’s master plan encourages urban-level development to go into Colorado Springs and other municipalities, Dossey said, “because the county is not set up under state statute to provide the same level of services as cities."

Councilors Wayne Williams, Mike O’Malley and Randy Helms spoke in support of the ordinance in its original form, prior to the later-approved amendment, as did Mayor John Suthers.

“We've got an obligation to 500,000 water users out there,” Suthers said. “We've got an obligation to protect them against a serious drought or a curtailment that could jeopardize the water supply of the city of Colorado Springs. That is your first and foremost obligation.”

Councilors Nancy Henjum and Yolanda Avila both talked about how difficult it is to balance the need for more affordable housing and growth, while making sure there is enough water to serve the city now and in the future.

It's a tough decision either way," said Avila. “It's like smoke and mirrors. We do care about all the citizens of Colorado Springs and beyond.”

The amended ordinance that received its first approval Tuesday also includes language that allows the council to make exceptions when there are unique circumstances, like when providing water would serve the city’s critical interests or if the land is entirely surrounded by the city and deemed an enclave by state law. It also includes language saying that at least 25 percent of the area must be contiguous with the city, another part that complies with state law.

Council informally agreed to support a commission proposed by Henjum to create a comprehensive water strategy for the region. “This is to drive a regional collaborative conversation with as much teeth as we could possibly muster,” Henjum said.

Council voted 6-3 in favor of the amended ordinance, with Bill Murray, O’Malley and Donelson opposed. The change means it will require a third reading and another vote, which is expected on Feb. 14.