Guest Commentary: A shift to renewable water in south metro area

By Eric Hecox and Diane Hoppe

POSTED:   10/14/2015
The Denver Post

A massive shift is underway in how Denver’s south metro area gets its water, with implications for communities across the state.

After decades of drawing down nonrenewable groundwater aquifers, the region of 300,000 people spanning most of Douglas County and some of Arapahoe County is transitioning to sustainable supplies. This provides much-needed security to future generations hoping to call south Denver home.

The latest success came last month when a first-of-its-kind partnership among the metro region’s three major water entities — Denver Water, Aurora Water and South Metro Water Supply Authority — received unprecedented statewide support.

The Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency (WISE) project now stands alone as the only water project in Colorado to receive funding from basin roundtables across the state. The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state of Colorado’s lead agency on water, also provided grant money in support of WISE.

The reason for the broad support lies in the collaborative approach that has been the hallmark of South Metro Water’s plans. WISE is widely seen as a way for a growing part of the metro area to cooperatively help solve some of its own water supply issues.

WISE maximizes efficiency of supplies through reuse and reduces the need for future agriculture transfers or trans-mountain diversions. It removes some pressure off irrigated agriculture in the South Platte basin, one of the most highly productive and economically important agriculture regions in Colorado. What’s more, it provides funding to the West Slope for water supply, watershed and water quality projects.

The spirit of cooperation developing between rural and urban water users is a huge step forward. WISE presents a model for the collaborative approach called for in the draft Colorado Water Plan.

When WISE water deliveries begin in 2016, some of Colorado’s fastest-growing communities will receive a new sustainable water supply. Participating South Metro members include Highlands Ranch (served by Centennial Water), Cottonwood, Dominion, Inverness, Meridian, Parker, Pinery Water, Rangeview, Stonegate and Castle Rock.

At the same time, Denver Water will receive a new back-up supply, and Aurora Water will receive funding to help offset costs of its Prairie Waters project.

WISE is a significant part of South Metro’s plan for a sustainable water future. Combined with other infrastructure investments in supply, storage and reuse, and aggressive conservation efforts that have seen per capita use drop by 30 percent in the past decade, we are witnessing a seismic transition.

In 2003, the Rocky Mountain News ran an explosive three-day series, “Running Dry,” on what many perceived as a looming water crisis in the south metro region. At the time, aquifers in some parts of the region were being drawn down at a rate of about 30 feet per year and the vast majority of the region’s water came from nonrenewable sources. A year later, local water providers joined together to create the South Metro Water Supply Authority and started creating the plan that is being executed now.

Today, annual aquifer declines are one-sixth of what they used to be and continue to decrease. And while areas such as Highlands Ranch are already mostly renewable, the region as a whole is on track to receive the majority of its supplies from renewable sources by 2020.

That’s remarkable headway in a short period of time given the complexities of water planning.

The region still has more work ahead. But given the progress to date and with continuing support for South Metro Water’s plans and projects, we can feel confident in predicting that the days of alarming headlines around the south metro region’s water future are in the past.

Eric Hecox is the director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. Diane Hoppe is a former state representative and current chair of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.