The rainy days of August dampened residents' concerns - for the moment - about water rates in Colorado Springs.
During a hot, dry July, Springs residents were opening water bills that were double and triple their normal amount. Some complained to City Council, saying the watering restrictions coupled with a higher water rate if they used more than 2,000 cubic feet per month was hurting their lawns and their pocketbooks.
City councilors responded by changing the trigger point for higher water rates to 2,500 cubic feet per month. Mother Nature also lent a hand with 5.72 inches of rain in August, which is 2.38 inches above normal and made the month the sixth wettest on record, according to the National Weather Service.
So, the phone calls and emails to Colorado Springs Utilities decreased dramatically and city councilors have hardly heard a peep about water rates.
"I can't say if it is the rain or the change in the extra cubic feet," council member Joel Miller said.
But a month of rain doesn't change the city's overall water rates - among the highest in the state - or the water-savings goal, said Gary Bostrom, Utilities chief water services officer.
"The drought condition we are in is not expected to change," he said.
And that, he said, has him concerned about next year's water storage. The wild card is weather, he said. The reservoirs rely on melted snow pack and the National Weather Service is predicting that snow totals could be low this winter, Bostrom said.
The August reservoir report shows the city's reservoir level is 57 percent - that's equal to about 1.8 years of demand in storage. In previous years, the reservoir level was 74 percent. That below-average storage level prompted the city-wide watering restrictions, which began in April. Residents are told to water their lawns two days a week.
The city set a goal for residents to use 30 percent less water - or 5.8 billion gallons - than last year. City Council doubled the water rate for every cubic foot over 2,000, hoping residents would cut back on use.
Although it might seem like it would, rain does not fill the reservoirs, said Patrice Lehermeier, Utilities spokeswoman. Rain, however, helps residents use less water and the city is about a half billion gallons shy of its goal, she said.
"I know September can be hot," she said. "We still want to be vigilant with making sure we are getting the message out there."
Last September, it rained 3/10ths of an inch and lawn watering season typically runs through October.
If this month is hot and dry, residents may again notice the water rates, said council member Don Knight.
Water rates have been a hot topic since 2009 when City Council approved doubling water rates over seven years to pay for the $1.4 billion Southern Delivery System, a 53-mile pipeline that will pump water from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs. Water is expected to start flowing through SDS in 2016.
Initially, the city planned on seven years of 12 percent annual rate increases. But low interest rates on the pipeline bonds to build SDS changed the rates to two years of 12 percent increases, two years of 10 percent increases and a planned 5 percent increase in 2015, Bostrom said.
"Rates are especially expensive right now because we are in this phase of building SDS," Bostrom said. "We've been through this before - in the 1960s we doubled the rates for a period of years."
Over the decades, the city has built hundreds of miles of pipeline to get water to the Springs, the largest Colorado city that isn't built on a river. The city has 1,900 miles of water pipelines.
"It's more expensive to deliver water here," Bostrom said.
Water rates are a constant concern. Resident Sandy MacDougall recently spoke to the utilities board and said he calculated his water usage with rates in Denver, Pueblo, Aurora and Fountain and found Colorado Springs to be the highest.
It's true, Bostrom said. Residents, on average, see a monthly bill of $51.30 compared with much lower average bills for residents of Denver ($27.64), Fort Collins ($34.51) and Pueblo ($24.89) - three cities on major rivers. Aurora water rates are up this year to pay for a major capital project. On average, residents there pay $55.42 a month.
"We expect that once we are through SDS, we are going to level the rates for the foreseeable future," Bostrom said.
The SDS will have the capacity to deliver up to 96 million gallons a day to the Springs.
"If you look at our whole purpose for SDS, it's a lot of alternative sources," said Bill Cherrier, Utilities chief planning and finance officer. "It gives us a greater advantage as we grow to better utilize water rights that are already in existence."
Until then, Bostrom said he has to plan for the worst.
"When SDS is in place, we still need to look at how we manage our water supply and how to make it work," he said.
And that means the utilities board and city council likely will be asked in April to consider water restrictions for the summer of 2014.
Typical residential water bills