Lawns and pocket books across Colorado Springs could get some relief if City Council approves a recommendation to ease summer watering restrictions, including raising the threshold that kicks in higher water rates.
In a reversal from its "hold the line" stance earlier this month, Colorado Springs Utilities water experts now say the city has enough water in its reserves to relax the lawn watering restrictions and recommended going from two days a week to three days a week.
They also recommended changing the amount of water each household can use per month, from 2,000 cubic feet to 2,500 cubic feet, before higher rates apply. And, they are asking to lower the penalty rate by almost half.
The proposed changes were presented to the Utilities board on Wednesday.
"The reason for that is a really late snow pack," said Gary Bostrom, utilities chief water services officer. "It had accumulated and built, even well into June."
The city tried to save water and hoped that lawn watering restrictions, coupled with penalties, would keep more water in the reservoirs. The program sailed through April and May, when spring rain showers kept people from turning on sprinklers.
But in June, about 22 percent of Colorado Springs residents opened their water bills and found they had crested the threshold that triggers higher water rates. Outraged about their high water bills, residents bombarded City Council with hundreds of angry calls and emails.
Bostrom said that is not why Utilities is recommending the changes mid-summer. The city now has 1.8 years of water in storage and he feels comfortable with that, he said.
"Looking at the end of June and looking at our reservoirs level and how they had responded, we went up 5,000 acre feet in one week, we didn't expect to see that level of increase," Bostrom said. "We are in a much better place."
City Council is expected to vote on the issue July 23. If approved, the changes would go into affect Aug. 1.
Some council members said they worried that changing the watering restrictions sends the message that the city is out of drought and there is no need to conserve water.
"I don't want people to have $900 water bills, but I want to send a message that we want you to conserve water," said council member Jill Gaebler.
Every year, Colorado Springs residents use about 28 billion gallons of water, with the highest use in the summer months. The goal with the watering restriction program was to use 5.8 billion gallons less and store it.
Now, the city is at 60 percent of the goal and about 557 million gallons ahead of schedule toward its goal. However, switching to a three-day watering schedule in August would likely mean residents would not save 1.1 billion toward the goal.
"We are going to wipe our savings times two if we go to three days a week," said council member Don Knight. "I just don't see how we can say we are out of the woods on two-days while we give away all our ground and another 500,000 million gallons more."
Knight said residents have been following the two-day watering rules but end up using more than 2,000 cubic feet and are getting hit with a big water bills. He wants to see an option that changes the water rates and the threshold when they kick in, but wants to keep the two-day watering schedule.
This summer was not the first time Colorado Springs enacted summer lawn watering restrictions, but it was the first time higher rates kicked in once customers use more than 2,000 cubic feet of water per month. Residents that use less than 1,999 cubic feet of water, or 14,953 gallons, pay $.0584 per cubic foot and will see a bill of about $103. Those who use 2,500 cubic feet of water per month, or 18,700 gallons, pay a rate of $.0885 per cubic foot plus a water surcharge of $.0885 per cubic foot and see a bill of about $192.
Those rates hurt homeowner Sandy MacDougall.
"My current water bill is $938," said MacDougall, who went to the utilities board meeting to complain. He was pleased with the recommendation and asked council to approve it. He had compared his water bill to what he would have been changed in Denver, Pueblo, Aurora and Fountain.
"Colorado Springs is among the highest rates right now in the Front Range," he said.
City Council approved the watering restrictions and the higher rates because of drought conditions. As of July 9, the state remains in severe and extreme drought.
As of early July, the city was out of runoff from this past winter's snow pack. The city's reservoirs are about 57 percent full. From 1970 to 2011, those reservoirs were 74 percent full.
"We are in a good place to get through 2013, and our focus now is to get through 2014," Bostrom said. "The big unknown is snow pack and where will we land in snow pack?"