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Colorado Springs Utilities relies heavily on water from the Colorado River basin and might not be able to divert as much water in the coming years if the megadrought persists. Colorado Springs is weighing how to manage city growth given the drought.

The Colorado Springs Utilities board agreed Wednesday to consider an alternative to a highly controversial water rule.

The proposed rule that has sparked concern in the development community would require the city to have 130% of the water needed to serve existing demand and projected demand from new land joining the city. It has sparked a debate about meeting the demand for housing while protecting water supplies in a time of megadrought across the West.

The alternative the board is weighing would apply to developments after they have been annexed into the city rather than at the time of annexation.

La Plata Communities, a company that could be directly affected by the annexation rule, proposed the alternative, saying the 130% requirement would encourage small annexations and subdivisions, rather than large master planned communities. La Plata Communities built a large portion of Briargate, a master-planned community.

“Master plans are extremely beneficial to the consumer,” said Mike Ruebenson, the chief operating officer.

Ruebenson proposed that Utilities apply the water supply rule to developments when they are in the development plan stage, before construction has started but when the companies know more precisely how many homes will go in and their projected water consumption.

It would be more practical than trying to project the water consumption of an entire master planned community that could take decades to build, La Plata Communities President and CEO Doug Quimby said. The company representatives noted the current city rule does not factor in additional water purchases Colorado Springs Utilities could make to support growth in coming decades.

The company didn’t provide a water surplus benchmark Utilities should use to decide whether projects should be built. But it agreed a buffer could be beneficial. The buffer would likely apply to newly annexed projects rather than those in city limits.

“We are not opposed to having a buffer. We are opposed to having a buffer that is set up to block important annexations,” Reubenson said.

La Plata Communities is proposing to annex a 3,200-acre parcel east of Fountain, called Amara, that might not be allowed to come into the city, if the Colorado Springs City Council adopts the 130% rule.

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Utilities Board Chairman Wayne Williams said the alternative proposal warrants further study and the board would revisit it in December.

Senior Vice President Tim Seibert asked the board to think about other flagpole annexations that have been submitted or could be in the near future, including Flying Horse East that could cover 5,400 acres near Schriever Space Force Base and the 2,400-acre Kane Ranch property south of Amara that is interested in leaving Fountain to join Colorado Springs.

“The question becomes how water plays into the goals of how the city grows,” he said.

Deciding whether a project should receive water at the development stage could also risk assets such as pipelines getting stranded serving a smaller number of houses than originally envisioned. Utilities would have to maintain those pipelines after they are built.

At the same time, Utilities’ staff members are working on the best way to calculate whether the city is meeting the 130% buffer it has set for itself. Previously, a draft ordinance proposed using a three-year average of use.

Abby Ortega, Utilities’ water resources manager, suggested the board consider a five-year average normalized for weather instead. When Utilities uses that average, it has 132% of the water needed for the community.

Defining the surplus needed to serve annexation is important because the seven states that rely on the Colorado River could see cutbacks as lakes Powell and Mead reach critically low levels.

Colorado Springs relies on the Colorado River for 70% of its water, so if cutbacks were made on the state’s seniority system, Utilities could lose the ability to divert water from several of its transmountain diversions, Ortega said. Transmountain diversions bring water that would normally flow west into the Colorado River, east instead.

“In the near term, we want to look at how do you reasonably plan for city growth,” she said.

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

Mary Shinn has worked at The Gazette since 2020 covering city hall, local politics and environmental issues. Previously, she worked for The Durango Herald from 2013 to 2020 covering city hall, education, environment and agriculture. In 2013, Shinn was a News 21 fellow and worked on an investigative series focused on veteran's issues. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in mass communications.

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