El Paso County could face an annual water shortage of nearly 18 billion gallons in 2060 if it doesn’t increase its supply of water by more than a third.

The staggering statistic is one takeaway from the county’s recently-approved 237-page water master plan, a tool meant for public officials, county staff and planning commissioners to reference as they review development plans for approval.

The document says the county’s current water supply is about 146,000 acre-feet per year, but demand is expected to increase to about 160,000 acre-feet per year by 2040 and 206,000 acre-feet per year by 2060. An acre-foot, or enough water to cover an acre at the depth of one foot, amounts to about 326,000 gallons.

The plan, prepared by Englewood-based engineering firm Forsgren Associates Inc., makes a variety of recommendations for closing the gap, including monitoring groundwater well levels, exploring ways to reuse water, finding new water sources and considering changes to the county’s land use approval process.

The county is home to more than 21,300 permitted groundwater wells and roughly 70 water providers, from small districts to municipal departments, according to the plan.

Water providers in once rural parts of the county, such as Monument, face mounting concerns about how to ensure that residents have enough water as the population continues to rise.

The primary water source for areas that are not served by Colorado Springs Utilities is the Denver Basin. Experts say it’s hard to pinpoint the rate at which water levels are falling in the system of aquifers, which were filled by precipitation over many years.

By 2060, the county’s current annual supply would be enough to serve a little more than half of the projected population, according to the plan. More residents could potentially be served by Denver Basin groundwater, but only if it’s still economical to pump, the plan states.

Per state law, county commissioners generally decide if there’s sufficient water to serve a new development during final platting, the stage of the land use approval process in which lots are created, said Mark Gebhart, deputy director of the county Planning and Community Development Department.

But the plan suggests that the county consider changing its rules so that determination can be made earlier, such as when a preliminary plan or zoning change is approved, to help ensure that new developments are planned with water supply in mind.

The plan also recommends that the county re-evaluate a subdivision regulation that requires developers to prove that they have a 300 years’ supply of water. The requirement, three times as stringent as a state standard that requires proof of 100 years’ supply, could be waived if developers agree to conservation-minded practices, such as reuse of captured wastewater to offset demands, the plan suggests.

If the county moves forward with changing such land-use rules, the amendments would need to be approved by county commissioners, said Gebhart.

The plan also advises that the county encourage water providers to find more reliable water sources that are replenished regularly by precipitation, rather than deep groundwater sources that are slow to recharge. One possibility might be importing water from the Arkansas River, the plan states.

Using low-flow shower heads and xeriscaping, or reducing irrigation needs by planting low-water succulents and shrubs as an alternative to grass, are other simple practices that can help conserve water to meet future demands, according to the plan.

The county spent more than $312,000 on the plan, which the Planning Commission voted unanimously to adopt on December 18. It will become a part of the county’s overall master plan, which includes more than a dozen different documents that focus on different topics and areas within the county.

The county has hired a contractor to help update its overall master plan, and that process is expected to be completed in about two years, Gebhart said.

Several minor changes must be made to the water master plan to correct typos and textual errors before the document is republished and certified, Gebhart said.

The plan can be downloaded at epcdevplanreview.com by clicking the “applications being reviewed” tab.

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