El Paso County Commissioners Question How Proposed Water Rule Could Affect Future Annexations | Energy & Environment

El Paso County commissioners on Monday questioned how a proposed Colorado Springs water regulation might affect future annexations, but received unclear answers from Colorado Springs utility officials as the city reviews the regulation.

For the past four weeks, Colorado Springs has been pondering a proposed rule that would require the utility to have 130% available water needed to meet existing demand and projected demand from vacant lots to be annexed . Developers seemed concerned that the new regulation could restrict housing construction.

The Colorado Springs City Council could vote on the ordinance in early January, said Wayne Williams, chief executive officer of Colorado Springs Utilities, who is also a Colorado Springs city councilman. Members of the Utilities Committee also serve on the City Council.

El Paso County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez said in an interview Monday he wants to make sure the proposed rule doesn’t unduly restrict new developments in unincorporated areas of the county that could be incorporated into Colorado Springs in the future.

“Especially when we talk about affordable housing. If that’s the only way to get roofs, then we should be doing smart growth,” Gonzalez said. “But you don’t want a rule that overly restricts (development) if it then stops all building.”

For example, the proposed new rule would block Colorado Springs’ annexation of a proposed 3,200-acre community southeast of the city called Amara if it went into effect before the council voted on Amara’s annexation.

Commissioners on Monday questioned how the city decided to charge utilities for 130% of existing and projected water needs, a figure the city council also disagreed on entirely.

“Not knowing what internal conversations the city might have had…130% seems arbitrary to me,” said commission chairman Stan VanderWerf.

Lisa Barbato, chief systems planning and project officer for Williams and Colorado Springs Utilities, said the 130% number roughly corresponds to the difference between the city’s current water use per year and the amount of water produced annually.

“I wouldn’t call it arbitrary because it depends in part on where we are right now,” Williams said. “But there’s nothing magical about 130% versus 131% or 128%.”

There was no clear formula Monday for how the proposed 130 percent water supply would be calculated for future development requests. Barbato told commissioners that the Utilities Committee would discuss and finalize this formula during its regular meeting on Wednesday.

Gonzalez questioned the need for the ordinance if city officials were to recommend that the city council not annex developments that would not adequately meet water needs.

According to Williams and Barbato, current city ordinances require that annexation proposals demonstrate that they have sufficient water for “present and projected needs for the foreseeable future to serve all current users within or outside of the city’s corporate boundaries.”

The proposed water regulation would define what are “current and projected needs,” Barbato said. “This gives us some clarity as to what (are) the right parameters against which we should evaluate these annexations?”

Barbato said based on how Utilities currently calculates the city’s water usage, there is currently room to incorporate about 4,200 single-family homes into the city.

“The difficult thing is that this is just a snapshot,” said VanderWerf.

These numbers will vary as the city and county grow and are subject to additional fluctuations in Colorado River water levels. The city gets most of its water from the Colorado River, Barbato said.

“So what’s that number between?” said Williams. “That is part of what we are committed to in this public process. They both adjust to the growth and realize that getting extra water takes time. And we’re looking at fluctuations in the Colorado River that historically we’ve never had to face before.”

Using a percentage instead of hard numbers allows the city council more flexibility in considering future annexation requests, he added.

“It reflects the actual reality of water production and what we do, and it will adjust as we continue to acquire water rights,” Williams said.

Fulfilled annexation requests or “unique and exceptional” situations “requiring an expansion of water supply to serve critical[the city’s]interests” are exempt from the proposed new water rule, he said.

Williams told the commissioners that Colorado Springs Utilities is willing to work with developments outside the city limits to move, treat and supply them with water.

If the city council passes the ordinance, it can also amend the document as needed if “something isn’t working quite right,” he said.