Colorado Springs has seen tremendous growth in the last few years as the intersection of natural beauty and city life draws thousands of new residents. All the while, the Pikes Peak region continues to balance population growth with historically low levels of one of the most crucial resources: water. El Pomar Foundation’s Pikes Peak Heritage Series launched in 2015 to celebrate and raise awareness of the natural assets of the Pikes Peak region. It does this through community discussion, lectures, and opportunities to connect with outdoor and land use leaders. For the benefit of the region’s water users, Heritage Series partnered with Colorado Springs Leadership Institute and Colorado Springs Utilities to bring together water managers, experts, and the general public for a discussion on August 30, 2023.
When the Heritage Series team began brainstorming our next community engagement event, we knew that drought in the western United States and its effect on the Colorado River was top of mind for millions of Americans. We saw a need to foster conversation about the past, current, and future state of water in the Pikes Peak region and Colorado. This event aimed to educate and bring awareness to how our community and its leaders are working to effectively distribute and conserve our resources to ensure a sustainable water future. With our partners, we brought community leaders together for a panel discussion who work at the forefront of water management including: Matt Heimerich, Board member of Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District; Abby Ortega, General Manager, Infrastructure and Resource Planning Department at Colorado Springs Utilities; Dr. Eric Perramond, Professor of Environmental Science and Southwest Studies, Colorado College; and Bill Tyner, Former Division Engineer, Colorado Division of Water Resources and owner of Tyner Engineering & Sciences, LLC. Karen Palus, Executive Director of Colorado Springs Leadership Institute, joined the group as moderator, and introductory remarks were provided by Travas Deal and Birgit Landin, CEO and Community Education Specialist respectively, both from Colorado Springs Utilities.
At the end of May, Colorado was no longer in a drought for the first time in 20 years. By August, as our speakers gathered at Penrose House Conference Center, southwest Colorado had once again slipped into a state of water scarcity. Birgit Landin from Colorado Springs Utilities asked the audience for their top concern regarding water. Most selected the same question: if water coming into our region is at historic lows while we have spikes in population, how will the Pikes Peak region continue to meet the demand?
The Pikes Peak region developed its water infrastructure within the context of a local, state, and national water allocation system. Dr. Perramond explained that this strict system dealt with water scarcity using the principle “first in time, first in right.” Putting this into context within Colorado, most senior water rights are held by entities with agricultural interests because of the state’s agricultural history. According to the panelists and Birgit Landin, this is the largest water user category. Matt Heimerich emphasized the crucial role he believes environmental activists play in holding water rights owners accountable to prioritizing a sustainable water future rather than maximizing water usage. Ensuring healthy water sheds, he shared, is beneficial to the long-term health of all Coloradoans.
Additionally, the panel discussed how climate change continues to contribute to the stability of the Colorado River system. Decreases in snowmelt attributed to climate change can contribute to shifts in agricultural growing seasons that have effects beyond just water access (Dr. Perramond). On the other hand, we also have had historical forest fires that degraded the stability of our water ecosystems by accelerating soil erosion and polluting snow build-up (Bill Tyner).
In the Pikes Peak region, we often turn to our water supply provider, Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU), for guidance on water usage. Abby Ortega shared that CSU seeks to expand and grow efficiency of retention infrastructure while keeping water affordable and reliable. For individuals seeking to make changes, CSU recommends lowering usage by employing water efficient methods such as converting to resilient landscapes, upgrading household amenities, limiting daily water use, and engaging in community conversations. On the state level, the Colorado Water Plan from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources seeks to build cooperation within the state by providing funding and technical resources to implement programs and projects.
One bit of hope Ortega provided was that although the region’s population has doubled in recent years, the volume of total water usage has not increased. This means the trend has been decreasing individual user volume.
Something the experts agree on is that the future of the Pikes Peak region is dependent on its water supply. Decision-making by leaders and advocates requires input from an informed and engaged public.
The community can learn more about the history and solutions discussed by our panelists, by accessing the full recording here.
In addition to the recording, more can be learned through the resources below:
- Learn more about where Colorado Springs’ water comes from, current water supply conditions, and your water quality at https://www.csu.org/Pages/Water.aspx.
- Visit Colorado Springs Utilities; Conservation & Environmental Center to explore the water-wise demonstration garden and indoor efficiency exhibits to discover the best ways to save resources and money on your utility bill.
- Take advantage of rebates and incentives to save water and energy by upgrading appliances and irrigation equipment.
- Learn more about water in Crowley County as referenced by Matt Heimerich by reading this article that was featured in 5280 magazine in late 2014.