AURORA, Colo. - The Aurora Reservoir serves as a primary source of water for this community of 300,000, but these days, parts of the basin look like they couldn’t water a lawn. Where water was once plentiful, dead crayfish and weeds now litter the cracked, brittle ground. Swimming has been banned for the second year in a row. The water level has dropped to 12 feet below normal, leaving a brown, muddy ring along the reservoir’s walls.
As a result, Aurora officials have been forced to enact some of the strictest conservation measures in the West. Residents may water their lawns only twice a week and may not plant new trees, shrubs or grass. Youth baseball and soccer leagues slashed their practice schedules and cut the number of games by 25 percent to limit the damage to park grass.
But it didn’t have to come to this. In 1997, the rain and snowfall were so abundant that water was literally spilling out of the reservoir, but the city had no way to catch it or keep it, said Peter Binney, the city’s utilities director.
That won’t happen again, if he has anything to say about it. After decades of inaction on major water projects, Westerners such as Mr. Binney are sounding the call for more storage, more dams, and more control over the precious resource known here as “liquid gold.”
“This drought has told us that we absolutely don’t have enough water in storage,” Mr. Binney said. “We really haven’t built any new reservoirs on the Front Range in 30 years. The current infrastructure no longer meets our needs.”
But his thinking runs headlong into that of the environmental community, which argues that conservation, not construction, should continue dominate the state’s drought strategy.
“There are a lot of options cheaper, faster and less environmentally damaging than building more storage,” said Carrie Doyle, program manager of the League of Conservation Voters in Denver.
Those points of view are destined to collide in November when Colorado voters consider Referendum A, a sweeping ballot initiative that would allow $2 billion in bonding authority for new water projects.
Leading the charge for such projects is Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, who signed a bill earlier this month to put Referendum A on the ballot.
The Republican governor argued that the state could help solve its drought crisis by capturing the water that now flows into other states.
“Colorado’s continuing water crisis did not begin with this drought and will not evaporate when this drought ends,” said Mr. Owens at the June 5 signing ceremony. “We are all heartened by the spring runoff, but the fact is that too much of it is running into other states. We must improve Colorado’s ability to save its own water.”
Critics argue that the state should exhaust its conservation options first. They note that the Republican legislature instead defeated a stack of bills that would have tightened water usage statewide.
“The state legislature didn’t pass any conservation measures this time, which is an obvious answer that we’re skipping,” said Miss Doyle. “Here we are in the worst drought on record and the first response should be ‘Are we using our water efficiently?’ And they decided it was too burdensome.”
Critics also predict that a new era of storage projects will destroy wildlife habitat, disrupt riverside areas, discourage conservation and encourage unchecked growth and development.”
So far, however, storage proponents are enjoying the momentum in Colorado, where the drought, combined with rapid population growth, has put water at the forefront of the policy agenda. A poll taken last summer found water the top issue among those surveyed, outranking education, crime and the economy.
Most favor new projects
With their lawns turning brown despite years of conservation, those same Coloradans are coming down squarely on the side of storage. In a March poll taken by Ciruli Associates of Denver, 73 percent of respondents agreed that “Colorado needs to build additional storage projects to store runoff water for later use.”
“What the drought has done is told us that there are certain cases where it’s more environmentally damaging to do nothing than to do a dam,” Mr. Binney said.
But even voters who support water projects should defeat Referendum A, argue critics. Calling it “a $2 billion blank check for unnamed projects,” they note that none of the projects is specified in the initiative, and that the governor has final authority over any proposal.
Another hurdle for Referendum A proponents has been this year’s unusually wet spring. A March blizzard and steady rainfall have allowed some jurisdictions to ease up on their water restrictions, which could give some voters the impression that the drought is over.
Brian Vogt, co-chairman of Save Colorado’s Water, the group pushing for Referendum A, said he’s confident the voters will see the drought as a problem requiring a long-term solution.
“We can’t fix the drought we’re currently in. It may or may not be lifting — we’ll have to see,” said Mr. Vogt. “But it’s a major wake-up call, a sign that we need to do something about this for the future.”
As for the objections of environmentalists, he predicted they would change their minds after seeing the scope of the projects envisioned. Most communities would rather expand their current reservoirs than erect another Hoover Dam, he said.
“I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction that will disappear,” he said. “They’re thinking we’re going to build a super dam, but instead what we’re looking at is giving choices and tools so that people can expand a little here and add a little there.”
The governor also signed a bill in April allotting $500,000 for a study of the ambitious “Big Straw” project, which would pump unclaimed water from the Colorado River at the Utah border over the Rocky Mountains and back to the Denver area.
Once dismissed as an engineering and financial nonstarter, Big Straw has stirred the interest of state water planners and legislators as the drought worsens. But the logistics are daunting: It would require a pipeline of 215 miles that would need to climb 4,500 vertical feet at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion.
“To be honest, that project will never happen,” said Bart Miller, water program director at the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. “But there are proposals for little straws that may look cheaper and more realistic.”
A regional trend
While Colorado has led the move, other Western states are also looking beyond conservation and toward construction. The city of Albuquerque, N.M., for example, is planning to divert water from the Rio Grande River through the use of dams, although the presence of the endangered silvery minnow could hold up those plans.
That a project as ambitious as Big Straw could receive serious consideration shows how far the drought has pushed the Western water debate. Building of dams and reservoirs slowed drastically in the 1970s, thanks to a combination of cost concerns, relatively wet weather, and a sharply heightened awareness of their impact on wildlife and the environment.
The coup de grace came in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter, reacting to environmentalists, slashed federal funding for Western water projects, “signaling the end of major federal financing of Western reclamation,” pollster Floyd Ciruli wrote in his recent analysis, “New Political Environment of Water.”
Colorado built its last dam, the McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River, in 1984. Not long after, Denver and its surrounding suburbs attempted to win approval to build the Two Forks Dam, a 1.1 million?acre-foot reservoir, but met stiff resistance from environmental groups.
In 1990, Environmental Protection Agency Chief William Reilly vetoed the dam’s permit, delivering a major blow to Denver’s water-supply plans. After that, “water managers shifted direction to managing limited supplies without additional large-scale storage,” Mr. Ciruli said.
Over the next decade, however, millions of people poured into the West, shattering growth predictions and stretching the region’s water supplies. In Colorado alone, 1 million people moved to the Front Range, bringing the Denver-area population to 2.4 million 20 years ahead of schedule.
Planning for the future
On the heels of the new residents came what some analysts are calling the 300-year drought, one that may be the worst in recorded history. Now entering its fifth year, the drought has been eased somewhat this year, thanks to a March blizzard and wet spring, but experts say the region still has several more dry years to come.
Earlier last month, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton released a report, “Water 2025,” describing strategies for conserving and reclaiming water, and warning that drought could soon become a way of life in the West without action.
“We do think if we don’t take steps now and become proactive, we’ll see many crises by 2025,” Mrs. Norton said in an interview. “What we’ve seen in the West with this tremendous drought — that will be the daily situation by 2025.”
The proposed Interior budget calls for an initial investment of $11 million to spend on drought-alleviation strategies, such as water banks, technological advances in areas such as crop irrigation — “There are places where they still irrigate like the Spanish missionaries did” — and desalination.
As for storage proposals, Mrs. Norton said those depended on the region. “I think it’s great that Colorado is planning ahead, but even though I’m a Coloradan, it’s not for me to say what they should do,” she said.
Colorado environmentalists say there are any number of problems with the storage strategy, starting with cost. Even small storage projects would cost tens of millions, while conservation can be done on the cheap.
The process of building a dam or reservoir takes years or even decades, after factoring in the permitting process. What’s more, most natural storage sites are already storing water, Mr. Miller said.
“If you look at reusing water, creating groundwater storage and transferring water from agriculture, that’s a pretty wide range of supply-side options that, with conservation, can meet our needs,” he said.
Environmental groups are also urging the use of native plants instead of grass, known as xeriscaping, increasing the cost of water, and encouraging block water rates, in which customers pay less if they use less.
Some communities, such as Boulder, have begun offering rebates for customers who replace their bluegrass lawns with buffalo grass, which is native to Colorado and demands little water.
The problem, say critics, is many of those strategies are already in use, and they’re not enough. And while most Colorado communities have lowered their water consumption admirably, conservation alone won’t solve the state’s long-term drought problem.
“We’re talking about the next drought. This drought will be solved by reallocating water and weather,” said Mr. Binney. “These plans we’re discussing are for the next drought.”
In the meantime, this generation’s future dam-builders have their work cut out for them. “We’ve got to put on our training wheels,” Mr. Binney said, “and learn how to do this all over again.”