A tale of two cities
Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA)
Recently, VOTMA has been diving into the complex issues of water use and conservation. Homeowners, businesses, and farmers want to ensure that we and the flora and fauna of Sonoma Valley have clean, accessible water in the years to come. Seven western states are facing water shortages, and California is finally moving forward with ways to have communities look at their own water use and develop water management plans. Up until now, groundwater laws have allowed a “first-come, first served” access to aquifers. Poor management of groundwater and drought conditions can force communities to dip even further into emergency wells and permanently affect an aquifer’s ability to recharge itself. With so many states facing dwindling water resources, what happens when a community actually runs out of water due to drought coupled with growth?
When a community runs out of water they have to find another source to tap. And that is exactly what Colorado Springs, Colorado, had to do. In the past, water filled the Fountain and Monument creeks that were the only sources of water for the community. For years, they knew that drought would permanently dry up their flood-prone plain, but they continued to build out the city. One City Council member dressed up as a “Growth Buster” with overalls and a spray tank and wand to try to engage community members in a discussion of smart, sustainable planning. He was voted off the city council the following year. The Colorado Springs City Council (sans the Growth Buster) looked to the Arkansas River in the plains below. The city council eventually approved an $825 million pipeline called the Southern Delivery System that will deliver water from the city of Pueblo’s reservoir, which lies in the Arkansas River basin. It took 27 years to engineer and construct. It will pump 50 million gallons a day of Arkansas River water 1,500 feet uphill from Pueblo, 50 miles away. The City of Pueblo and their reservoir will get wastewater back after treatment via Fountain Creek. This is a huge pipeline costing taxpayers millions, and of course, the EPA also weighed in.
In 2009, the Colorado Springs City Council decided to suspend the city’s stormwater program, which had previously contaminated Fountain Creek. Their stormwater runoff had chemical contaminants and increasing sediment from fires washing into the creek. Pueblo brought this to the attention of the EPA via a threatened lawsuit. Colorado Springs will now spend $460 million over 20 years to complete stormwater cleanup projects which include ponds to filter water and planting vegetation along drainage channels to stabilize sediment. Like most public improvements, they will rely on general fund revenues from sales taxes for the additional $460 million dollar cost. Mayor John Suthers observed that, “If we have a downturn, we may have to look at something else.” He also stated that the pipeline, “…will take care of the future water needs of Colorado Springs for up to 50 years of growth.” On June 15, 2016, the Colorado Springs mayor got the news that chemicals used to fight the previous years’ devastating petroleum fires were being found in their drinking water. These per-fluorinated chemicals are like hormones and pesticides; they do not break down and boiling water will not get rid of them. They were forced to shut down seven city wells in Colorado Springs and nine more along Fountain Creek. No one wants to see a future water bill for the Colorado Springs basin.
This may all seem unbelievable, but it happened. Water is going to be the key resource in our future. We are already pumping from emergency wells in the Santa Rosa Plains and we continue to use pesticides for agriculture, parks, and homes. We rely on the Russian River for the majority of the county’s water and the river is at risk.
According to Will Parish in the September 2015 “Fish Out of Water” article in the Bohemian, “The vast majority of regional vineyards are irrigated. Many use water from wells, an unknown proportion of which are hydrologically connected to the river.” In the past, Russian River levels have been so low that the Coho and Steelhead salmon have been killed particularly when neighboring vineyards pulled out 50-55 gallons per minute, per acre, for frost protection of vines. Parrish also points out that vineyard irrigation pumps sunk in the Russian River are not metered and may draw out unrestricted amounts of water year round. The Russian River is also the major source of water for many of our cities in Sonoma County, including Santa Rosa. Sonoma County Water Agency spokeswoman Ann Dubay stated, “We do not have a countywide breakdown of water use for residences and agriculture.” So we keep pumping.
When we first heard about Colorado Springs and Pueblo’s plan to build the pipeline, my husband and I asked ourselves, “What happens to the Arkansas River in the long run?” Then we asked ourselves, “What will Colorado Springs do in 50 years?” What happens to our water in 50 years is a question we need to answer right here in Sonoma County.