The Backstory – Longmont Water and Our Future – Part 2
(Below is a transcript of the video recording at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1CuQJWjRVw – the transcript has been edited for clarity)
Tim Waters Longmont City Council member
Ken Huson Water Resources Manager – City of Longmont
Jeff Drager Director of Engineering – Northern Water (which administers the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District)
Dale Rademacher Deputy City Manager – City of Longmont
Tim Waters (00:02):
Hello, and welcome to The Backstory on all things water related to Longmont. Water policy, water portfolio, and the future of water in Longmont. My name’s Tim Waters, and as a volunteer for Longmont Public Media, I’m your host of The Backstory. The Backstory gives you a chance to learn what you might not read on the front page of the Times-Call or the Longmont Leader or other mainstream media, or even on social media. This is a chance to go deep with experts on the topics and the content we deal with in telling the backstory. And in this backstory, if you had a chance to watch Episode 1, and if you’re watching this, as Episode 2, you might want to watch Episode 1, because we talked in Episode 1 about a number of issues in the Lower Colorado Basin and I’m going to ask our experts to highlight that.
Tim Waters (00:56):
Today we’re going to focus more on what all we talked about last week means for Longmont, both near-term and long-term. And here are the people you’re going to get a chance to hear from.
Ken Huson is Longmont’s water resources manager. Welcome, Ken.
Jeff Drager is director of engineering for Northern Water. Welcome back, Jeff.
And Dale Rademacher, deputy city manager, who has oversight of public works and natural resources. All of our water decisions, policy, and future roll up under his auspices. He has shepherded it all really well for many years. 30 years, Dale? Something like that.
Dale Rademacher (01:38):
Tim Waters (01:38):
38 years. So, we didn’t add up all the collective experience in this group, but it’s probably way more than a 100 years of experience among you three gentlemen. So, thanks for coming back.
I’m just going to turn to you. What are the highlights Episode 1 that kind of tee up now where we want to go from your perspectives? Anything that resonate for you or that you think listeners ought to pay particular attention to in Episode 1 to help make this transition into Episode 2?
Dale Rademacher (02:12):
Well, for me, Tim, I think it was important to get grounded in the larger picture of the overall Colorado River. I think Ken and Jeff did a great job of providing an overview of what that looks like and addressing issues such as: What’s the likelihood of [calls under the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948]? What’s the likelihood of a potential reduction of diversions on the Colorado River and in particular, in the Colorado-Big Thompson or the Windy Gap Projects?
And so, I think it’s good for listeners to keep that all in mind when seeing the current news of the day.
Right now, it’s really focused on the lower river, in Arizona, Nevada, and California. And so, I think today it’ll be important to really drill us back into, “So, what does it look like here in Longmont?” And so, I think from that perspective, those two gentlemen did a great job.
Tim Waters (03:20):
Ken and Jeff, anything you want to highlight from Episode 1? Because Dale’s kind of teed it up now to talk about where we fall in this big picture.
Jeff Drager (03:32):
I don’t have anything to add. I think Dale … [crosstalk 00:03:37]
Tim Waters (03:37):
All right. Ken?
Ken Huson (03:37):
I think that was really good. It really summarized the real issue of … The Lower Colorado River issues do impact us. However, there’s a lot of background that you have to look at to even understand why it impacts us. And I think that Episode 1 would be great for people to look at to understand even more so what we’re talking about today.
Tim Waters (04:01):
And Longmonters, those of you who view this, that’s the whole point, right? To build kind of the background knowledge we need to understand: What does this all mean for us and our kids and our grandkids as we go into the future? So, think about this Episode 2 (and this two-part series) as about water policy, portfolio and the future for Longmont.
So, you made reference, Dale, to Windy Gap, and that’s a term that most Longmonters, I suspect, are familiar with, but drill a little bit deeper. Whoever wants to pick this up: When you say Windy Gap, what are you talking about (so people understand better what’s the big picture here)?
Dale Rademacher (04:41):
Jeff, you want to take a lead on that as the representative from Northern Water (the operator of the Windy Gap Project)?
Jeff Drager (04:43):
Yeah. Sure. Sure. I’ll give it a try.
And I’ll start maybe with a little bit of history. Your viewers probably know this, but agriculture developed in north Front Range in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At that time, irrigation ditches (and associated reservoirs) were constructed to serve those farms. They found out in the 1930s that there really wasn’t enough water available to meet the needs of those farms. And so, a group of people went to the Bureau of Reclamation. They got the Bureau of Reclamation to build the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which brings a lot of water from the Colorado River over to the north Front Range. So that was the starting point.
Jeff Drager (05:27):
In the 1960s, there was a lot of growth again happening on the north Front Range. There were six cities on the north Front Range (Longmont being one of them) that realized that maybe they didn’t want to take the C-BT water for all this new municipal growth. They wanted to leave some of that for agriculture.
So, they decided to develop the Windy Gap Project, which would divert water from the Colorado River below the C-BT Project and pump it up into Lake Granby and have that water delivered to the same customers that C-BT water was delivered to through the Colorado-Big Thompson infrastructure. So, it was a pretty clever project.
It was really developed in 1967, I think, when the Longmont mayor filed for a water right for the Windy Gap Project. I was an eight-year-old kid in Longmont at the time. I was not aware that that was going on, so didn’t know that was happening. But as you mentioned, people in Longmont do know what Windy Gap is because my sister tells me it’s on her tax bill every year. So, she’s aware of the project as it’s ongoing.
Jeff Drager (06:37):
So, the project was built and constructed from 1981 to 1985. It’s a pump station on the Colorado River with a small reservoir. It pumps water that’s on the Colorado River below Granby Dam. Really, it’s pumping Fraser River water, essentially, up into Granby Reservoir, and then that water is delivered through the C-BT system.
Tim Waters (06:59):
Through the pumping system and the tunnel, right, or pipeline that … [crosstalk 00:07:03].
Jeff Drager (07:03):
Yeah. So, they built this small reservoir, they built a big pump station with a nine-foot diameter pipe to take the water up into Lake Granby, and from there it comes through the existing system that the Bureau of Reclamation built. It’s a very interesting project
I think they thought, at the time, that they could deliver about 48,000 acre-feet through the project, assuming they built their own storage. They’ve never delivered that amount of water for a couple of different reasons. The project now uses existing C-BT storage … tries to make use of the C-BT storage. At one time they thought they were going to build their reservoir on the Western Slope. I think they eliminated it from the project for cost reasons back in the 1970s and never built that reservoir, but I think they always knew they needed to build a new reservoir. That has worked at times, but other times it has not worked very well.
Jeff Drager (07:56):
So, when the Colorado-Big Thompson Project (Lake Granby) fills with their original Colorado-Big Thompson water, there’s no room for Windy Gap water. We can’t take the Windy Gap water, even though we’re in priority, and that reduces the reliability of the Windy Gap Project. And that brought us to this idea of making the Windy Gap Project more reliable, which ultimately after we went through years of environmental studies and other engineering work, focused on Chimney Hollow Reservoir. That’s what we are constructing right now. We received the permits and we’re moving forward with our reservoir right now.
Tim Waters (08:32):
So, we’re going to drill down on Chimney Hollow in a minute, but just to make certain: From a layman’s perspective, we could be reserving (firming) more water (storing more water) to which we have rights, but we just don’t have the capacity to store it and that’s where we get to Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
We have a couple of other sources of water in Longmont.
Ken or Dale, talk to us a bit about Button Rock, Ralph Price Reservoir (or the dam and the reservoir behind it), where that water comes from, and what it means to Longmont, both short-term and long-term.
Ken Huson (09:09):
The City of Longmont is very lucky. We have a very robust water supply. Our current plan (and our policy) is to obtain about two-thirds of our water supply from our native basin (the St. Vrain Creek basin) and about one third from the Western Slope. That’s how we get our water supply.
Longmont’s primary water supply reservoir (and it’s normally used in winter during low flows) is impounded by Button Rock Dam. It is the Ralph Price Reservoir, named for former mayor Ralph Price, who was in office when we started construction on that project and really helped move that project forward. That’s a 16,000 acre-foot reservoir on the main stem of the north St. Vrain Creek, approximately eight miles west of Lyons.
A couple of good things about that is that all the water (almost all of the water) comes out of Rocky Mountain National Park. So, Longmont’s extremely fortunate to have high quality source water to store and ultimately to treat and deliver. So, we have a really great source of water, and we have a very good storage vessel in Button Rock Dam.
Ken Huson (10:49):
Longmont also has a number of original water filings.
We have one filing that goes clear back to 1882, when Longmont developed its first water system. That’s a direct flow water right to deliver water to our system. We have several subsequent filings (direct flow filings) which we use in our system.
Longmont was formed in 1871. The unfortunate part about all that is for a good portion of the summer, the more senior your water right, the more water you’re able to have during lower flow time periods, especially mid to late summer when the snow melt is done and there’s less stream flow.
So, during the summer, it’s very common that no water right senior [junior?] to 1870 is in priority in our basin and usually it’s no water right junior to 1865. So, we’re working on a very small margin of water rights that are available later in the summer and in the winter. So that’s the value of the storage that we have.
Ken Huson (12:15):
Longmont has (in addition to Ralph Price) McCall Lake, which is between Longmont and Lyons. We also own shares in several private reservoirs such as Lake McIntosh. We own about two thirds of that reservoir. And we also own about 85% of Union Reservoir, located just east of Longmont. All of those reservoirs work together to supply Longmont in late summer and winter, as well as all of the direct flow decrees.
Ken Huson (12:56):
We also have a very robust and well-thought-out water dedication policy.
When new land comes into the city of Longmont to be developed, we require the water that is historical to that property be dedicated to the city for service to that property. So, the very water right that was irrigating crops prior to annexation of the land will now be used to provide water service to the developed portion. That’s also served Longmont very well, and especially because a lot of the water rights that irrigate the land around Longmont are the most senior water rights in the basin. Basically, when this area was settled in the early 1860s and grew, it was settled in the Longmont area first and grew out from there. So, we have some of the most senior water rights in the basin, which is very, very advantageous to us, especially during periods of drought where some of our water rights won’t get called out, whereas other water rights are.
Ken Huson (14:10):
So, that’s really the water portfolio we have, how we get our water, and why the Western Slope water is especially important because it provides us a secondary source of water. Sometimes it’s dry on this side and wet on the west side. Generally, bigger droughts tend to cover all of Colorado, but it is possible to have more water on one side or the other. It gives us a second source of water, a resiliency in our system that is the envy of many people, because many water providers only have one water source. So having dual water sources … [crosstalk 00:14:54].
Tim Waters (14:53):
So, God bless Ralph Price and our predecessors that they had the vision and the courage to do this. When they made those decisions, it took some political will to make those commitments, number one. Number two, every time I listen to you, I learn something. I’ve heard you a number of times, but every time there’s deeper insight. So, I appreciate how you put together that part of the portfolio. I know there’s more to talk about in terms of the portfolio when we get to Chimney Hollow.
Tim Waters (15:26):
Just a bit of a commercial here, unrelated to water rights but related to water quality. We have a team putting together a management plan for Ralph Price Reservoir that has to do with numbers of visitors and dogs on leashes, and people cleaning up after themselves, and a variety of issues that for some people may be controversial, but I hope listeners will understand that you made a comment about the quality of that water that comes out of Rocky Mountain National Park. We are so fortunate. It gets treated, certainly, when it gets into our water treatment system, but maintaining the quality of that water before it gets to the treatment system is as important as what happens when it gets here. And so, we’re very mindful of what might wash into the water in Ralph Price Reservoir before it goes through Button Rock Dam on its way to our water treatment facility, fair? Yeah.
Ken Huson (16:23):
Tim Waters (16:23):
So when we-
Jeff Drager (16:25):
If I could jump in there.
Tim Waters (16:25):
Jeff Drager (16:26):
This year the Cameron Peak fire west of Fort Collins is causing those same issues, and Fort Collins and Greeley are taking their water out of Horsetooth Reservoir, or most of their water, because of water quality issues because of the fire. So even though there’s enough water, the quality is important now.
Tim Waters (16:44):
So Longmonters, think about that when you hear more about this management plan and you want to walk your dogs off leash and they don’t get cleaned up after, not that you would do that, but some people do. So we’re very, very concerned about what washes into Ralph Price Reservoir. So let’s now talk about the rest of the story in terms of the portfolio. Jeff made a comment a little bit ago that we are now underway constructing Chimney Hollow Reservoir. As I recall, it was on the ballot in 2017, that Longmonters approved, servicing debt, selling bonds, to be able to participate in the Chimney Hollow Firming Project. That was the language that was used.
So, Dale, do you want to pick it up? The first time I really learned about this, I’m sitting in a city council chamber and I’m watching Dale Rademacher make a presentation on… There was a proposal, there was a fair amount of science, not a lot of science, behind that proposal and the estimates of what Longmont would need even given what we knew then about climate change.
Tim Waters (17:55):
So just bring us up to date. What got started on August 6th? There was a groundbreaking. Why the lag between 2017 and August 6th? People ought to know that. And then, kind of where are we in terms of participation and what’s the timeline look like, and what does it do for our overall portfolio as Chimney Hollow comes online?
Dale Rademacher (18:14):
Sure. And back in, even before 2017, there was a lot of work going on, both by Northern Water in pursuing the project itself and certainly by the city, in completing and then updating our raw water master planning. And that’s a fairly time-intensive and rigorous analysis of the city’s water supply.
Ken is always headed that up, and so when he starts shaking his head, I’ll know when I’m going too far.
But the purpose of the raw water plan is to not just look at our water supply today, but to look at it into the future and to look at it through several different lenses. One being a growing city, a city that will not be the same population as it is today, as we approach a 100,000, but certainly, going beyond that, certainly into the range of 120,000 or 125,000, if not more, because right now the city is looking at densifying the city for several reasons, to meet a variety of city objectives. And so, our challenge is to make sure that we have a water supply to be able to serve that vision of the community and the council.
Dale Rademacher (19:45):
And so, we updated that document. What it showed us then was that, all things considered equal, we would need around 6,000 or so acre-feet of storage space in the Windy Gap/Chimney Hollow Project. That changed a bit when Envision Longmont was completed, wherein some of that densification was brought into the picture. And so, the analysis that we then went into was to look at what would the additional water demand be associated with those additional residents, right, that additional densification. What that showed us was that 6,000 to 6,500 acre-feet would probably still get us by. Other things that are considered, obviously, are things like climate change, drought, the general water policies of the city, things like continuing with the raw water policy and requiring water to come in with new development and so on.
Dale Rademacher (21:00):
So at the time, the Longmont Water Board, their charge is to look very closely at the water supply needs of the city. The Water Board, at the time, their recommendation to the council was to be around 10,000 acre-feet of water and that is what was taken to the voters back in 2017: a proposal to participate in the project up to that 10,000 acre-foot level. And it was about a $36,000,000 bond issue. It passed with pretty hefty support. Longmont residents and community members have, historically, stepped up to the plate to make sure that they continue to enjoy clean, reliable water.
Dale Rademacher (21:59):
And so, the council that came into office (it was either 2017 or 2018) modified that commitment level to about 8,000 acre-feet. And so, I’m sure Jeff and folks at Northern Water were wondering, “Well, Longmont, are you ever going to decide your participation level?” But we take it serious down here and we involve the community, we involve the council in making those determinations. The last, what I call, sort of a tweak in our participation amount was to arrive at about 7,500 acre-feet of participation level.
A lot of that was driven by the economics of the project and some of the cost increases that we were experiencing at the time. So, Longmont approached it from many angles. One of them being affordability and what could we afford with our current rate structure as well as our current capital program, and I think we’ve arrived at the right level.
We believe as staff that it is sufficient to meet the needs of the city. I believe to meet the build out of the city, as we currently anticipate it, right? That, too, can change. I don’t have that perfect crystal ball to know what future leaders of the community are going to want in the next 20 to 30 years.
Dale Rademacher (23:38):
And so, as everything stands now, participation at this level, we believe (our analysis tells us) will provide the city with an adequate water supply to serve that population up into that 120,000 range.
So, Ken, you can correct me now, on anything I may have gotten wrong, because you’re much closer to the information than I am.
Ken Huson (24:07):
No. That was an excellent summary. I really think it’ll be valuable to people. The only thing I would add is that this does quickly devolve into some pretty technical numbers and evaluations, and anybody who wants to go beyond the excellent presentation Dale gave us, feel free to go to the city of Longmont’s website and just search for ‘future water demand evaluation’. We have the entire study on our website, all the numbers you’ll ever want to back up everything we’ve talked about and get additional information.
Tim Waters (24:45):
Yeah. That’s great. Thanks. Thanks to both of you.
As I understand Envision Longmont (my recollection is), the projected population, at the time it was developed, was 116,000. And then with more density, it might get to 125,000 or 130,000, but it’s in that range, but the water supply is sufficient for that range, which I think is …
Dale Rademacher (25:12):
We believe that. Yes.
Tim Waters (25:13):
Dale Rademacher (25:14):
Tim Waters (25:14):
Yeah. Go ahead.
Dale Rademacher (25:17):
There’s a lot of variability. Water supply is the one area of engineering that is really at the whim of Mother Nature. And in this case, what we know and understand about climate change is also an evolving science and an evolving body of information. We believe that we have sufficient, I call it factor safety, built into our planning efforts so as to get us through that, if we were to experience some of the more sort of dire predictions of what may impact us from climate change.
Dale Rademacher (26:03):
I think the other thing to say though, too, is that Longmont community members, in my time, have also been incredibly responsible. When asked to cut back or reduce their water use, they have come through with a five-star rating. They have always responded and come to the table again to say, “You know what? We acknowledge we’re living in the Great American Desert, and there may be times where we need to, again, cut back.” And that’s why water conservation is now, and always will be, critical to the long-term sustainability of this community, and probably also its environmental health. Because to the extent we’re able to not divert the water into the city into taps, we’re able to have it be used for other uses, whether it be recreation or environmental needs and those kinds of things. And so, I think going forward, Longmont’s going to be in an excellent position to be able to address a wide range of water (both opportunities and obligations) in the coming years.
Tim Waters (27:33):
Part of that not so subtle message, to not interpret any of this in terms of supply, to misinterpret that as, “Gee. You just have free rein to do whatever.” We still have to conserve. And we talked last, in Episode 1, that there is conservation underway right now. We see per capita use dropping over the last number of years, which is a good thing, and we anticipate continuing to see that. I know the city is doing a number of things to help residents in their conservation efforts, from audits of their homes and businesses to providing efficient fixtures. There’s a whole collection of things that the city does once the water starts to flow, to make best use of it.
I don’t want to miss the opportunity to reinforce what Ken said about land annexed into the city, brings with it… The city has been absolutely clear and consistent about expecting the traditional water rights to go with that land.
So, when people are concerned about whether or not land that’s annexed and what it might mean in terms of growth, whether or not it’s paying its way, in this case, it does bring water. We’re not going to annex land and develop land where there’s not water to support that annexation and development. Is that clear? Is that consistent or accurate? Yeah.
Dale Rademacher (29:05):
Tim Waters (29:05):
Number two. Dale, you mentioned, I think it was the November 17th ballot when the voters approved selling those bonds, and part of the way we’re servicing the debt on those bonds is with water rates?
Dale Rademacher (29:20):
Tim Waters (29:21):
And I think the city is anticipating – we’re now, I think, moving into the third year of a three-year rate increase, am I remembering that correctly?
Dale Rademacher (29:32):
It’s a multiyear rate increase and I know the first two years were 9% increases. And I believe now going into the 2022 year budget, it’s anticipated to be about a 7% increase. In 2023, I believe, it steps down again, maybe into the 5% range of increase, but we did look at a multiyear plan, which we always try to do. And I think in this case, it was a five-year rate plan for water.
I’d love to be able to sit here and say, “We will never need another rate increase.” I would love to be able to say that. I’m not sure if that’s a true statement though, nor should it be a reasonable expectation. Like most things in our world, things continue to get more expensive. Right now, we are dealing with significant increases in commodities like water pipeline, upwards of a 100% increase in the price of pipelines to get water pipe, along with delivery delays. And so, the economy right now, I believe is still recovering, resetting itself, if you will, post-pandemic. Of course, I don’t know if I should say post-pandemic.
Tim Waters (31:04):
We hope. Yeah.
Dale Rademacher (31:04):
I think we’re still in the middle of it. We are experiencing that. And so, on the one hand, we can’t control that.
We also know we need to keep renewing this water system. We cannot ignore it. We cannot let it simply deteriorate or the community will not have a safe and reliable supply of water.
And so, it is a difficult situation and I’m sure many of the folks listening today are wondering how they’re going to pay those utility bills going forward. And so, I know on council, you have made it a strong priority for us also to provide robust programs to assist those in the community who are challenged due to their income, to be able to afford and pay these utility costs. And so, it’s a complicated mix of ensuring reliability, ensuring high-quality, and then also ensuring affordability. And that challenge will never end, so it will continue.
Tim Waters (32:23):
So, just to do my summary of that. Voters approved, in 2017, exactly the plan that’s now being implemented. And as difficult as it is for folks, the rate increases were part of that plan. That was what was presented, laid out at the time. They’re increasing, but they’re increasing at a slower rate now as we move through 2023. But it is the whole objective, both that and the investments that we’re making in infrastructure to maintain the asset, is what residents would expect of city leaders to ensure the viability, the sustainability, the quality of the system for generations to come, right?
Dale Rademacher (33:08):
Tim Waters (33:09):
And it’s a little bit like, “How do you swallow an elephant or eat an elephant?”, right? You got to do it a bite at a time and that’s kind of what we’re doing, because what we don’t want to have to do is swallow a whole elephant at one time because we failed to pay attention to what those needs and those costs were going to be going forward.
We broke ground on August 6th on Chimney Hollow. What’s the anticipated time when we get a chance to go and do the ribbon cutting or whatever you do when a dam is completed?
Jeff Drager (33:42):
Chimney Hollow Reservoir is a four-year construction process. So, it’ll take four years to build the dam. So sometime in 2025, we think, we’ll be complete with building the reservoir. We can start filling it with water at that time. We think it’ll take, probably, several years to fill the reservoir, depending on the hydrology and what’s going on. So, it’s a little ways out there before that reservoir is entirely full, so it does take some time. Yeah.
Tim Waters (34:11):
And that filling the reservoir is really based on rainfall on the Western Slope, right?
Jeff Drager (34:16):
Tim Waters (34:17):
I mean, it’s in the wet years that there is an abundance of water that you can pump into Chimney Hollow without shorting anybody else downstream, what their allotment is.
Jeff Drager (34:29):
Dale Rademacher (34:31):
And, Jeff, is it correct that in any given year we can divert… What’s the maximum amount that we can divert through Windy Gap in any given year?
Jeff Drager (34:43):
The maximum amount is 90,000 acre-feet, which is actually the size of Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
Dale Rademacher (34:47):
There you go.
Jeff Drager (34:48):
I mean, we’ve never brought that much through the Adams Tunnel, but we pumped 60,000, we brought probably 40,000+ through in a given year, but we could bring more. I mean, the reservoir could fill quicker than three years, depending on the hydrology and the situation in the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
Tim Waters (35:09):
We need all Coloradoans to be doing rain dances of some kind to generate more moisture on both the eastern and western slopes. But of the 90,000 acre-feet, we will own (or will have paid for) 7,500 of those 90,000 acre-feet and have water supply given the unknowns about climate change to service a city of 125,000 plus if build out takes us beyond 125,000.
Gentlemen, I hope we get a lot of viewers on this program, because it’s a wealth of information that people … Honestly, there won’t be many opportunities (maybe ever) to get you three in a conversation like this for this period of time to help bring the public along with an understanding of what are the policies, what’s the portfolio and what’s the future of Longmont or of water in Longmont.
So, thank you again for what you do every day. The community is indebted to you, your decades of service, your expertise. Thank you for the time you’ve dedicated to these two segments. And Longmonters, that’s your backstory on everything water related in Longmont, Colorado.
Dale Rademacher (36:27):
Tim Waters (36:30):
Jeff Drager (36:30):