Field Studies, Sustainability, State of the Rockies project look at how siphoning water from mountain headwaters enables Front Range urban growth
Colorado College students, staff, and faculty devoted this year’s first block break to exploring gold-dotted Continental Divide mountainsides where Colorado Springs Utilities’ reservoirs, pipelines, and pump stations move water to people through an intricate re-engineering of natural flows.
The State of the Rockies project collaborated with the Field Studies and Sustainability departments to run this fourth annual Sense of Place water tour.
“It’s important for students to have an opportunity to learn about one of the most pressing socio-environmental issues facing the Rocky Mountain West,” State of the Rockies director Corina McKendry said.
Why learn about water issues in the West? “I think it’s important particularly in Colorado because water in the western United States is such a permeating issue. So much of our lives hinge around this important and scarce resource and the way we move it from one side of the continent to the other has far-reaching impacts,” said Sustainability director Ian Johnson.
This CC group explored Colorado Springs Utilities sites by day, and by night soaked in the Mount Princeton Hot Springs pools under starry skies. The group also investigated how water plays a central role in Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry, inspecting the Salida river walk where tourism, fishing, and rafting sputter without sufficient streamflow. At the Larga Vista Ranch in Pueblo, the group explored the use of water in agriculture. Finally, the group toured a Colorado Springs water treatment plant where officials discussed the operation of reusing water and the process to ensure water quality.
As in many western cities, water is a social, political, and environmental challenge. In as early as the 1870s, the city began storing runoff from nearby watersheds and transporting it by pipeline to meet customer demand. Over the last 150 years, Colorado Springs Utilities has expanded the water collection system to include transmountain sources from 100 miles away delivered through an efficient network of 4 major pipelines, 7 collections systems, and 6 water treatment plants.
At 9,230 feet, Crystal Creek Reservoir is one of three Pikes Peak north slope reservoirs. Built in the 1930s during the Great Depression, these reservoir projects were part of the government’s effort to create jobs in the region.
From the Crystal Creek Reservoir visitors’ parking lot, Kalsoum Abbasi, water conveyor engineer for Colorado Springs Utilities and 1997 Colorado College alumna, pointed to the plan view of reservoirs and pipelines of the local water supply system while students, Mowei Jiang ’21, Zaria Taylor ’22, Daya Stanley ‘22, Kelly Yue ’21, and Tia Vierling ’22 looked on with curiosity. She explained how water is transported from Crystal Creek, North Catamount, and South Catamount reservoirs via gravity to water treatment plants further down the mountain. Ms. Abbasi’s job is to make sure that every time a customer turns on the tap, clean water comes out. She analyzes mountain snowpack levels and weather forecasts each spring to anticipate how much water Colorado Springs Utilities can divert safely so that downriver farmers’ and other users’ legal rights to withdraw water are also satisfied.
The Fountain Creek Watershed is the city’s natural watershed. It has the capacity to support a population of only about 50,000 people, but with the development of the 1870-1960s local water supply system, which includes diverted water from the north and south slopes of Pikes Peak, the Northfield and South Suburban systems, and the Monument Creek diversion, about 20% of the city’s water needs supplies are met annually.
High on the western slope of the Continental Divide, completed in the 1950s at 11,000 feet, the Blue River project was Colorado Springs Utilities’ first transbasin water diversion venture.
When the call comes to move water, Blue River watershed operator Kurt Fishinger responds with a turn of one of these iron wheels at the Monte de Cristo diversion. A turn of the wheel on the right side of the platform diverts water from the Blue River watershed through Hoosier Tunnel, a 12-foot 1.5 mile-long tunnel, to the eastern slope of the divide for use by the US Air Force Academy.
With a turn of the wheel on the left side of the platform, the water is returned to its native watershed and ultimately on into the Pacific Ocean.
The Montgomery Reservoir, elevation 10,873 feet, was constructed as a storage terminal for the headwaters of the South Platte River. Water diverted from the Blue River system through the Hoosier Tunnel is also stored in Montgomery Reservoir and is an important contributing source of water for The Homestake system.
At the Montgomery Reservoir valve house, water not in immediate demand is returned to its native course. Water is manually diverted by opening pipeline valves and spillways. Gravity pulls water through the 78 mile-long network of steel pipes of the Blue River water transport system. While constructing the Blue River water supply system, Colorado Springs Utilities worked to acquire rights and to design a joint venture construction project, the Homestake Project, which would serve both Colorado Springs and the city of Aurora, Colorado. The two cities share equally the costs and production of water supply.
Colorado College staffers Inger Bull and Mae Rohrbach, faculty Anthony Bull, and watershed operator, Kurt Fishinger peer deep into the darkness of Hoosier Pass Tunnel.
Superintendent Tom Hankins of the Homestake Otero pump station lives on-site approximately 100 feet away from the facility. He and eight station employees use state of the art smart balls, computer technology, and machinery to locate and monitor leaks in the pipelines and repair breaks caused by extreme cold mountain temperatures and pressure needed to pump the water over the mountains to Colorado Springs and Aurora customers. Tia Vierling ’22, asked Mr. Hankins how many of the employees were women. None.
At the Otero pump station, Kelly Yue “planks” in one of the 66-inch diameter concrete pipes that comprise the Homestake system. In 1962, the cost to build the Homestake system pipeline was $300,000 per mile. Today, construction would cost 10 times more. “To permit this at this day and age would be really difficult,” Tom Hankins said. The politics would be brutal not to mention nearly impossible to acquire the water rights. “Water rights are so American,” said Kelly, a second-year student at Colorado College. “In China, water is shared and not considered a commodity.”
“Most of our students aren’t from Colorado and probably don’t know much about water law or trans-mountain diversions, so I think it’s an important thing to see and come to terms with. If we’re going to care about a place and work to make it sustainable, that starts with asking questions and seeking to understand. ‘Where does our water come from?’ is an easy place to start that process with anyone who is new to this area, or anyone who has never thought about these sorts of issues before,” Ian Johnson said.