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Water supply group subcommittees deal with complex issues

The Community Water Supply Planning Group (CWSPG) met last Wednesday, as each of its three subcommittees reported on the status of their respective water-related inquiries. With what has become standard, the group assembled in the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) board room at 100 Lyn Ave., Pagosa Springs.

John Huft of Subcommittee 1 (with a focus on current PAWSD water resources, water rights and demand) began by describing the committee’s understanding of where the PAWSD water supply is today, what the committee is working on now and what it intends to address soon.

In respect to where the water district now stands, Huft discussed the topics of long- and short-term system capacity — including treatment, storage and inflows — and how water is distributed throughout the district. To qualify the committee’s findings, he added that “capacity of the existing system” includes all planned expansions over the next two years.

To illustrate the complexity of the PAWSD network, Huft started by explaining that short-term capacity really relates to a single day’s treatment capacity, then specified what the committee believed was the “peak day” capacity at each of the three PAWSD water treatment facilities.

For instance, according to Huft’s handout, the peak day capacity at the Hatcher Water Treatment Plant (WTP), including a plant expansion now underway, is 3 million gallons per day (gpd), with this year’s peak day (2010) hitting just 47 percent of that mark, or 1.4 million gpd.

At that point, however, PAWSD Operations Manager Gene Tautges stepped in to explain that the Hatcher plant is actually designed and permitted to treat 2 million gpd, though it can handle a bit more. He added that the 2010 peak day at Hatcher was actually 70 percent of its maximum treatment capacity.

Further, in determining the amount of long-term storage — again, in respect to Hatcher Lake — Huft stated that the impoundment could store 0.8 years worth of district water at its 2009 usage rate, even as plant expansion continues.

Yet, because of the topography of the lake bottom, according to Tautges, only half, or about 768 acre feet, is available for actual use. Apparently, once the lake is drawn down to a certain level, the remaining water can no longer reach the outtake. Therefore, storage capacities vs. useable capacities seem separate considerations that certainly affect the overall outcome when examining current water supply volume.

To further compound storage issues, neither current or former water commissioners, PAWSD officials or subcommittee members seem able to agree on specifics, such as the minimal storage capacity of a small reservoir located near the Snowball WTP.

As talk of inflows, fire-flow requirements, water rights and distribution ensued, the difficulty in understanding the PAWSD system appeared even greater. Though different governmental entities may or may not agree on exact fire-flow requirements, for instance, certain areas within the PAWSD service area fall well short of generally accepted guidelines.

As Huft continued, he suggested Subcommittee 1 was currently attempting to sort through junior vs. senior water rights, upper basin rights vs. those of lower basin states, and matters involving water loss. The PAWSD system loss, he said, is more than that of an average water system, thereby increasing operating and capital improvement costs.

Subcommittee 1, according to Huft, will eventually try and project future water demands, based on population estimates and future conservation efforts. The big question, according to his handout, is, “Given future water use projections, for how many years can we incrementally expand the system to accommodate growth before building a major new reservoir storage?”

With that, Subcommittee 3 (current PAWSD water-related fees and service rates, and those of competing communities) took over the discussion, as Steve Van Horn talked of the group’s attempt to gather relative fee comparisons with competing districts around the state.

“I apologize,” he began, “but we’re still in the process of gathering that information, that is not easy to get an apples to apples comparison.”

At that point, Van Horn turned to the question of legality in respect to the PAWSD Water Resource Fee, which imposes a charge on all new construction, depending, in part, on water meter size and the estimated amount of water used in a year.

“Now, obviously there’s nobody in our group that’s qualified to make that decision,” he said, “and, in fact, there’s probably no attorneys qualified to make that decision. That comes from the judge, if it ever happened. However, we feel that there is enough opposing opinion on this, that we would really like those written opinions.”

Evidently, PAWSD Assistant Manager Shellie Peterson had contacted the district legal team on whether they would provide such information, but had not yet received a response. But, addressing Van Horn directly, she explained that if and when word did arrive, it would be privileged “client” information, particularly since the subcommittee had also solicited opposing opinions from other attorneys, including Archuleta County Attorney Todd Starr and Jenny Russell from Telluride.

According to Van Horn, the county believes special districts have no authority to impose “impact fees,” which is how the subcommittee views the PAWSD Water Resource Fee.

“So,” Van Horn continued, “we think there’s enough opposition to this to where ... , why would you want to go down that road and risk a lawsuit ... if there are other ways of acquiring the funds that you need to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish.”

That, Van Horn said, is Subcommittee 3’s basic point of view. He added that, for now, the subcommittee would recommend other methods of funding future water development besides impact fees, though he failed to suggest what methods might be appropriate.

As Jan Clinkenbeard took the floor, she presented an in-depth evaluation of Subcommittee 2’s (future district population projections and other factors impacting water use) preliminary findings in regard to Archuleta County population forecasts. Utilizing what she said was the county’s current population estimates, along with flat growth projections over “the next few years,” as well as state demographer’s office projections, her group established low, medium and high estimates to the year 2055.

For now, she explained in a detailed handout, the group favors its low estimate, which reflects substantially less growth through the period than indicated in an early 2009 report by PAWSD engineering consultant Steve Harris. She justified that point of view by listing numerous “constraints on growth,” including the nationwide financial crisis, high unemployment, a poor housing market and low consumer confidence.

Clinkenbeard also listed several changes necessary for the subcommittee to shift confidence toward its medium population estimate, while adding that only something unforeseen could ever cause the group to accept its high estimate.

According to a chart in Clinkenbeard’s handout, the group’s low estimate suggests the county’s 2055 population will reach 25,199 people, while its middle estimate reflects a total of 36,706. The high figure shows 53,752 residents by then, while the Harris estimate apparently implies 79,437 people will live here by 2055.

Of course, state demographer’s office estimates, which the group relies on heavily, only goes out to the year 2040, and most experts agree, the further one projects into the future, the more unreliable the numbers.

Clearly, the issues each of these groups face are highly complex, often speculative and always challenging to fully comprehend. Nevertheless, as a motivated group of volunteers, the CWSPG continues its work with hope of answering the difficult questions regarding current and future community water needs.

For those wishing to participate in, or observe, the process, the CWSPG and two of its three subcommittees have set public meeting dates for next week and beyond.

The group as a whole meets approximately every couple of weeks, with Sept. 15 and Sept. 29 being its next two scheduled engagements. Both are held at the PAWSD board room on Lyn Avenue. All CWSPG meetings begin at 4:30 p.m.

While Subcommittee 1 met Tuesday evening, it has not established times or dates for subsequent gatherings.

Subcommittee 2, on the other hand, met last evening and will again on Wednesday, Sept. 22. That group meets at 3 p.m. in the Jim Smith Realty conference room.

Subcommittee 3 also met earlier this week and will again, Tuesday, Sept. 14, at 11:30 a.m. That committee meets at the River Pointe Cafe.

chuck@pagosasun.com