As water-providing entities look nervously toward what is decidedly an uncertain future, foresight and careful planning have put Highlands Ranch’s water supply in a perfect position to comfortably sustain existing and future residents for decades to come.
Whether it was securing an agreement with the city of Englewood in 1980 to store 4,000 acre-feet of water in McLellan Reservoir or the recent discovery of a mutual benefit in loaning out some underused infrastructure to Castle Pines, the Centennial Water and Sanitation District has gradually tightened its grasp on what will only become a hotter commodity as the years pass.
The price of water continues to climb, as does the cost of permits, application fees, surface-water storage projects, attorneys, groundwater pumping and infrastructure maintenance. And then there’s inflation. John Hendrick, who has been at the helm of Highlands Ranch’s water enterprise since its inception, knows the importance of staying frugal while smartly investing in resources that will become more vital.
While the uptick in population caught some communities off guard, the developers of Highlands Ranch knew from the beginning that they would need to procure enough water for about 110,000 residents. As it stands, the district keeps about 19,000 acre-feet at hand each year, while delivering only 15,000 acre-feet to homes and businesses throughout Highlands Ranch. It has access to additional supplies if needed.
Years of planning and a decision to shift from its reliance on groundwater from the Denver Basin, Denver-Arapahoe and Laramie-Fox Hills aquifers have put Centennial Water on a track that is much different than other providers in the region.
But because the district is not openly touting its fortunate position, it is sometimes lumped in with other districts. Incorrect information and rumors have given some customers a wrong impression. Hendrick says it drives him nuts to hear that some believe Highlands Ranch is entirely on groundwater.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Sherry Eppers, community relations manager for the district.
Between McLellan and the South Platte Reservoir, there is 10,000 acre-feet of raw water storage capacity exclusively for Highlands Ranch users. Centennial Water also helped build a 400-acre-foot reservoir in Park County that has been in operation for two years. Surface water rights for Plum Creek came with the initial purchase of the ranch in 1979, but leaders have been actively seeking and developing other sources for several years.
The efforts have not gone unnoticed by decision-makers.
“I have a lot of respect for Centennial and how they have built their renewable portfolio over the years,” said Jill Repella, Douglas County commissioner for District 3.
A little ingenuity has gone a long way. More than 10 years ago, Hendrick realized that Castle Pines North was discharging water that was going by Centennial Water’s doorstep. The two entities entered into a lease agreement that enables Centennial Water to divert water off Chatfield Reservoir generated by Castle Pines North’s treated water coming down Plum Creek.
“I said ‘lease it to us instead of letting it go to Nebraska,’ ” Hendrick said. “They like the checks in the mail and we like the water because it’s reasonably priced, it’s here right now and we don’t have to pump our own groundwater.”
Making optimal use of a limited resource is becoming more common in Colorado for good reason.
The cumbersome regulatory process for water development can either hold up or even kill projects in the making. Investigating the potential environmental impacts and hiring consultants can deplete monetary resources.
“I’ll be straight-forward. The permitting and approval and the regulatory climate really is a big drain financially, time-wise, and a drain on getting things done for supplying water,” Hendrick said.
Abuse of the water ownership priority system can also lead to trouble. Water is susceptible to being inappropriately diverted and used during dry years, like the drought in 2002. An individual or entity with senior water rights down river can unfairly be left “high and dry,” he said.
“Count the water drops you’re taking, account for them, account for what you owe to the river,” Hendrick said.
Centennial Water continues to become involved in new endeavors, including the reallocation project that could nearly double the capacity at Chatfield Reservoir within a few years.
The district, which is part of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, is also a potential participant in the WISE program, which if approved will funnel 100,000 acre-feet of reclaimed water from Denver and Aurora to the south metro suburbs over a 10-year period.
Because the district has no plans to further expand its service area, officials have a good idea of what will be needed for the coming years.
Acquiring renewable water will continue to be a priority. Repella, a former board member for the Highlands Ranch Metro District, says Centennial Water's foresight, knowledge, patience and strong community relationships have helped it become a respected agency.
"I think Centennial Water is going to continue to be a significant leader and a role model," she said "It took a while for Highlands Ranch to build the renewable [water] portfolio, but they have moved in the right direction to make sure the community is on a sustainable water plan."
Centennial Water wants to continue reducing its groundwater use; it takes 10 percent of the groundwater it’s entitled to, and has used only surface water over the last four years because of wetter seasons. It has even replenished some of the water it has removed from the aquifers over the years.
“We’ve recharged 14,000 acre-feet over the last 20 years,” Hendrick said. “That has reduced the drain on the aquifers.”
The district is also focusing more on preventative maintenance for the miles of pipelines and numerous wells, valves, pump stations and control panels that help deliver the water to residences and businesses. It is also better addressing the risks of power outages and equipment failures.