A woman’s anger at what she sees as a series of bad decisions by the Parker Water and Sanitation District prompted her to run for the board that oversees the agency.
Tracy Hutchins, who served on Parker Town Council for eight years, has turned her attention to what she believes is negligence by the water district’s top authorities.
She is decrying, among other dealings, the $7.7 million investment in farms and water rights in the Sterling area because she says the district has no way to transport the water back to Rueter-Hess Reservoir, a $105 million project that PWSD officials say is vital for storing water for Douglas County’s future.
Instead of relying on underground aquifers that are rapidly being depleted, Parker Water planned Rueter-Hess as a mechanism to store water from wet years for use during times of drought. PWSD customers voted in 2004 to approve a bond issue that would use tap fees from ongoing development to pay for the reservoir construction.
Hutchins says many Parker residents don’t know that when the real estate market crashed, the ratepayers were suddenly on the hook for the tab, which now stands at $97 million.
“In the bond election, we said we would use all means and methods necessary, including a tax increase in the event we could not make payments,” said Jim Nikkel, project manager and assistant district manager for PWSD. The quasi-governmental agency raised its mill levy for the 2011 tax year. Nikkel says water rate increases offset rising utility costs and don’t pay for the reservoir debt.
Hutchins says poor planning has saddled Parker’s water customers with debt, and the reservoir, which was officially opened in March, has only a puddle of water in it. Nikkel said filling Rueter-Hess is a “misnomer” because the district is at the mercy of its partners, including the Town of Castle Rock, which agreed to pay $40 million for storage.
“We have no control over when they move (the water) or when they take it out,” Nikkel said, adding that the 72,000-acre-foot reservoir does not have snow runoff like Dillon Reservoir. Nikkel said this is the first spring that the PWSD will be able to collect water.
Nikkel also says Parker Water is still looking for sources to help fill Rueter-Hess in addition to the 5,000 acre-feet it can pull annually from Cherry Creek. It purchased the farms and water rights in the Sterling area as “an insurance policy.” He said it’s relatively cheap water and acknowledged that the cost of transporting it is high. However, he pointed out that the price tag to move any surface water via pumps and pipelines will be high and likely will require partnerships to reduce the cost.
Frank Jaeger, district manager for the PWSD, is leading a coalition of water entities from Colorado to explore the possibility of acquiring water rights from major sources, including Flaming Gorge in Wyoming. Nikkel says the $20,000 contribution from PWSD for the study is low considering the importance of purchasing water for the future. Jaeger declined to comment on the allegations made by Hutchins because he is an official election judge for the mail-ballot-only election. Ballots went out April 16-20; the official election day is May 8.
Hutchins, a Parker resident for 19 years, has attended several PWSD meetings over two years and read over thousands of pages of documents that she says point to uncontrolled spending, including E-470 toll passes for employees and high-dollar change orders that had no explanation.
“There is no balance and there certainly is no check that goes on between what happens with the management of Parker Water and what the board does,” she said.
Hutchins suggested that the farms on the eastern plains be sold to help pay off the remaining debt for constructing the reservoir. Nikkel said the district could sell the water, but would just be forced to buy elsewhere and probably at a higher price. He agrees, however, that purchasing water from the agricultural community is not a long-term solution.
“Our water future has a big cloud over it. We can’t dry up agriculture because that would take an entire industry out of business,” he said. “That’s our dilemma and we’re still searching for the answer. We do know that this (farm water) is water we own.”
Nikkel said water providers must have a place to put the water once it’s purchased.
PWSD board candidates:
Jack Hilbert II