Something in the water: Money, politics, and the source of life in north Denver metro

Years of conflict around water in Westminster, Brighton and Thornton

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There might be little evidence that the adage, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting,” actually came from Mark Twain, but government officials don't doubt its accuracy.

The saying has become a maxim for communities throughout the western U.S., including along Colorado's Front Range. In the past two years, there have been recall elections for members of city councils in Westminster and Brighton due to citizens' anger over water rates. Meanwhile, Thornton has been engaged in disputes with Larimer and Weld County commissioners over a 74-mile water pipeline that Thornton wants to build from a reservoir near Fort Collins.

Three neighboring cities, unified by the same water supply, all shaken up by social-political conflict because of that water.

North Denver metro cities aren't the only ones with problems. Denver Water is currently fighting Boulder County in federal court over plans to expand a reservoir to acquire more water for Denverites. Englewood came under scrutiny for a violation it received a week before the city issued a boil order when it discovered E. coli in its water supply.

“That's the nature of how this resource works,” said Pete Taylor, chair of Colorado State University's sociology department, whose research focuses on environmental sociology and water governance. “I see water as potentially one of the most challenging and sometimes conflictual problems that we are facing here in the West.”

But north Denver metro is also unique. Much of its water infrastructure — 1,417 miles of water line and six water treatment plants for Westminster, Thornton, Northglenn and Brighton altogether — is getting old and needs replacing. Meanwhile, the population in those four cities jumped 943%, or 304,140 people in the past 60 years, according to Census data.

The population of Adams County is projected to increase another 59% by 2050,  the state demography office reports. In those same years, experts expect water supplies to fall to climate change and wildfires to damage watersheds.

North Denver metro cities need to keep water infrastructure up to date with population growth, while preparing for a changing climate. It's the perfectly expensive storm and a perfect opportunity for local social-political conflict.

A lone voyage at sea

The concentration of water issues in the north metro area didn't spring out of nowhere.

Colorado water resources expert Walraven Ketellapper traces it back to the early 1950s, when the Denver Water Board imposed the “Blue Line” to establish a boundary for Denver-provided water service. Before that, Denver Water served communities to its south and north, but the Blue Line cast out the north and kept in the south metro area.

“Instead of being able to rely on Denver to provide water, they had to start securing their own resources,” Ketallapper said.

What followed was a scramble to acquire more water and build the infrastructure to treat and transport the new water, all while the cities grew at a rapid pace.

The total population of Westminster, Thornton, Northglenn and Brighton was 32,258 in 1960, according to Census data. That jumped to 133,174 by 1980, which then grew to  233,289 by 2000.

In those same 40 years, Westminster and Thornton acquired water rights from ditch companies, including the Farmers Highline Canal and the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (FRICO), that sold shares of agricultural water rights the cities then converted into municipal water rights, Ketallapper said. The shares FRICO sold were in Standley Lake.

Also, the two cities purchased farmland that it extracted water from. The bulk of the water the cities acquired — whether it was from the ditch companies or individual properties — flowed from the South Platte River and the Clear Creek basin.

Northglenn would rely on water service from Thornton until the late 1970s when Thornton and Westminster annexed the little land that remained around Northglenn. Northglenn determined it, “needed to separate themselves from Thornton's system so they could have control over their own destiny,” said Ketallapper, who worked for Thornton's utilities from 1979 to 1985.

In 1978, Thornton, Northglenn and Westminster all increased its water supply through a deal with FRICO. It, “helped Northglenn stabilize its water supply,” wrote Colorado water resources expert Charles Fisk in his memoir, “The Metro Denver Water Story.”

About a decade later, Thornton purchased 58,000 acre-feet of water in a reservoir near Fort Collins from the Water Storage and Supply Company.

The bulk of Brighton's water supply comes from alluvium wells fed by the South Platte River and the Beebe Draw, rights the city acquired in the 1970s and '80s. Needing additional supply, however, Brighton entered into an agreement with Thornton and Westminster in 2009 to receive water from Standley Lake.

Thornton began using its first water treatment plant in 1955 and its second one in 2005. Westminster's first plant came online in 1969 and its second one was in 2001. Northglenn opened its plant in 1981 and Brighton in 1993.

From smooth sailing to choppy seas

After being forced out on their own, acquiring sufficient supplies of water and building the necessary infrastructure, the north metro cities began to have different issues at the turn of the century.

Jayla Poppleton, executive director of Water Education Colorado, said a series of pressures have driven up costs for local water suppliers.

“Aging infrastructure in their system is catching up with them. Or they are having to get out on the market where water rights are increasingly expensive to provide for a growing community and need to build their water rights portfolio,” she said. Water Education Colorado helps community leaders and its citizens understand the multi-layered nature of the state's challenges with water.  

Poppleton added, “There is increasingly stringent conditions around water quality and safe drinking water. So, in some cases, communities are having to upgrade or even rebuild water treatment plants.”

That was the case in Brighton, which was notified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in 2005 that the city's reverse osmosis water treatment plant needed to meet new treatment standards, requiring installation of expensive new equipment. The city was able to obtain a permit extending the deadline for when it needed to meet new standards.

Reverse osmosis water treatment equipment at Brighton’s water treatment plant. Due to the plant’s age and condition, city staff are concerned the plant will have difficulty treating and providing enough water to meet peak demand. A debate ensued amongst staff and members of city council over issuing mandatory water restrictions to lessen demand on the treatment plant.
Reverse osmosis water treatment equipment at Brighton’s water treatment plant. Due to the plant’s age and condition, city staff are concerned the …

Then, in 2014, the city drafted a new capital improvement plan that included a new treatment plant to replace the existing one that would include equipment to meet the CDPHE standards and also increase the city's water treatment capacity. A rate consultant that Brighton hired recommended an 8% increase in water rates to fund the treatment plant, which the city did in 2015.

The next year, in neighboring Thornton, the city council approved a 13% water rate increase to help fund a new water treatment plant and the Thornton Water Project, the proposed 74-mile pipeline to carry south the city's water supply near Fort Collins.

Following the rate increase, Thornton filed its applications for construction permits to build the Thornton Water Project with Larimer and Weld counties in 2018. The Larimer County Board of Commissioners said no a year later, causing Thornton to respond by suing the Larimer County board in district court.

Also, in 2019, a 10% water rate increase in Westminster went into effect to help fund Water2025, a new water treatment plant that would replace its current Semper Water Treatment Facility. 

Cascade

Back in Brighton, the situation was escalating. Then-City Manager Philip Rodriguez called into question the money the city had saved up for the future water treatment plant — partly funded by water rates — for being excessive. Because the city hadn't made certain progress on the proposed treatment plant, Rodriguez called the project “fictitious.” City Councilor Matt Johnston backed Rodriguez, saying the abundance of savings was evidence that the city “price gouged” ratepayers.

Soon after Rodriguez and Johnston made their case to the public about the seemingly suspicious pool of “$70 million,” the city council voted 5-4 to fire Rodriguez for conflict between the city manager and city staff. But many residents believed it was a cover-up, so they launched a recall campaign against the mayor, Ken Kreutzer, for previously supporting water rate increases and for leading the charge to fire Rodriguez. Johnston was a leader in the recall effort.

In the November 2019 local election, the residents successfully recalled Kreutzer.

Less than a year later, back in Westminster, a group of citizens angry over the cost of water launched a recall campaign against four members of council, then Mayor Herb Atchison, then Mayor Pro Tem Anita Seitz, and Councilors Jon Voelz and Kathryn Skulley.

The effort to obtain enough signatures on petitions to trigger recall elections was initially unsuccessful, but after a court battle, the Westminster Water Warriors secured recall elections against Atchison and Voelz in April 2021. Atchison resigned soon after, while Voelz faced and survived a recall election in July.

Around the same time, neighboring Thornton finally received an answer from the Weld County Board of Commissioners regarding its application to construct the pipeline. It was a no, so Thornton sued. However, Thornton also learned a state statute would allow the city to override the Weld denial, which the Thornton City Council voted to do.

The Cache La Poudre River in Larimer County, in which Thornton owns a large reservoir of water from the same basin. The city is currently working on building a pipeline to transport the water southward, though it has faced difficulties during the process.
The Cache La Poudre River in Larimer County, in which Thornton owns a large reservoir of water from the same basin. The city is currently working on …

 Washed on the shore

Despite the success with the Weld override, Thornton is still fighting a legal battle with Larimer County over its pipeline, now in the Colorado Court of Appeals.

As for Brighton, the city still needs to find a way to meet the CDPHE standards for water treatment as it juggles present concerns about meeting peak water demand in the summer. Yet, the city doesn't have the funding for a new water treatment plant, in part due to a decrease in water rates in 2020 following a new rate study using a different capital improvement plan that didn't include the treatment plant.

Meanwhile, Westminster's plan to replace its water treatment plant by 2025 hit a roadblock when the city council couldn't reach a consensus on a rate increase for 2022, which the city saw as critical to funding Water2025.

After Atchison resigned and Seitz became mayor, the Westminster City Council was split 3-3 on water rates. The council never appointed a seventh councilor to fill the vacant seat.

Disagreements persist; problems intensify

Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said elements of the north Denver metro water controversies are similar to that of other CML members. “Water rates have certainly come up in a couple places.”

At the same time, he added, “I don't know that they have been a central theme in as many other places.”

To Johnston, now mayor pro tem on the Brighton City Council, it makes sense that the water rates issue was so politically powerful in Brighton.

“There is something to that being the cost that comes from the city,” he said. “The water bill is the face of how much you pay the city. It's the thing that every citizen sees and goes, `is my city ripping me off or not?' It's definitely a motivating factor for any election.”

Johnston said water rates helped with the success of Brighton's recall, but said he didn't weaponize the issue for other political aspirations.

Westminster Mayor Pro Tem David DeMott, one of the most vocal opponents to the city's rate recommendations, also acknowledged that water rates are a mobilizing force. But, DeMott said, “it's more than a political chip, if you will. It's a very important topic to us.”

Though the water rates debate in Westminster has effectively concluded, the issue will still be front-and-center in November's municipal election. DeMott, who is running for reelection, and at least four other candidates running for mayor or at-large council seats, have taken strong anti-rates stances. Those include Nancy McNally, mayoral candidate, and council member candidates Bruce Baker, Kristine Ireland and Kathleen Dodaro.

Also, Brighton and Westminster's dilemmas with the cost to provide water will get resolved soon. If anything, it's just getting started.

Despite Brighton city staff brainstorming creative solutions to temporarily circumvent the need for a new water treatment plant, the staff also acknowledged the city will still need the new plant one day. Westminster staff said the same about its treatment plant.

Yet, Johnston and DeMott, whose opinions match that of many in their communities, simply don't agree with the staff on key issues.

“I'm not sure that we can or need to build a new water treatment plant. I know that's not going to be a popular thing to say. But the reason is, is because we might not be able to,” Johnston said.

DeMott's feeling about Westminster's treatment plant is almost identical. “I do have my concerns about whether or not that's the right path,” he said.

Johnston argues that Brighton's issue isn't the treatment plant, but development.

“What if we had to have the talk of pacing residential development in the city?” he said. “Because the reason that we need a water treatment plant isn't as much for the citizens we have now, it's for the citizens that we expect to have.”

But Bommer, CML director, doesn't think it's that simple.

“We are going to grow, no matter what,” he said.

Growth isn't the only problem the future holds for Brighton, Westminster, Thornton, or almost anywhere else in Colorado, said Poppleton, Water Education Colorado director.

“I think the increasing pressures that are being placed on our water resources from drought and climate change and Colorado's continued growing population are going to continue to test our ability to come to the table together,” Poppleton said. “There is going to be a real shortage in systems across the state. It will produce real pain points.”

Climate change poses several threats to municipal water systems, with the first being a diminishment of supply. That's why Thornton is eager to build the Thornton Water Project. Having access to the city's supply in Larimer County will be crucial if Thornton's supply in Standley Lake is experiencing drought. Since droughts are typically localized, both reservoirs likely wouldn't experience the same shortages at the same time, city utilities staff explained.

There's also concern that the growing frequency of wildfires will damage city watersheds in the mountains. The fires destabilize soils and create flash floods, resulting in a higher concentration of particulates in the water supply. Westminster says Semper cannot treat such degraded water quality, but its proposed plant will be able to. 

 Cities once cast out on their own shouldn't be in perpetuity

Poppleton, Bommer and Taylor, the CSU professor, all admonish citizens and their local officials to listen to and trust the recommendations of utilities staff.

“Every water provider I have ever come across takes seriously their mission to provide a safe, reliable supply of water for their customers. And it's no easy feat and the challenges they face are enormous,” Poppleton said.

However, the three experts don't think cities are wholly individually responsible for the crises that await them. 

“At the local level is where we see the tension, as well as the opportunities and needs for collaboration most clearly,” said Taylor, who has extensively studied collaborative efforts among different water users in the Colorado River Basin.

Taylor and several of his CSU colleagues outline six cases of collaboration between in a 2019 Journal of Soil and Water Conservation article titled “Every ditch is different: Barriers and opportunities for collaboration for agricultural water conservation and security in the Colorado River Basin.”

One case they looked at was the “Super Ditch,” a coalition of seven ditch companies in southern Colorado that fallows land — or conserving water usage on certain plots of land — and then leases the water it conserves to Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security and other cities.

“The Super Ditch's main objective is to reverse a trend of municipality-led permanent `buy and dry' of farms with related negative impacts on the region's rural communities,” the 2019 report reads.

Meanwhile, Bommer is hopeful about future collaborative opportunities for funding, ideally to take pressure off residential water rates. For example, the proposed federal infrastructure bill currently tied up in the U.S. House of Representatives, includes an allocation for Western water projects.

“I'll never second guess the recommendations that have been put on the table for how infrastructure gets funded no matter where it's at. Rates are one way to do it,” Bommer said.

Taylor said that's the ethos of collaborating on water issues, be it city-to-city efforts or between a city and its citizens. “Collaboration is not about giving up your interests and saying, `I'm going to care about what the other user wants above my own interests.' It's about trying to find common ground,” he said.

The question just is, Taylor said, “What control do we have as a society over which of those two that we choose: conflict or collaboration?”

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