Reusing water becoming a theme, but Colorado River snowpack a mystery
by Allen Best
Recycled and reused water was a recurrent theme in comments at the inaugural Water in the West Symposium in downtown Denver on April 26, particularly in regards to Colorado’s South Platte River Basin.
The 243,000-square-mile basin includes Denver and other cities of the northern Front Range, with a population now of 3.5 million expected to grow to 6.1 million by 2050. Viewed as an economic region, it includes not only the nation’s 9thmost agriculturally productive county, Weld County, but also arguably what Mazdak Arabi, associate professor at Colorado State University, suggested is the fastest-growing economic river basin in the United States.
But the South Platte Basin has, from the 1890s forward, outstripped its native supplies, depending instead upon vast amounts of water imported from across the Continental Divide.
“Any water imported from the Western Slope should be reused and recycled to extinction,” said Mizraim Cordero, vice president of government affairs for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability for Coca-Cola North America, talked about “cleaning up water as much as they can and reusing it” in its operations.
Dan Haley, chief executive of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, talked about recycling of water used in hydraulic fracturing. Fracking, he said, uses only 0.10 percent of Colorado’s water each year, and the wells created by the fracking operation typically produce for 25 to 30 years.
Colorado always has had de facto water reuse. Water drained off a farmer’s field goes into the river and becomes the source for another farm downstream. Ditto for sewage treatment. The South Platte River is virtually a trickle at times as it flows through Denver—until enlivened once again (at least by standards of the arid West) by the gushing waterfall of releases from the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District’s treatment plant.
Beginning in 2010, with completion of Aurora’s Prairie Water Project, reuse was stepped up. Aurora drilled wells along the South Platte near Brighton and now pumps the water 34 miles and 1,000 feet higher to a high-tech treatment plant along E-470 and then mixes it with more water imported directly from the mountains.
This water infrastructure has also been put to use in the expanded WISE partnership, which was directly referenced by Bart Miller, of Western Resource Advocates. Denver Water provides some of its rights to reuse its water imported from the Western Slope to be used again by south metro communities that have been heavily reliant upon diminishing aquifers.
That recycling itself combined with stepped up conservation in the metro area does itself pose a growing problem of its own. Jim McQuarrie, chief innovation officer at the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, said total dissolved solids in the South Platte River have been rising. “The river is getting saltier and saltier and saltier,” he said. “We are creating a salt loop.”
Salt can be removed, creating a brine that poses a disposal problem. The technology is also expensive, as was mentioned by Mike Reidy, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Leprino Foods.
Leprino is the nation’s largest supplier of mozzarella cheese, most of which is produced in Western states and most of which is consumed in Eastern states. Part of that production comes from two cheese factories in Colorado, the first in Fort Morgan and more recently a plant in Greeley on the reclaimed site of the former Great Western sugar factory along the Poudre River.
In its operations, Leprino can reuse water, but not as completely as it would like. Reverse osmosis does a “pretty good job” of cleaning up water, but is very expensive. “It uses a lot of electricity. There has to be a better way.”
Figuring out that better way, Reidy went on to say, might be one role for the new water research campus being developed jointly by Denver Water with Colorado State University.
This was the coming-out conference for this new partnership. The Water Resources Center is to be located on the grounds of the soon-to-be-redeveloped National Western Complex north of downtown. Site of the annual stock show and rodeo, it’s bisected by I-70, with the most visible infrastructure being the aging but still functional Denver Coliseum. Both policy and technology research foci are envisioned.
The partnership was formally announced last September, but even then, much was yet to be worked out.Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water, at the initial announcement, said the exact research area was yet to be determined,as well as how to set the work apart from that being done elsewhere.
A continued exploration of that question was another theme in the first day of the Water in the West Symposium. Denver Water plans to move its water quality laboratories to the campus. Lochhead said the agency conducts 200,000 water-quality studies per year.
Lochhead also talked about emerging water issues: nutrient loading, abandoned mine pollution and – yet again – the push to use recycled water. That reuse, he added, “will require innovation and a number of different policy innovations to ensure we protect public health while using water efficiently.”
Yet another suggestion came from Brad Udall, a senior climate research scientist at Colorado State University. He has carved out a specialty in trying to understand how the changing climate is impacting the Colorado River Basin. A 20 percent decline in precipitation has occurred in the basin—the source of much of the water of both cities and farms in eastern Colorado —from 2000 to 2017. This is despite a 5 percent increase in moisture content in the warming atmosphere.
“Something very odd and unusual is going on,” Udall said.
About half the volume of the reservoirs has been lost during this period, about two-thirds of which can be explained by reduced precipitation.
Increased temperatures is driving what is commonly thought of as drought. Temperature inducted losses in the basin will more than triple by 2050, he said, and increase almost six-fold by the end of the century.
Snowpack remains a mystery. “We really don’t know what is going on (with the snowpack),” he said in suggesting a topic area.
Perhaps the most over-arching statement came from Cordero, from the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, who suggested that the campus can became the NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) for water.
Lochhead neatly summarized the reason for the symposium and the new partnership and research center at the 250-acre National Western Complex by using a phrase he has often used since becoming chief executive of Denver Water. Colorado, he said, cannot grow the next 5 million people the same way it did the first five million residents.
More more about water reuse in Colorado, see WateReuse Colorado.
The story was updated to reflect proper attribution to Jim Lockhead for several statements originally attributed to Tony Frank, president of Colorado State University.