Municipal water departments in the Colorado River basin are entering a time of change. Their infrastructure is aging and needs replacement, and they’re starting to invest in new systems that will help cities adapt to a future with a smaller water supply. But, that means big spending and costs that will get passed along to the millions of people who use that water in sinks, showers, and sprinklers.
“There's literally nothing else you can have 1,000 gallons of delivered to your house at two in the morning for a few bucks,” said Mark Marlowe, water director in Castle Rock, Colorado.
Marlowe and other water experts across the arid West agree, the amount you pay for tap water should probably go up, and likely will over the next few decades — in large part due to aging infrastructure. “Our utilities are, at this point, middle-aged,” said Kathryn Sorensen, former director of the water department in Phoenix.
Major cities in the arid West – Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, and others – saw significant population booms on the heels of World War II. Pipes and other water delivery systems were rolled out quickly, and are starting to reach the end of their lives.
“All of this is very expensive infrastructure,” said Sorensen, who now researches water policy at Arizona State University. “It's concrete, it's iron, it's steel, and it needs to be replaced. And the cost of all those materials, the cost of labor, the cost of construction, have all gone up.”
Those costs are likely to be spread out across water ratepayers, Sorensen said. Even though rate hikes can be politically unpopular, failure to pay for necessary upgrades to water systems could lead to pipes crumbling even further.
Upgrades in action
On a cool fall morning in Denver, hulking construction trucks are sending dust up into the early beams of sunlight. An excavator is ripping up the road, and a group of yellow-vested workers is down in the trench it leaves behind, laying bright blue PVC pipe.
Here, in a quiet residential neighborhood, infrastructure upgrades are happening in real-time.
The 77-year-old water main getting replaced is a small part of a massive series of repairs planned by Denver’s water department. The agency expects to spend about $1.9 billion over the next decade on upgrades, replacements, and maintenance.
Denver Water’s system includes more than 3,000 miles of pipe. Spokesman Jimmy Luthye said that the network, which would stretch from Seattle to Orlando if laid end to end, requires near-constant maintenance.
“Every morning you will see your friendly neighborhood water utility Denver Water crews out there replacing pipe and and fortifying and upgrading our system wherever we can, as much as we can, while keeping water as affordable as we possibly can,” he said.
The agency replaces about 15 miles of subterranean pipe every year. Its maintenance efforts currently include a large-scale replacement of lead service lines; the pipes that bring water from the water main in the street to the plumbing in the home. That comes with a price tag of $667.5 million.
Because the department serves so many customers, it’s able to spread those big costs across a big customer base. About 1.5 million people are connected to Denver Water’s system – roughly a quarter of Colorado’s population – and their bills will only change incrementally over the coming years. The average monthly bill in 2024 will be $1.60 to $2.30 higher than a typical bill from 2024.
Manny Teodoro, who studies water utility policy and management at the University of Wisconsin, said Denver’s price hikes are similar to increases he expects across the nation and region.
“How much those prices go up, and how quickly they go up, is largely going to depend on the local politics,” he said. “These are not decisions that engineers, hydrologists, and economists make. Ultimately politicians make these decisions.”
Teodoro said politicians usually decide to spread out costs as much as possible, opting for incremental rate increases over long periods of time. But even gradual price bumps are getting bigger than water managers might have expected.
“I talked with water utility leaders around the country who are scrambling now to revise their capital replacement and capital investment programs because they budgeted them two or three years ago, before inflation rates went up and before interest rates went up,” Teodoro said.
New tech is ‘absolutely imperative’
For water utilities in the Southwest, replacing old infrastructure is often only half the battle. The region’s two-decade mega-drought, fueled by climate change, has forced city utilities to get creative with their water systems and find new ways to get the most out of finite supplies.
“They will try to lessen their dependence on Colorado River water or make the Colorado River water they do have go further,” Sorensen said, “and that means investments in alternatives that are far more expensive.”
Cities and towns across the Colorado River basin proudly tout how they’ve been able to stretch out finite water allocations across growing populations. Tucson, Arizona, for example, uses the same amount of water it did in the 1980s, despite adding about 200,000 people to its population. Colorado Springs uses the same total amount as it did in the 1980s, too, even as its population has doubled since then.
Urban areas have been able to maintain that kind of growth by cutting back on per capita water use – incentivizing people to use less water by trading their grass lawns for less thirsty plants and installing low-flow showerheads and toilets – but some are preparing to keep taps flowing in the future by reusing water that’s already in the system.
That embrace of reuse technology is on display in Castle Rock, Colorado. The suburb between Denver and Colorado Springs has ranked among the fastest-growing cities in the nation. Between 2010 and 2020, the town’s population grew by nearly 52%, according to U.S. census data. At the same time, the aquifer – a pool of water that has gathered in underground bedrock – that supplies the majority of its water is drying up, pushing the city to lean harder on other water sources, like a nearby creek. Castle Rock is legally allowed to use most of its water over and over, so the city has installed new systems to do that safely.
Over the past few decades, the city has spent about $211 million on renewable water supplies, including a lot of physical infrastructure – pipes, pumps, and filters to clean water that has already been used.
“That is a cost to doing advanced treatment and providing that really high-quality water supply,” said Mark Marlowe, director of Castle Rock Water. “But for us, given the water supplies we're treating, it's absolutely imperative that we have this technology.”
Right now, Castle Rock’s sewage is cleaned up to environmental standards required by state and federal agencies, then put back into Plum Creek before flowing to other cities downstream But Castle Rock is interested in going a step further and investing in cutting-edge equipment that would cut out the middle step – allowing sewage to be cleaned so thoroughly that it can be piped directly back into the drinking water supply.
The burgeoning technology has picked up interest around the state and the Colorado River Basin. Castle Rock appears poised to be among the first cities that will take advantage of new Colorado regulations designed to make it easier to roll out the filtration system, which is called “direct potable reuse.”
Further south, near Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is investing in its own direct potable reuse system. The proposed facility would cost an estimated $3.4 billion to build and would cost $129 million to operate each year. Once built, the new equipment could redirect up to 150 million gallons of wastewater back into the municipal supply each day.
Officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said “anywhere from three to several dozen” cities in the state are considering water recycling systems in the future.
In Castle Rock, construction of a direct potable reuse facility would cost upwards of $60 million. Marlowe and his team plan to soften the blow of spending on new equipment by spreading it out across about four decades. Castle Rock Water has already mapped out water rates through the year 2065, including roughly $450 million in new spending.
All told, the increases that show up on customers’ water bills are relatively modest. In 2023, the typical monthly water bill in Castle Rock was $2.02 higher than a typical bill from the year before. In 2024, that increase will be $2.11 for a monthly bill.
“You've got this long-term capital plan,” Marlowe said, “And you're making sure you're spreading those costs out over a reasonable period of time so folks can afford it.”
Federal money helps some, but not all
President Joe Biden has made infrastructure spending a hallmark of his time in office, and a large chunk of that federal money is set aside for water utilities. About fifty billion dollars is being distributed through the Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure.
Teodoro, from the University of Wisconsin, called it “the largest investment in drinking water infrastructure and water supply infrastructure that we've seen in a generation,” but cautioned that not all water utilities will benefit equally.
Smaller, more rural utilities tend to be poorer and often lack the staffing, time, and expertise to take advantage of new federal spending.
“If your water utility stack is three guys in a pickup truck, they're busy just trying to keep the system running,” Teodoro said. “There's nobody that has time to fill out those forms. They may not even have the sophistication to know to ask for federal funding.”
As a result, people in marginalized communities are often left with higher water bills from water departments that aren’t getting federal help to pay for pipe repairs.
“I think this federal funding can do a lot of good,” Teodoro said. “But it's certainly nothing close to a solution to the long-term problems.”
This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.