Lisa Darling is the new Executive Director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority (SMWSA).  We interviewed her recently about the water situation in the Denver South region and wanted to share with you her perspectives and insights.
How secure is the Denver South region’s water future?
The Denver South area should be thankful for its elected officials, business leaders, and water providers.  More than a decade ago, the South Metro Water Supply Authority (SMWSA) was formed to work regionally to address water challenges.  This collaborative effort addressing issues of conservation, reuse, and water supply and storage development has resulted in linked systems with a sustainable water supply.  Our region now has diversified water portfolios to sustain our citizens through times of drought or emergency, no longer largely relying upon water from underground aquifers that don’t replenish.  The focus of SMWSA will remain concentrated on securing our water future.
What does your plan for the future include?
We are proud of the great progress we’ve achieved, and we are excited for the future.  Our 2016 Master Plan Update lays out a clear strategy for success, consisting of a four-point plan focusing on conservation, reuse, new water supply, and both individual and connected infrastructure development.  Through our commitment to these goals, we have already significantly reduced water consumption, increased our ability to reuse every drop in the most efficient manner possible, reduced the rate of decline in our valuable aquifers by limiting our reliance on non-renewable water sources, and improved our overall water supply portfolios.  But there’s still more to be done, and SMWSA will continue to lead our region in the achievement of these goals.
What has the region done to make sure we have enough water?
If progress can be measured in projects, already our success is tremendous!  There are a number of regional projects and initiatives that SMWSA and its members have invested in, including:

  • The Chatfield Reallocation Project – A project involving federal, state and local agencies, where flood control storage will be repurposed to water supply storage;
  • Rueter-Hess Reservoir – Parker Water’s reservoir is the backbone of their transition from groundwater to surface supplies;
  • The ACWWA/ECCV Northern Project – This project brings renewable water from the Barr Lake area (near Brighton) to the Arapahoe County Water and Wastewater Authority (ACWWA) and East Cherry Creek Valley service areas;
  • The Plum Creek Wastewater Authority Wastewater Treatment Facility and the ACCWA/Cottonwood Water Purification Facility, both of which maximize surface supplies on Plum and Cherry Creeks, giving participating members the ability to reuse their supplies; and
  • The Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency Partnership, or WISE, a regional reuse project that will begin to deliver water to South Metro WISE members (ten of the thirteen SMWSA members) in mid-2017.

These are but a few of the projects in development, design and/or construction in the Denver South Corridor.
Tell us more about the WISE project and why it is so important.
Planning for the WISE Project began in 2007.  SMWSA was newly formed and worked closely with Denver Water and Aurora Water to develop a regional project that is the first of its kind in the nation.  Using the infrastructure of Aurora Water’s Prairie Waters reuse project and available excess supplies from both Aurora Water and Denver Water, the agreement allows South Metro WISE members to utilize excess capacity and water in times when it is not needed by Aurora Water or Denver Water.  In times of drought, Aurora will operate its infrastructure and supplies for its own demands; in times of drought or emergency, Denver Water can utilize Aurora Water’s infrastructure to bring its own supplies back to its service area.  The benefits for each party are great: for South Metro WISE members, WISE brings renewable surface supplies to the area while allowing for conjunctive use of its groundwater resources; for Aurora Water, the interruptible use of its infrastructure and excess supplies provides a valuable rate offset for Aurora citizens; and for Denver Water, WISE provides access to its reserve supplies in times of emergency.  This level of cooperation and balanced benefit to each of the partners makes WISE unique!

Are we doing enough to conserve water?
We can always do more to conserve but the Denver South region should be extremely proud of what it has already done. Per capita demand for water in our region has been reduced by 30 percent since 2000.  Today, we average about 120 gallons of water use per capita per day, already surpassing the goal in the state water plan of 129 gallons.  And many of our members have implemented a number of innovative approaches to conservation, ranging from establishing water budgets for their customers, creating incentive programs such as paying homeowners to remove blue grass and many more.  And at SMWSA, we have developed a model landscape regulation where members can choose how to best communicate their community’s irrigation needs and we are working on a landscaping certification pilot program.
There is more we can do through changes in personal habits and creative programs like using moisture sensors in the yard.  We will continue our efforts to conserve, but we should also be proud of what we have accomplished.
How do our water rates in the Denver South area compare to others in the metro area?
Our rates are competitive with those paid by customers throughout the metro area and all of our members work hard at keeping rates as low as possible while still paying for necessary investments in infrastructure and water supply to ensure a secure water future.
It might help to understand a little more about rates. Connection fees are often paid by developers to “tap” into a water provider system.  Connection fees in the Denver South area range from provider to provider, but they represent the actual cost of bringing a home onto a system and providing water supplies to that home in perpetuity.  These types of fees are often applied to new housing developments, and they are embedded in the cost of a new home.  Connection fees are used to develop both future infrastructure and water supplies – “growth paying for itself.”  But water supplies are finite and limited, and construction costs can vary widely; thus, connection fees must occasionally change to reflect these market conditions.
Rates, on the other hand, support the operations and maintenance of a water system.  The use of rates can be capital maintenance, such as replacing aging pipelines; and operating costs contribute to the system’s actual operations, such as the cost of power, treatment chemicals, and administrative costs.  Sometimes, rates can also be applied to a capital project, such as a reservoir, that is developed over an extended period.  Rates can be based on tiered water use, water budgets based on lot size, or other well-established rate methodologies.  Some providers may also have a fixed monthly fee to pay for a specific project.

Both connection fees and rates are meant to represent actual cost of service, and at times, are raised to represent new projects, replacement projects, and cost of living increases.  Rate studies are often used to predict necessary future development fee and rate increases.  These studies can help communicate to customers, who need to understand the basis for any increase and the system benefits.
I hope this information is helpful.  Want to know more?  Please contact me at; I would be delighted to speak with you about comments or questions you might have, and I’d be happy to come speak to your home owners or local civic group.