Steamboat looks to Elk River for city’s third water source |

Steamboat looks to Elk River for city’s third water source

New water plant important for growth, fire resiliency

The Elk River winds around Deer Mountain to the west of Steamboat Springs on Sunday, June, 19, 2022. The city could add a water treatment plant near Deer Mountain as the community expands farther west.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Current Brown Ranch planning focuses much of the development’s open space around Slate Creek. But it’s an ephemeral creek, which means water only flows through the channel part of the year, drying up as runoff subsides.

While Slate Creek provides scenic space, it won’t serve as a water source for the development, which hopes to eventually feature 2,300 units. For that, public works officials are looking further north, to the Elk River.

On Tuesday, June 14, Steamboat Springs Public Works Director Jon Snyder gave City Council an update on current planning for expansion of the city’s water capacity — an expansion that would add another water treatment plant near Deer Mountain.

“If we build out everything in the city limits, we’re fine with these two plants,” Snyder said, referring to the city’s current water sources from the Yampa River and from Fish Creek. “We need the Elk River plant if we annex west, specifically if we grow by more than 800 equivalent residential units.”

An equivalent residential unit (EQR) is a way to measure water capacity and doesn’t necessarily equate to a standard living unit in Steamboat. Snyder said it refers roughly to a 2,500 square foot, single-family home with three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a “reasonably-sized yard.”

Still, a full build out of the Brown Ranch likely would exceed the city’s current capacity, eventually facilitating the need for another water source. 

This annexation of the Brown Ranch in to the city limits is top of mind with this water expansion, Snyder said, but redundancy for the city’s current water users would be another key benefit.

“It’s a near certainty that at some point there will be a wildfire in the Fish Creek Drainage Basin. When that happens, we have to have another source ready to go,” Snyder said. “Currently, that’s the Yampa Wellfield plant, but if the town grows further west we’re going to need two plants.”

Locating a third water treatment plant for Steamboat Springs on the west side of town would be key for expected growth on that side of town and fire redundancy.
Steamboat Springs Public Works/Screenshot

The water for the 3.5-million-gallon-a-day plant stems from a conditional water right on the Elk River that the city obtained in 1999 with future growth in mind. But this is a junior water right on a river that goes under administration every year, so in 2020 the city signed a long-term water storage contract out of Steamboat Lake.

When flows are good, the city has a right for 8 cubic feet per second of water from the river. When there is a call limiting the city’s water right, the storage contract will allow water to be released into the river for the city’s use.

Land acquisition near Deer Mountain could happen as soon as early next year, but groundbreaking on a new plant is still a long way off.

“Why not just do it now?” Snyder asked rhetorically. “My answer to that question is because it is so expensive.”

Snyder estimated that if the plant were built in 2027, it could cost anywhere from $40 million to $58 million. About $20 million of the cost of the plant is already being factored in to the $400 million cost estimate for Brown Ranch infrastructure, Snyder said.

In past annexation agreements, Snyder said there has been a fee the developer would pay the city to expand water capacity. Previous negotiations with developer Brynn Gray Partners for annexation included $16,000 per house fee for water expansion.

“You’ll have to decide what, if any, money Brown Ranch should have to pay specifically towards this,” Snyder said, speaking to council. “(City staff) are not here to say what the right answer is one way or another, but it is probably the heaviest lift you guys will have in this entire process.”

For the rest the city would get a loan, which would be paid for by current and new water users. Snyder said one reason to wait on building the new plant is to have more ratepayers in the system.

Council member Heather Sloop said the inevitability of fire near Fish Creek is a current concern for her.

“Are we really shooting ourselves in the foot by not actually building that third leg now before we have a fire that could be devastating?” Sloop asked. “I’m not saying tomorrow, but faster.”

“It would be nice to do,” Snyder said in reply. “But again, you’re distributing the costs over a fewer number of accounts.”

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