Water isn’t as big an issue for Brown Ranch as it’s been in Steamboat Springs’ past annexation attempts
Steamboat firmed up water from Elk River in 2020, but how to pay for a new plant could be a major decision point in annexation agreement
The availability of drinking water won’t be the same hurdle during Brown Ranch annexation that it has been in two previous efforts to expand Steamboat Springs’ city limits west.
That is because in 2020 Steamboat Springs was able to obtain a perpetual lease agreement for water out of Steamboat Lake, a move that made the Elk River a viable third water source for the city.
“This was the major tripping point in all previous annexations,” Steamboat Public Works Director Jon Snyder said. “Not really the tripping point now.”
During the Brown Ranch Annexation Committee meeting Wednesday, Feb. 15, members of the committee — several of whom have been involved in previous annexation efforts — said the water conversation is completely different this time.
“I want to thank the city because they have been very diligent about expanding their water capacity over the last three, four years; that has made a lot of difference in this conversation,” Yampa Valley Housing Authority Executive Directory Jason Peasley said. “It takes years to pull this stuff together, so great foresight.”
While there is water to accommodate the addition of Brown Ranch, several upgrades to the city’s system are needed. Some are already part of the city’s plans, some need to happen before people can move in and the most significant and expensive upgrade doesn’t need to happen until the development is about half complete.
That latter addition — a new water treatment plant along the Elk River — is estimated to cost between $40 million and $58 million. While the new plant doesn’t need to be built until 2030 at the earliest, Snyder said figuring out how to pay for it is likely the biggest question facing the committee when it comes to water.
“This is going to be your toughest decision as an annexation committee,” Snyder said. “We’re in alignment with the development team right now about what infrastructure needs to be constructed. The debatable part of that is who pays for what.”
Two water districts service Steamboat Springs — the city’s district and the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District. Currently, the assumption is that the Brown Ranch will be served by the city’s district, rather than creating a third water district, Snyder said.
Snyder said there are six significant upgrades that need to happen to serve the full buildout of the development, though not everything needs to be done before people can start moving in toward the end of 2026.
The first two — the addition of the West Area Water Tank and an expansion of the infiltration gallery at the Yampa Wells Treatment Plant — are already underway and anticipated to finish before the end of the year.
The city will then need to add a booster station near that water tank, which will allow it to fill completely. Currently, the tank can only fill halfway, Snyder said. This project, which needs to be done before any units become available at Brown Ranch, is expected to cost $1.2 million and is already part of the city’s six-year capital improvement plan.
The next project is a redundant water main along U.S. Highway 40 on the west side of Steamboat, which the city is also already moving forward with. This water main will be built next summer as part of the expansion of the Yampa River Core Trail to the west, and Snyder said the city has already received grant funding.
Another project is the development of the Brown Ranch’s internal delivery system. Snyder said the way the draft annexation agreement currently reads is that the housing authority would fund these developments, with potential funding coming from Steamboat’s new short-term rental tax.
Creating a third water source for Steamboat from the Elk River is the last necessary project, and Snyder called it “the big one.”
“When I say water supply, I’m talking about a treatment plant, a raw water diversion, pumps, the whole nine yards,” Snyder said. “Estimated costs right now are anywhere between $40 million and $58 million.”
But this addition won’t be necessary until there are about 800 equivalent residential units at Brown Ranch, which Snyder emphasized is not the same as 800 dwelling units. Instead, an equivalent residential unit is equal to a 2,500-square-foot home with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a yard.
This might be an imperfect way to view an equivalent residential units, as Snyder said he thinks of it in relationship to another plumbing term called a fixture unit point, which assigns a value to various plumbing fixtures and then converts that to an equivalent residential unit. Snyder said a typical toilet equals 8.1 fixture unit points, whereas a public toilet equals 16.2. One equivalent residential unit equals 140 fixture unit points.
“What this means is that if you have an apartment unit or condo unit that is two bedrooms, one bath, you’re probably somewhere at about 0.25 or 0.3 EQRs,” Snyder said. “The value of this EQR-based system is it allows you to be flexible with what kind of developments you want to bring in.”
Based on preliminary modeling, Peasley said the buildout of the entire development of roughly 2,300 dwelling units is estimated at 1,550 equivalent residential units. The first phase of the development, which includes multiple neighborhoods and about 1,100 dwelling units, can be constructed without surpassing the 800 equivalent residential unit threshold, Peasley added.
While it isn’t necessary now, another water source will be needed eventually, and Snyder said it will have significant benefits for Steamboat’s entire water system, not just the Brown Ranch.
Snyder said anyone who doesn’t expect a wildfire in the Fish Creek drainage area is “fooling themselves,” and when that inevitably happens, it will take that source of city water off line for an extended period. An event like this would shift all water to the Yampa Wells source, which the city got a dry run at this fall when the Fish Creek Plant was taken off line for maintenance.
Because there is a broader benefit, Snyder said one option would be for staff to carry out a system modeling process that could try to articulate how much value of the new plant would go to the city and how much to Brown Ranch, which could then be used to figure out how much each entity pays.
Snyder said that modeling could be done sometime in May. The annexation committee is also waiting for a water demand analysis, which Snyder said is an important document to have before decisions are finalized. Water is one of the topics the committee will return to later this spring.
Grants are likely available for a new treatment plant too, but Snyder said they would be lucky to get a small fraction of the cost covered by grants.
“We will explore every grant opportunity we can,” Snyder said. “But in the scheme of things, I would not recommend you rely on grants to save the day here.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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