The post-World War II Economic Expansion, from the end of the war until the early 1970s, raised America’s Gross Domestic Product from $228 billion to just under $1.7 trillion. Also called the Golden Age of Capitalism, the period brought forth an influx of birth rates, rising consumerism, and a realization that improved infrastructure was needed to support the surging population. In Boulder, the town grew from roughly 20,000 people in 1950 to nearly 70,000 in 1970.
As Stephen Grooters, the civil engineering manager for the potable side of Boulder’s water system said: “Infrastructure is most useful when it’s built before it’s needed.”
So in the 1960s, engineers and contractors in Boulder designed and constructed two water treatment plants to serve the town. One, Betasso, sits in the foothills up Boulder Canyon. The other, on 63rd Street, shares proximity with Boulder Reservoir.
Today, Boulder’s population is more than 50% higher than it was in the 70s, and those two water treatment plants serving this heightened population provide a fail-safe.
The issue with building a lot of new infrastructure in the same period, however, means a lot needs maintenance around the same time. Both of Boulder’s water treatment plants contain aging mechanisms in need of upgrades. Electrical components, pumps and treatment machinery thus far given only minor repairs, are now in need of overhauls.
The Betasso treatment plant was the first to be tackled. From 2016 to 2019, a $30 million improvement project restored the plant’s capacity to its original 40 million gallons per day (MGD), which had been reduced to 28 MGD due to aging systems. (Projects to enhance redundancy continue.) With some preliminary site work happening this summer and heavy construction beginning in the fall, the 63rd Street treatment plant is getting a similar makeover that will persist until the summer of 2025.
The 63rd Street water treatment plant (rated at 16 MGD) project will upgrade the plant’s power supply and electrical components, as well as the high service pump station: the existing treatment process on the campus which, according to the city’s website: “is the sole source of [water] supply to the distribution system from the 63rd [treatment plant].” The estimated cost of $27 million is a fraction of the $250 million the town would have to shell out to replace the plant.
These projects, and others like them, are paid for by the water utility bill that comes monthly to all using city water. Such rates are increasing, by about 7% for water, 5% for wastewater and 12% for stormwater and flood management. The city says such hikes will amount to an average monthly bill increase of $7.44. Grooters said these rising rates are aimed at offsetting the climbing costs of construction projects.
“In news media we hear this word ‘inflation,’ which refers to the U.S. dollar,” Grooters said. “In the construction industry there’s something called ‘escalation’ and that refers to the cost of building a project, which may or may not include inflation.”
Escalation, as Grooters said, might be impacted by the rising costs of materials and labor. But escalation also takes into account other inputs, such as the changing landscape around where construction or infrastructure rehabilitation projects are taking place.
“The pipeline built many years ago might have been built in a two-lane dirt road,” Grooters said. “Presently, [that dirt road] might be a six lane state highway where you have extensive traffic control and paving to address — all things that didn’t exist 50 years ago.”
Chris Douglass, Boulder’s utilities engineering manager, also acknowledged the financial dance of maintaining Boulder’s aging water infrastructure system.
“How do you balance those rate increases with choosing your projects?” Douglass said. “We have to realize it is a finite resource, and we have to balance that resource against the things we can complete.”
The future must also be considered when allocating funds available for water maintenance. As Grooters said, one of the many variables Boulder needs to prepare for is precipitation changes caused by global warming. Some years could be drier, yet there are some climate models showing a future Boulder could get more moisture in some years than it does now. That moisture, however, would likely arrive with less-than-optimal timing. Precipitation doesn’t do farmers much good if it comes before the growing season.
In such a scenario, the city would want to have infrastructure in place to collect and hold precipitation — whenever it falls — so the gap between rainfall and crop thirst could be seamlessly filled. Does that mean more reservoirs? Increased piping?
“It’s definitely a balancing act,” said Chris Douglass. “But at the end of the day we need to provide safe, reliable drinking water to constituents. That’s the main driver.”
Nice job, Tim. Well written and researched article. I used to work as a manger for Boulder’s water utility and know the water system well. The info you provided is accurate and useful for the public to know. I may just become a subscriber to the BRL based on this type of high quality reporting on important local issues. Keep up the good work!
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