Mayor Pro Tem Horak has lived in Fort Collins, Colorado for the past 40 years and has been elected for City Council six times from 1981 to 1994 and from 2011 to present. During his time on Council, Horak has been influential in promoting sustainable resource management locally and regionally, serving on the Regional Water Collaboration Steering Committee, Larimer County Open Lands Advisory Board, and the National League of Cities Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee, among others. He has degrees in Geography and Economics from Towson State University, Master’s in Resource Economics from Johns Hopkin, and a Ph.D. in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University. Horak is a founding member of the WaterNow Alliance Steering Committee.

WaterNow caught up with Mayor Pro Tem Horak this month to learn about how and why Fort Collins transformed itself into a leader in sustainable, localized water systems.

Why did you initially decide to run for office in Fort Collins back in 1981? What issues were you most interested in focusing on if elected?

One of the big issues in Fort Collins and other communities along the Front Range in 1981 was high population growth and ensuring that the City had effective policies in place to plan for new homes and businesses. I first ran for council in 1979 but I lost, so I applied to join the City’s Water Board. One of the ideas that I presented to the two councilmembers who interviewed me for the board was that we should charge for water use. At the time, the City only charged for water by lot size not by actual water use. My thought was that charging for water use would send a conservation price signal to our customers, which was especially important given the City’s rapid growth. Steve Hanke, one of my graduate school professors, had done his dissertation on pricing for water and found that if you have a demand pricing structure you can reduce consumption. I proposed this to the two councilmembers but they said this was unrealistic.  

This conversation ended up really motivating me because I thought the City’s policies were out of whack. A city in the arid west didn’t want policies that might encourage folks to reduce the amount of water their using for their lawns? This made no sense to me. I mean you don’t get to use unlimited gasoline when you go to the pump, but in Fort Collins you got to use unlimited water.

Later, when I was first elected to Council, I was unsuccessful at even getting the city to meter the water and to charge for water use by volume, much less consider demand pricing structures. But then Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Northern Water), which conveys water to much of Northeastern Colorado including Fort Collins, was interested in building a new project in the Cache La Poudre River Basin. However, the EPA had just turned down a major water conveyance project proposal from Denver Water because of Denver’s lack of water conservation. Northern Water was really concerned that their project would also be turned down unless Fort Collins demonstrated a commitment to conservation. So around 1990, Northern Water successfully lobbied State Legislature to pass a law that if you have a certain number of customers, you had to install meters. That’s why Fort Collins implemented metering.

The City finally implemented water demand pricing in 2002 – ironically when I was off Council – because Colorado was experiencing a severe drought and the Council and staff realized that during serious water shortages they needed to be able to send customers a price signal to change their behavior.  

You were re-elected to Fort Collin’s City Council in 2011. In what ways has Fort Collins changed in the last 25 years?

In the 80s I was considered something of an outlier for my positions on water management, but now the community’s values come closer to my own values. Fort Collins had a few conservation programs in place in 80s and 90s, but now the City is one of the top utilities in the West for implementing comprehensive and effective sustainable water programs that really deal with the community’s systemic water challenges. In doing so, we can also reduce our energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

I think Fort Collins realized that the time and effort it takes to expand any water supply compared to conservation measures is an inordinate difference. You can have conservation measures implemented tomorrow but if you want to build a major water project, you have to plan for at least twenty to thirty years.  

Where does Fort Collins receive its water supply from?

We receive water from two major places. Since the late 1870s we’ve utilized our water rights on the Cache la Poudre River (Poudre). We used to do our water treatment right where it was taken out in the canyon but that means it would get flooded occasionally so we moved the treatment plant closer to town so now it’s a much more reliable water source. The other source is from the Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) project which takes water out of the Colorado River and pumps it through tunnels in the mountains to the Northern Front Range and then ultimately to Horsetooth Reservoir next to Fort Collins.

These separate sources are incredibly important because they add resiliency to our system and allow us to be flexible when we need to be. We had a really severe forest fire in 2012 and the water in the Poudre Basin had so much ash and heavy metals in it that we had to rely entirely on the C-BT water. We were able to work with North Poudre Irrigation Company to use their C-BT water and they used the Poudre water for irrigation.

Fort Collins has experienced rapid population growth over the last decade, yet the amount of water your utility is treating has actually decreased by a quarter between 2000 and 2017.  What solutions has Fort Collins implemented to achieve this result?

We use our demand pricing to begin with and that is updated regularly as we look at the needs of the utility. The prices have continued to go up even as water use has gone down. As we know, the cost of running a water utility is tied up more in the infrastructure that you have than the amount of water that’s used.

Updates to our land use codes are also changing how people use water. There’s a major housing development project in planning phases right now called Montava that would have a non-potable irrigation system to reduce its demand for treated water.

It also helps that our residents’ ethics and values have changed. People realize that having a lot of Kentucky bluegrass isn’t a good thing. Now people tend to landscape their yards with more interesting native plants.

We actually ended up with excess capacity at our water treatment plant because we’re using less water overall, even while our population grows. As a result, we were able to work out an agreement with the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District, which provides service to 1/3 of Fort Collins, where they purchased part of the capacity of our plant and didn’t have to expand their plant. It’s a really win-win for both communities.

Over the next few decades, the population of Fort Collins is expected to increase by 50%. What additional solutions is the city considering in order to continue to develop sustainably and meet the water supply needs of the community?

One of the solutions is making new developments as water efficient and sustainable as possible, including expanding the use of non-potable water. New developments have to adopt solutions consistent with the City’s climate action plan which includes localized strategies like permeable pavements. Fort Collins wants to continue to reduce the amount of water, energy, and natural resources we use.

How do Fort Collins’ water utility staff, city managers, water board and councilmembers work together in order to make important decisions about the utility?

In Fort Collins, if there’s a water-related proposal from staff it will go to the Council but it’ll also go through public outreach – typically with the water board but also other boards that might be affected by the decision such as the affordable housing board if there’s going to be a rate increase. We have a robust public process including boards and commissions and the public in general.

Recently, we made a major change to our water development fee. It used to be around $6,000 for a single-family home and now it’s almost $16,000. This increase reflects the capital needs we already have and our projected needs for adding to our water supply and storage capacity in the future. For this proposal we went through extensive  public outreach and review to make sure that the development community was on-board.  

Has Fort Collins been impacted by the effects of climate change on your drinking water or stormwater system?

Most definitely- One of the major changes has been related to the timing of snowmelt. We used to have the “June rise” where we experienced a surge in river flows from snowmelt but now that’s moved forward to April or May. This earlier snowmelt and precipitation that falls as rain instead of snow are serious challenges to our water storage and reliability.

If you couple this with the lack of storage then it becomes an even bigger challenge. That’s one of the reasons why we’re working on the Halligan Project which would expand the storage capacity of an existing 100-yr old reservoir owned by North Poudre Irrigation Company by about 8,000 acre feet. This extra capacity will help to capture the earlier runoff to be used during drought years.

Also, we’re always trying to work proactively with other local and regional water entities to build resiliency.  We’re shareholders in a number of irrigation districts so we’re active in trying to figure out the best way to share water between cities and agriculture. We’re also very active working with the other water providers in Fort Collins: the Fort Collins-Loveland Water Utility and the East Larimer County Water District. Over the last couple of years we’ve established a working group with elected officials and senior management from the three jurisdictions to try to do an even better job of providing water. One of the things we’ve done is to help expand our conservation programs to all Fort Collins water users, not just our customers.

Fort Collins has a unique water sharing program with local farmers. Why do you think this agreement is beneficial?

Fort Collins owns a lot of water, so in a normal year we have excess water that we’re able to rent to farmers at a very reasonable price. This works well because Fort Collins and other cities that were historically active in developing strong water rights and development policies have water portfolios that are greater than what their current needs are. These cities can work with farmers to help maintain the agricultural economy.

We work cooperatively with farmers individually and through the irrigation districts to create agreements that are beneficial for Fort Collins residents and our local agricultural community. We have water resources that we can’t use currently so we rent it to folks that can use it to keep growing crops. We don’t want this county to turn into only dry-land farming with houses.

Why do you think that sustainable water management in Fort Collins and Northern Colorado is so important?

Well first of all, I like to drink water, and in order to keep the taps flowing, we have to have programs and policies in place that make us as resilient as possible to drought and dry-years. This is especially important as we’re experiencing warmer temperatures and earlier runoff. If we don’t get a significant snowpack this winter, Fort Collins will be in a restricted water situation.

We need to look at implementing even stronger measures over time to make sure our water use doesn’t increase, and hopefully decreases, as our population grows. No one really cares about water policy until you tell them they can’t turn the taps on – then they really care. You have to put good policies and plans in place when you’re not front page news. Once a drought or a major fire impacts your water supply, you have to be able to switch into response mode, not preparation mode. And a lot of this has to do with developing and maintain relationships with other providers. Remember you can’t make friends when you need them.  You need to make friends prior to emergencies.

How is WaterNow Alliance supporting water decision-makers in advancing these strategies?

WaterNow is helping decisionmakers by providing the tools, concepts, policies, and legislative actions that need to be implemented to have a sustainable water supply for the future. We’re illustrating through our conferences and workshops that it’s not more expensive to implement sustainable water solutions; it’s actually cheaper in the long run. Our society has a strong “first cost bias”, people tend to buy goods that cost less upfront but won’t last as long. I think water professionals and policymakers engaged with a sustainable water future are really looking at life cycle costs now and developing resilient water systems that don’t just hope that snow will fall and we’ll have enough water.

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