Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of serious discussions on the state of water in Colorado.|
In December 2015, the state of Colorado adopted “Colorado’s Water Plan,” according to the state’s website. Similarly, El Paso County adopted its own “Water Master Plan” in February 2019, according to the county’s website. Both plans cite an intent to provide information about water supply and how to conserve water to meet future needs, but skeptics wonder if the plans are enough to ensure the sustainability of Colorado’s water supply.
One skeptic is Terry Stokka, a community member who lives in Black Forest and is a member of the Black Forest Water and Wells committee formed in March 2019 as part of the Friends of the Black Forest Preservation Plan organization.
Stokka said the mission of the water and wells committee is to advocate for groundwater quality and quantity, as well as promote sustainability for the Denver Basin Aquifer system, which is the main or only source of water for most of the people in the basin area.
Kevin Rein, Colorado state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said it is important to understand the structure of the aquifers beneath the ground in Colorado in order to understand how the state’s water laws work.
The Denver Basin Aquifer system is a hydrogeological feature that runs from the Greeley, Colorado area down to Colorado Springs and from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the plains in the Limon, Colorado area, Rein said.
“The Denver Basin is an oval-shaped feature that is layered,” he said. “There are four to six actual aquifers we distinguish for regulatory purposes: the Dawson (aquifer) is separated into an upper and lower section, the Denver (Basin) is also separated into an upper lower section, (and) the Arapahoe and the Laramie-Fox Hills (aquifers).”
Rein said each aquifer is separated by confining layers of sediment that are tight sand and stone formations, making water transmission from one aquifer to another difficult. There is no connection between the Denver Basin Aquifer system and Colorado’s above-ground stream systems; legally, that under-groundwater is designated as non-tributary, he said. Non-tributary means that groundwater is water found in deep aquifers, like those of the Denver Basin Aquifer system. Non-tributary water is not connected either hydrologically or geologically to rivers, streams or creeks, Rein said.
In 1973, the Colorado State Senate passed Senate Bill 213, which allocated non-tributary water in the aquifers according to the overlying land, Rein said. “If someone owns a parcel of land that overlies the Denver Basin, that area of land determines how much water they are allowed,” he said. “Take one of the aquifers, draw an imaginary line straight down from the boundaries of that person’s property into that aquifer and that is how much water they are allowed.”
Technically, each well has a limit to the amount of water that can legally be withdrawn from it per year, but with the thousands of private well owners in the state, it can be difficult to monitor each of them, Rein said.
"By and large, the small residential wells pumping more than they should is not really the big risk," he said. "They are allowed a certain amount and they usually stay within those limits."
However, if a development submitted a plan with a well permit that allowed a certain amount of water usage and the well meter indicated much more water had been used, the state has the authority to require that development to come into compliance with what its permit allows, Rein said.
According to SB 213, there is a 100-year non-tributary groundwater rule as follows: “The minimum useful life of the aquifer is 100 years, assuming that there is no substantial artificial recharge within said period.” The bill also allocates how much water can be taken from a non-tributary source, like the Denver Basin Aquifer system, by a permitted well per year.
“You can draw 1 percent of the water allocated to you per year,” Rein said. “That prevents people from drawing out more all at once, and that is a state law.”
El Paso County took the 100-year rule one step further and created a 300-year non-tributary groundwater rule in 1986, with the purpose of encouraging water efficiency and development of additional renewable water sources, according to the county’s Water Master Plan.
Stokka said while the 300-year rule is a step in the right direction, there is a difference between “paper water” and “real water.” Paper water is what the state of Colorado allows a person to pump from his or her well, but there is no guarantee the water will be there or how long it will last, he said. Real water is the water that is actually in each aquifer, and that amount is unknown, Stokka said.
“Even though we know the Denver Basin (Aquifer system) has bowls inside it, we do not know what the material is,” he said. “Any time you are using a non-renewable source (like water from underground aquifers), you have to be really careful.”
A major issue with the state’s 100-year rule is that it was passed in 1973, Stokka said. That means those 100 years are almost halfway over and the amount of water being pumped from the aquifers has significantly increased since the law was passed, he said.
According to the United States Census Bureau, Colorado’s population in 1973 was 2.496 million. The Census Bureau estimates the population in 2018 as 5.695 million.
Stokka said requiring new urban development to provide a renewable water source before it is approved would be one way to combat the dwindling water supply in the Denver Basin Aquifer system. “We have to be conservative about development,” he said. “If you are going to approve something like 2,100 homes on an area with water intended for one well per 5-acre lot, you better have a renewable source, like the Southern Delivery System.”
According to the Colorado Springs Utilities website, the Southern Delivery System transports water from the Arkansas River to be stored in the Pueblo Reservoir before it is pumped to Colorado Springs, Security, Fountain and Pueblo West.
Rein said his department recognizes that the aquifers are non-renewable resources. “It is not going to run out tomorrow, but it is non-renewable and it is not going to be economical to use. We have to be developing renewable supplies of water.”
According to Denver Water’s website, a regional partnership, called Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency, was created in 2009 to help the Denver area reduce the use of non-renewable groundwater. The WISE partnership allows water from one provider to be shared with another provider, according to the website. If one provider's usage is low, they can share the extra water with another provider who might not have as much.
Rein said he admires counties and suppliers for trying to develop renewable sources of water and hopes additional measure will be taken in the future.
Stokka said more needs to be done, and the status of Colorado’s water supply needs to be considered more realistically. “Statistics are not proving that there is as much water as the state says they have,” he said. “What they say is there — really is not.”
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On Dec. 6, 2018, Pete Lien & Sons Inc. sent out notices to adjacent property owners of their intent to build a ready mix concrete batch plant on 25 acres of a 92-acre tract of land at the intersection of Judge Orr Road and Stapleton Drive. Since then, the development application process for the plant has steadily progressed and residents of the neighboring properties are concerned about the plant’s proximity to their homes.|
Rusty Renzelman, who owns one of the neighboring properties, said he started a petition opposing construction of the plant; and, with the help of other adjacent property owners, has circulated the petition, having already obtained about 80 signatures.
“If the application for the plant goes through, it will directly affect us,” he said. “It would be detrimental to the value of our home, which is valued at about $1 million or more now. Our Realtor said that (the plant) would cut our home value not quite in half, but it would definitely affect it.”
Renzelman said he and his wife moved to their current location about three years ago and did so under the assumption that nothing like a cement plant would ever be constructed nearby.
According to the El Paso County assessor’s website, the property for the proposed plant is currently zoned agricultural-35 and the surrounding properties are also A-35, along with residential rural-2.5 or residential rural-5.
Craig Dossey, executive director of the EPC planning and development department, said the batch plant would require either rezoning the property to a heavy industrial zone or obtaining a variance of use.
“The burden is really high to rezone to heavy industrial, but that is not what they (Pete Lien & Sons) are doing,” Dossey said. “They are asking for a variance, which is only for one use. Whether or not this is the right location remains to be seen.”
While the effects to their property value remain a major problem, Renzelman said he is also apprehensive about the impact on the environment in the area. He said the winds in the area consistently reach speeds of about 30 to 40 mph, and there is no way the surrounding properties will not end up with particulates from the batch plant in the air and on the properties.
“There is lime in concrete, which is really corrosive and bad for your lungs,” he said. “There is fly ash and that is also toxic. The groundwater will be affected. Real estate will be affected. Our neighbors with organic cattle will never be able to get their cattle certified as organic if the plant goes through.”
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, fly ash is a fine, powdery particulate produced from burning pulverized coal.
Dossey said as part of the variance of use application process, Pete Lien & Sons must be able to prove they can mitigate things like the particulates in the air. “We look at a lot of different things (regarding an application for approval) like hours of operation, light, noise, parking and erosion control,” he said.
On Dec. 3, the EPC planning commission was supposed to consider the batch plant’s application, but Dossey said that item was removed from the agenda and indefinitely continued because county staff had concerns about the traffic the plant would produce. They wanted Pete Lien & Sons to further address those concerns before going to the planning commission for a hearing.
“It is all a public process so there is an opportunity to comment both at the planning commission meeting and the board of county commissioners meeting,” Dossey said.
Renzelman said he and his wife plan to continue to fight the proposal and hope to obtain enough signatures to submit the petition to the county.
“It is not going to be peaceful,” Renzelman said. “There will be a lot of noise, a lot of traffic, a lot of congestion, a lot of pollution. It just does not look like it would be a good area for this project.”