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Sweetwater Turns Sour

When the Sweetwater Wells, located in the southern end of the Upper Black Squirrel Basin, were first drilled in the 1960s, the wells produced up to 1,400 gallons a minute. Now the same wells are at the center of a controversy between the state engineer’s office, Upper Black Squirrel Groundwater Management District (UBSGWMD) and Cherokee Metropolitan District.Cherokee pumps water from both the alluvial aquifer and Denver Basin aquifers in the Upper Black Squirrel Basin. The water is piped to homes and businesses in Cimarron Hills and Falcon. The Upper Black Squirrel district helps the state engineer’s office administer groundwater within the basin, and adopts rules and regulations governing large capacity wells, including the ones used by Cherokee.Randy Case and Steve Hammers, developers for Claremont Ranch, which is located near the intersection of Highway 24 and Constitution Avenue, were stunned when their request for final plat approvals were tabled at the Feb. 10 meeting of the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners. Final Plats are routinely approved by the commissioners because developers and the county planning department work through most of the details for projects before reaching that stage. However, one factor that can stop a development in its tracks is a finding of “insufficiency of water” by the state engineer’s office.Case and Hammers said that Cherokee made a commitment to supply water to the Claremont Ranch developments. But the state engineer’s office said Cherokee might not have the right to pump water from some of the wells they are currently using. In that case, there is not enough water for the new Claremont Ranch projects. The entire argument goes back to a 1999 stipulation between the Upper Black Squirrel Management District and Cherokee.Upper Black Squirrel Management District allowed Cherokee to use eight wells in the northern end of the basin on an emergency basis only, in case the Sweetwater Wells located near Ellicott didn’t produce a sufficient water supply. The water from these eight wells is only allowed to be used within the basin. The Cherokee Metropolitan District has been pumping the northern wells for the last six years, and Cherokee has been pumping the water outside of the basin. Claremont Ranch is not in the Upper Black Squirrel Basin; therefore, additional waters would need to be exported from the Upper Black Squirrel basin, and that may be a violation of the 1999 Stipulation.When the county commissioners tabled the final plats for Claremont Ranch, $22 million in bonds that are needed to improve Marksheffel Road were also put on hold, which means there is a large amount of pressure for all the parties to find a solution to this problem.On March 8, representatives from Cherokee, the Upper Black Squirrel district and county Attorney Bill Luis met with members of the state engineer’s office hoping to resolve this issue.But solving water problems is never easy. Peter Susemihl, Cherokee’s attorney, believes the need for water in Claremont Ranch constitutes an emergency. Furthermore, he believes the 1999 stipulation gives Cherokee the right to pump the northern wells in perpetuity. Board members for Upper Black Squirrel contend that Cherokee’s “emergency” is self-generated because the Cherokee Metropolitan District keeps increasing its customer base beyond its capacity to supply water. After much discussion, it was apparent no solution would be reached by the opposing parties. The case will have to be decided in the Colorado Groundwater Court.One thing is certain: The drought in Eastern El Paso County is not over, and the controversy over the Sweetwater Wells leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.Editors note: On March 17, the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners approved the Claremont Ranch development by a vote of four to one – the no vote came from District 2 County Commissioner Douglas Bruce. Hare said the commissioners’ decision to go against the recommendation of the state engineer was unprecedented.Hare is on the board of the Upper Black Squirrel Groundwater Management District, and her final comment: “We no longer have any protection against developments springing up without a water supply.”

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