By Pete Gawda
Colorado water issues have been at the forefront of developmental discussions for years, and the term, “Paper water rights,” has been a bone of contention.
In the July 2007 issue of The New Falcon Herald, Kathy Hare wrote in her former column, Wild Hare, the following: “One day soon this area may experience a major economic collapse because subdivisions have been built on ‘paper water rights,’ with little scientific data to show how many of those rights will actually produce a glass of water.”
Hare said at the time that the county attorney regularly approves developments based on “paper” water rights. That policy has not changed since 2007.
The current El Paso County Water Master Plan, which was finalized in February 2019, distinguishes between “paper” water and “wet” water. The following statement appears on Page 2 of the executive summary of the water master plan. “Although most water providers have sufficient ‘paper’ water rights, aquifer characteristics dictate the amount of water that can be economically withdrawn. A water provider may not be able to economically pump to the limits that their paper water rights would indicate. In some cases, there may not be enough reliable ‘wet water’ to serve the buildout of development in specific areas over the long term.”
At their Feb. 21 meeting, the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners discussed water sufficiencies for a proposed development in the Falcon area. Dan Mas, a concerned citizen, stated that water sufficiency was being based on water rights granted 17 years ago. He noted that since that time the water demand in the area has significantly increased; he asked if the available supply of water had been markedly diminished by the increased demand.
In response to his concerns, Lori Seago, senior assistant county attorney, explained the process for determining water rights. She said the state attorney used a formula that determined what portion of the “assumed water” in an aquifer would be allotted to an applicant. “At no point is any proof required that the water is actually down there,” she said.
Scott Anderson, communications and public relations manager for El Paso County, said a developer had to show that the property’s water rights would meet a subdivision’s water demand for 300 years. He said no consideration was given as to whether increased demands over the years might have diminished the water supply since the water rights were granted.
Dave Doran, president of the Upper Black Squirrel Creek Groundwater Management District, said the formula used by the state officials to determine water rights is “very inaccurate at best.” He compared the system for determining water rights to a “house of cards.” Doran elaborated on that thought. “All that is really required is for a person to own land overlying a particular aquifer,” he said. Water used in the Falcon area comes from aquifers in the Denver Basin and those aquifers are nonrenewable, Doran said. Although developers could be required to replenish the aquifer they are drawing water from, it is not always possible because of impermeable rock formations.
Another problem with the Denver aquifers is that they extend underground all the way to Wyoming, Doran said. Water is being drawn from those aquifers their entire length; and, in determining water sufficiency, El Paso County has no way of knowing how much of that water is being drawn out to the north of us. He agreed with Mas that water rights granted 17 years ago might not produce sufficient water today because of the increased demand in the area.
The county water master plan forecasts that in 37 years there will be a deficit of water in the Falcon area. A table on page 52 predicts that the demand for water in the Falcon area will be 8,307-acre-feet per year by 2060. Another table on page 68 forecasts that the supply of water in Falcon will be 8,284-acre-feet per year by 2060, a deficit of 23-acre-feet per year.
This statement is found on page 39 of the water master plan: “The Denver Basin aquifers are the primary sources of water in El Paso County. These aquifers are considered to be nonrenewable because they recharge over long periods of time (centuries) … . The Denver Basin aquifers provide a great source of water supply because they are protected from surface contamination and they are drought proof; however, the ground water levels are declining while the cost to pump water from the aquifers continues to increase.”
When asked what the county was doing about the projected water deficit and declining water levels in the aquifers that the water master plan references, Anderson said the plan is “an advisory document.” He said the water master plan is just one of the criteria the commissioners use when evaluating subdivisions. However, he said, “El Paso County’s subdivision regulations do not include a review of or compliance with the water master plan to find a sufficient supply of water.”
Read more about the county’s water plan at https://assets-planningdevelopment.elpasoco.com/wp-content/uploads/WaterMasterPlan2018/Water-Master-Plan-2018-A-Copy.pdf.