The towns of Palmer Lake and Monument are in a gridlock over 21.8 million gallons of water, a bitter debate that could pit the towns against each other in court.
Palmer Lake residents, desperate to use the water to save their dry lake, thronged Monument’s Tuesday evening board of trustees meeting to plead for water.
Palmer Lake has been grappling with the state and other southern Colorado water districts since December 2013, when it asked to convert an old railroad water right into something that could save the lake.
The railroad water right has gone unused since the late 1950s, when Colorado’s railroads stopped running steam engines.
For the Town of Monument, losing 67 acre feet of water – an acre foot of water is enough to cover a football field in a foot of water – could have a serious impact on Monument Lake. The towns are working on a negotiation, but without a settlement their dispute will be take to court on Feb. 3.
Monument carefully monitors the lake, and even when it is down 1/100th, town administrators know, said Tom Tharnish, director of public works. Sixty-seven acre feet, or 21.8 million gallons a year, is about a month’s worth of drinking water for Monument.
“If you take 67 acre feet, there’s going to be an effect on Monument Lake,” he said.
While others have steadily dropped from the case, Monument has remained staunch about protecting the town’s water. But Tuesday’s meeting brought together residents from both towns, many of whom pleaded with the board of trustees to let Palmer Lake take the water.
Most argued that the towns are one community and should be invested in each other’s prosperity. Jodie Bliss, a Monument business owner, was one of a few Monument residents who spoke in favor of using the water right to fill the lake.
“I support filling Palmer Lake,” she told the trustees. “My point of view has to a lot to do with the fact that we are one community.”
Residents like Bliss packed the town hall and filled the parking lot. One man in the audience spoke out against Monument turning the water rights over to Palmer Lake. Other audience members joked that the famed “tri-lakes region” has only two lakes.
Jeff Hulsmann of Awake Palmer Lake, a group founded to help resuscitate the lake, was the last to speak on Tuesday. He echoed earlier pleas to encourage cooperation between the two closely connected towns.
“It’s incredible to me how many people came up here and said, ‘Well, I live in Palmer Lake but I used to live in Monument’,” he said. “I implore you, do something that works for all of us.”
When Palmer Lake resident Cynthia Graff took her seat in front of the Monument board of trustees last week, she was one in a long line of area residents who came to plead for a timeless Western right – water.
Water, specifically in Palmer Lake, is part of what drew Graff and others to the Tri-Lakes region. Even after development cut off the flow of runoff into the natural lake, Palmer Lake residents have fought for six decades to keep the iconic lake full. But now the town is fighting for the water against close competitors, the town of Monument and its lake, pitting the survival of one lake against another.
For some locals, the fight over an old railroad water right has one resolution – to fill Palmer Lake, which has been dry since 2012 and began losing water a decade ago.
“We just think this is our water,” Graff said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We deserve to have it back in our lake so we can deserve to be the Tri-Lakes area again.”
Although the meeting was thronged with Monument business owners, Palmer Lake residents and combinations of both advocating to fill the lake, the towns’ lawyers have yet to agree on the fate of 21.8 million gallons of water.
Palmer Lake has been unofficially tapping into the water, once used to fill steam engines on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, since the engines were pulled from the tracks in the late 1950s. But when the town filed in December 2013 to make that water use official, it met with state and local resistance – common in a state where water rights have always been carefully protected.
The town asked for 67 acre feet of water to fill the lake each year – an acre foot is enough to cover a football field in a foot of water.
One by one, objectors to Palmer Lake’s plan to fill the lake settled with the town, all except Monument. Using the water to fill Palmer Lake would lower levels in Monument Lake, which has been declining because of evaporation, said Tom Tharnish, Monument’s director of public works.
“If you take 67 acre feet, there’s going to be an effect on Monument Lake,” Tharnish said.
Unless the towns can settle on the fate of the water, the fight is headed to court Feb. 3. Jeff Hulsmann of Awake Palmer Lake, a nonprofit created to help restore the lake, believes the town stands a good chance to secure the water it needs.
“We have an awful lot of confidence that we will win in court,” he said.
Hulsmann has a complicated relationship with both towns – as do many people who live in one town but own a business in the other. Hulsmann knows that ultimately helping Palmer Lake could mean harming Monument Lake.
“I lose on both ends of this deal,” he said.
A rare body of water
As legend has it, when General William Jackson Palmer scouted southern Colorado for railroad routes, he believed Palmer Lake – the only natural lake for miles around – to be truly unique.
“He apparently said, ‘It was the only open body of water between Denver and El Paso, Texas,'” said Tom VanWormer, of the Palmer Lake Historical Society.
Palmer Lake became an essential part of southern Colorado life, supporting a resort town and providing water for steam engines and ice for refrigeration. Palmer wasn’t the first to discover it, however – Ute Indians lived nearby long before William Finley Thompson plotted the area in the 1880s and christened “Loch Katrine.”
Although Palmer eventually gave his name to the lake, it remained a contested source of water and recreational spot for railroads passing through, VanWormer said. Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande railway later competed with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway for use of the lake’s water and shores.
“It was a great place to come and picnic, to row boats around,” VanWormer said. But to keep the rival railroad’s passengers from venturing to the lake, Palmer had an “8-foot tall barbed wire fence” built on the AT&SF side, VanWormer said.
Later, reservoirs and dams would add Monument and Woodmoor lakes – giving the Tri-Lakes region its name. None of lakes were used for drinking water. Instead, the towns relied on reservoirs and wells to put water in their taps and used creeks to fill their lakes. But when railroads retired steam engines, water in the Tri-Lakes area took on a new significance – supporting increasing populations and keeping the lakes, diminished without runoff, full.
‘It’s an emotional issue’
Thanks to a lease from the railroad, Palmer Lake had tacitly used the old railroad water right to fill its lake for half a century. But in 2002, a severe drought year, publicity about the lake’s ability to stay full brought scrutiny to that agreement, Hulsmann said.
“In 2002, the state comes down and says, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing?'” Hulsmann recalled. “So essentially the state says you can’t use the water right (because) it’s an industrial water right.” [ed. emphasis mine]
Palmer Lake purchased the leased water right in the 1980s, but in state records, the right was still marked for industrial use. According to Colorado’s water laws, it could not be used to fill the town’s lake. In December 2013, Palmer Lake filed to have the right declared a municipal one, fair game for lake-filling. But nothing is that simple in water court.
“So basically everybody downstream objects, and we expected that. If you don’t object then you get no information,” Hulsmann said.
To prove its right to use some of the water abandoned by the railroad, Palmer Lake hired expert witnesses to delve into decades of data on the railroad’s water use. Calculating the number of engines that passed by the lake per day between 1871 and 1955 – 20 to 30 – and factoring in tank size, the study determined that Palmer Lake could use 112 acre feet a year to fill the lake. The town settled for 67 acre feet, Hulsmann said.
The objectors – among them the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the city of Colorado Springs – eventually settled with Palmer Lake, but the town of Monument remained the sole objector, claiming that Palmer Lake abandoned the water and had no right to champion for its official use to fill the lake. Monument officials believe that Palmer Lake has yet to exhaust all ways to get water – for instance digging wells or purchasing another water right. Nonetheless, administrators from both towns say an agreement is in the works.
“There are still negotiations going on,” said Gary Shupp, the lawyer for the town of Monument. “Whether this case goes to trial or not still remains to be seen.”
Palmer’s days of railroad wars are long over, but the subject of water clearly remains a deeply personal one when it comes to Palmer Lake’s survival. At Tuesday’s trustees meeting, residents claimed all chairs and standing room. All but one person spoke up and asked the board to drop Monument’s objection to Palmer Lake’s water use request. Ultimately, Monument Mayor Rafael Dominguez had the last word.
“If we could all get together and try to figure this out without getting attorneys involved, I’m all for it,” he said. “We don’t want to harm Palmer Lake at all. But it’s a water rights issue. And water rights are a big issue in the state of Colorado.”
The residents absorbed his comments and then, one by one, got up and left the room.