The rolling grasslands of western Douglas County might look like prime Front Range real estate. But beyond the beauty of the nearby foothills, there is a deeply buried problem with the land: Water is hard to come by.
Technically, there is some water in the shallow aquifers that lie beneath the western prairies, the next frontier of Douglas County’s growth. But decades ago, wells in the area started going dry or pumping muddy water into faucets. The Denver Basin aquifer, the historic provider of water for Douglas, is a finite resource that can’t sustain the growth that the county has planned for the next 20 years and beyond. When wells are drilled, they are poor producers and easily overwhelmed by daily tasks – such as fueling showers, running dishwashers and watering lawns.
“All the free water, the cheap water, is starting to go away,” said Larry Moore, the general manager of the Roxborough Park Water and Sanitation District, which runs area’s main water treatment facility. “All you’ve got to do is pump it up.”
But when water no longer pumps up, water districts and homeowners in Douglas must find an alternative. Once considered one of the fastest growing counties in the country, Douglas County’s growth has already outpaced its water resources.
The county’s water crisis has been unfolding for decades, but recently it has taken aggressive and unprecedented steps to try and reverse its fate. The county commissioners have set a goal to wean county residents off the Denver aquifer, an ancient water source that is rapidly declining.
Seven years ago the county hired Tim Murrell as its water resources planner to help engineer ways for residents to abandon their wells and join water districts that get their water from the mountains. As a water planner working for a county that doesn’t provide water service, Murrell’s job is unique.
“I am the only one of (my) type in the state who was hired by the county to look at water issues,” said Murrell, who previously helped New Mexico compile a state water plan.
Murrell’s task is to get rural communities to use what he calls “renewable water” – water that does not come from the area’s limited aquifer, but from reservoirs and rivers naturally refilled annually by snowpack.
While Murrell’s county role might be unique, his outlook is one of increasing popularity in Colorado, a state in the midst of creating its first statewide water plan. Due this December to Gov. John Hickenlooper, the water plan will identify Colorado’s future water shortages and suggest ways to bring more water to rapidly growing communities both east and west of the Great Divide. Critics of the plan have said that it offers many problems but few solutions, although the plan’s advocates say that is has begun a difficult and invaluable conversation about water. Public comment on the second draft of the plan closes on Sept. 17.
Thirty years ago, El Paso County was one of the few counties in the state that required proof of water before development plans are approved, said Mark Gebhart, deputy director of El Paso County Development Services. The circa-1986 ordinance requires all developments with lots 35 acres and under to have enough water for 300 years, three times the state requirement. That requirement has only been waived in rare cases when a district had other conservation measures in place.
But as in Douglas County, there are areas in El Paso that were settled years before water conservation and planning were mandatory, Gebhart added.
“They have never had to prove to anyone that they have water, and some of those properties in the southern part of the county, they don’t have water,” he said.
Nonetheless, El Paso County hasn’t seen a massive loss in groundwater, unlike those counties south and west of Denver.
“The highest areas of water level declines have been in Douglas and Jefferson counties,” said Gebhart. “Hundreds of vertical feet of water decline.”
Water becoming scarce
In Douglas County, lack of water has become a barrier to development and growth. While the county’s picturesque westside offers acres of open land, the farther west development pushes, the harder it is to find water.
The geology of the Denver basin means that western aquifers are shallower and less plentiful – wells have to be drilled deeper and at greater expense. For years, dry or poor quality wells were a well-known problem that became more noticeable as development spread. Sometimes businesses in the area go days without water, said Murrell.
One western subdivision, Plum Valley Heights, had been struggling for years to get its 29 homes off wells before they went dry. The community became one of the county’s first major successes of water planning, thanks to some luck, a 2014 ballot measure and millions of dollars of county money. The neighborhood also benefited from a new mindset, shared by the Douglas County commissioners, that the county’s water future was partly in their hands.
“The commissioners had never taken an active role on this in past,” said Commissioner Jill Repella. “If any community goes dry, who are they going to come to? They are going to come to the commissioners.”
It didn’t take long for Jack McCormick to discover that his well in Plum Valley Heights was no good. McCormick and his wife bought a house in the subdivision in 1986, and a couple of years later, McCormick suddenly realized what it meant to live with little water on Douglas County’s westside.
“I was out filling my horse tanks one morning and my wife was in the shower and the shower went dry,” McCormick recalled. “And I kept filling my horse tank.”
The episode began decades of wrangling to get more water for the subdivision, where McCormick became accustomed to not running multiple water appliances at once or having his water supply run out before the lawn was fully watered. Although his well had been tested when he bought the home, McCormick learned that there was much more going on underground than he had realized.
The Denver aquifer has four layers, each essentially an underground storage container for water. The basin stretches from southern Weld County to northern El Paso County, west to Jefferson County and as far east as Lincoln County. The water is coveted for its accessibility and high quality – unlike water that comes from the mountains, Denver aquifer water doesn’t require as much treatment to make it drinkable, Murrell said. The water is also irreplaceable: once it has been used up, there is no way to refill it.
By contrast, most water sources in El Paso County are considered renewable – such as the Widefield aquifer, which is refilled by stream flow, said Gebhart. Districts like Woodmoor Water and Sanitation, which rely primarily on non-renewable aquifers like the Denver basin, have purchased other water rights to make up for the loss, Gebhart said.
The Denver Basin aquifer remains is ideal for residents in central Douglas County, but simple differences in geology make accessing aquifer water close to the mountains nearly impossible.
As various layers of bedrock jut out of the land forming rock outcroppings and hills, a layer of the aquifer is lost. What layers that are left underground can be hard to reach and have unreliable water quality.
When he bought a house in Plum Valley Heights, McCormick knew nothing about wells, water and the aquifer. He came from Indiana, where his well was productive at only 75 feet deep. But in the Denver basin in Douglas, wells are drilled hundreds or thousands of feet down and can cost up to $1 million, said Moore. As a reminder that west Douglas water is not reliable, Moore keeps a jug of it in his office.
“It’s almost like red clay mud,” said Moore of the water in the jug. “That’s what they are pulling out is water and mud. The water is not very clear at all.”
Moore’s Roxborough district resolved the problem of poor well water nearly 40 years ago, when developers discovered that there wasn’t enough groundwater to sustain a subdivision. The district bought an old concrete water treatment plant from the city of Aurora and with it 50 years of water, which Aurora shuttled from the mountains in a massive underground pipe. But when Moore started with the district in 1989, the eventual expiration of the water contract loomed.
“That’s been my career goal, to figure out a water supply,” he said.
At the forefront in water planning
Driving along U.S. 85 west in Castle Rock last week, Murrell pointed out many “for sale” signs and small businesses in an industrial park – all competitors for limited resources. He also pointed to a vast expanse of empty grassland, adorned only with a few signs for Sterling Ranch, a subdivision of more than 12,000 homes approved in 2011 after years of hearings and wrangling over water. According to a county ordinance passed in 1999, Sterling Ranch has to have 100 percent renewable water, which means it won’t be relying on the Denver aquifer.
With such a big development on the horizon, big changes in water use will make Douglas County a forerunner when it comes to managing water.
“It has very often been at the forefront of trying to plan this out,” said Gebhart, of Douglas County’s approach to water planning.
In November 2014, after more than two decades of struggles to get a better water source for Plum Valley Heights, the neighborhood voted overwhelmingly to join the Roxborough district, which secured a new 90-year water contract with Aurora for $26 million. The new deal with Aurora brought 50 extra taps to Roxborough, which it offered to other westside businesses and residences, including Plum Valley Heights, which had dry wells.
After using the same crumbling water treatment facility since 1958, as of late summer Roxborough had started work on a new $32 million facility, half of which will be covered by Sterling Ranch, said Moore. The new water treatment plant will be finished in roughly two years, and be one of the first in the state to use ultraviolet technology for its primary form of water treatment, instead of relying on chemicals, Moore added.
But the Douglas County commissioners also took a bold step to help fund some of the much-needed changes in the region, said Murrell. It will cost $15 million to plug Plum Valley Heights in Roxborough’s system, $5 million of which was paid for with county money. The money will be eventually paid back in tap fees, said Murrell. Pitching in the money was a “no-brainer” for the commissioners said Repella, who added that a lack of water could have had a ripple effect on the rest of the county’s land value.
This year, the county has focused on participating in a multi-million dollar project known as the Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency partnership, which links the Denver metro areas to system of recycled and unused water. If all goes as planned, the project will bring more water to communities like Douglas County, as it works to abandon its reliance on groundwater.
“We had a new realization that the county has a responsibility to be proactive to make sure that residents are moving in the right direction,” said Repella. “To take a step back and brush your hands and say, ‘Okay everybody, you are on your own now,’ that’s not responsible.”