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DRY COUNTY

ON THE FAR SIDE OF COUNTY LINE ROAD, DEVELOPMENT IS BOOMING--AND THE WATER LEVEL IS SINKING.WELL WISHERS DOUGLAS COUNTY IS RUNNING OUT OF GROUNDWATER--BUT ITS RIVER OF DEVELOPMENT SCHEMES IS FLOWING STRONG.

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Driving into Douglas County on Interstate 25, the metro area's future unfolds before your eyes. Thousands of new homes march up the hillsides, their pastel shades glinting in the Colorado sun. "Douglas County: Where Quality of Life Comes First" says the sign that greets motorists at County Line Road. On the west side of the freeway, the posh Park Meadows mall is under construction, its sandstone and stucco facade being readied for Denver's first Nordstrom and Dillard's department stores.

Besides the rapid growth, a visitor is immediately struck by two things: the spectacular views of the Front Range for which the county is famous, and the bone-dry, high-plains desert that's quickly being bulldozed to make way for Kentucky-bluegrass lawns and new shopping centers.

Even by the standards of arid Colorado, Douglas County is unusually dry. Parched washes and gullies lie at the base of yucca-studded bluffs, and the wind whistles through brittle grasses. The South Platte River runs along the western edge of the county, tantalizing developers who know all too well that Denver tied up most of that water years ago. The same is true of the glorified trickle known as Cherry Creek, which runs through Parker. Though Douglas County residents may live in show homes with sweeping views of the snow-covered Rockies, that snow melt does them little good.

But that hasn't stopped developers from breaking ground on dozens of new subdivisions, golf courses, office parks and retail centers. From Highlands Ranch to Castle Rock, Douglas County is in the midst of a real estate boom that's transforming Denver's southern suburbs. Now home to approximately 100,000 people, the county is growing at a rate of about 12 percent a year and should have 200,000 residents in little more than a decade. By mid-century, Douglas County could be home to half a million people.

Where is the water to support this real estate free-for-all coming from? Just below your feet. Without a surface-water supply system of any consequence, Douglas County is tapping into the Denver Basin aquifer, a vast underground water table that runs along the Front Range between Greeley and Colorado Springs. Dozens of electric pumps scattered around the county operate 24 hours a day, pumping water from wells as deep as 2,000 feet.

There's one problem with this arrangement: State experts say the groundwater will last for only 100 years--and well before that time, the aquifer will become so depleted that water districts will be forced to drill ever deeper to keep up with demand. That means Douglas County residents will almost certainly face sky-high bills for costly new wells. And someday, of course, the aquifer will run dry.

State officials say the economic costs of tapping a declining aquifer will be so high that Douglas County will have to find another water source well before the 100-year deadline. Even the county commissioners, whose pro-development votes have helped make Douglas County one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation, acknowledge the problem. They're pushing a controversial solution that could cost county taxpayers up to $600 million. Under that plan, South Platte River water controlled by the Denver Water Department would be piped into the county, where it would be injected into the aquifer. But Denver officials are cool to the idea--and Denver residents may not be eager to bail out an area widely viewed as a haven for people who chose to flee the core city.

Building a permanent water-supply system before massive development takes place is usually considered common sense. But that's not the way things work in Douglas County.

Over the past twenty years, county officials have approved zoning for 179,000 new homes and 500,000 new residents. The commissioners have proven unwilling to stand up to well-heeled development companies, who also happen to fund many of their political campaigns. The state legislature has done no better, refusing to place tighter controls on water use or adopt statewide water plans such as those implemented by other western states like California and Arizona. Governor Roy Romer denounced Douglas County's dependence on the aquifer in an emotional speech last year, but so far he's done little more than talk about the problem. And the state engineer's office, which issues permits for new wells, is hamstrung by a watered-down state law that prevents it from interfering in local planning decisions.

The result is a public-policy fiasco in the making--and Douglas County homeowners will pay the price. "Colorado's making all the same mistakes Los Angeles made," says former governor Dick Lamm, who railed against short-sighted water policy during his twelve years in office. "It's deja vu."

If the state doesn't "start trying to work this out, it will hit us square in the face in a real crisis," predicts Jim Lochhead, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. "We're heading for a huge train wreck."

No part of Douglas County's explosive growth is more visible than Highlands Ranch, the master-planned community strung out along C-470 between Broadway and Quebec Street. A project of the California-based Mission Viejo Company, Highlands Ranch has become one of the fastest-growing developments in the United States. Founded in 1979, it already has 30,000 residents, and Mission Viejo's blueprint calls for it to number 90,000 at completion--a town roughly the size of Boulder. Most of the water for this new prairie community will come from the same place Castle Rock, Parker and most of the other cities in Douglas County get their water: the Denver Basin aquifer.

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