Aurora Sucks

The thirsty suburb's plan to pump water from a big aquifer rouses Park Countians to action.

Aurora officials believe they've found an ideal mountain hiding place for part of the city's future water supply, but residents of rural Park County are promising a fight before they let the fast-growing suburb tap into the huge aquifer that underlies the county.

The controversy centers on a plan by Aurora to store enough water in the South Park aquifer to support tens of thousands of new residents. Aurora insists the project is an environmentally responsible alternative to building new dams, but those who live in Park County believe the project threatens their primary source of water.

"It's without a doubt going to dry the area up," says James Gardner, a third-generation Park County rancher who owns a 2,500-acre spread near Como. "It's a bad idea from start to finish."

Even though Park County contains the headwaters of the South Platte River and has abundant snowmelt, almost all of that water is already allotted to downstream users. That means the majority of county residents depend on wells for their water supply. Those wells tap into the South Park aquifer, which contains about 16 million acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons of water, or enough to supply an average family's needs for one year.)

Gardner is heading up a coalition against the plan. The group has filed statements of opposition from hundreds of Park County residents in state water court and has convinced all of the county's elected officials to oppose Aurora's project. Despite that city's claim that it will replace all the water it takes out of the aquifer, Gardner believes Aurora wants to drain the county's groundwater supply. "It's a masked form of mining water," Gardner says. If water levels in the aquifer started to drop, well owners might be forced to drill deeper--and more costly--new wells.

Aurora's plan calls for placing a network of wells and small reservoirs on the Sportsmen's Ranch southeast of Como, which it acquired last year. Up to 26 wells would draw water from the aquifer, while several recharge ponds would be used to drain water back into the aquifer during years of high runoff. At its peak, the system would draw 20,000 acre-feet of water a year from the aquifer, and that water would flow seventy miles downstream to existing reservoirs.

Water officials in Aurora insist they would replace all the water they remove from the aquifer with water they're allowed to collect during unusually wet years. This concept, known as "conjunctive use," is touted as an efficient way to save water without the environmental damage of building new dams. ""We're trying to do a project that's environmentally sensitive," says Tom Griswold, director of utilities for Aurora.

Ever since the federal government shot down the proposed Two Forks Dam in 1989, thirsty Front Range cities have been scouting creeks and valleys all over Colorado looking for new water sources. Aurora and Colorado Springs, in particular, have become known for their aggressive efforts to find more water. The two cities have been involved in a controversial project in Eagle County that would divert water from Homestake Creek near Vail. Aurora already has enough water on hand for 80,000 new residents, but city planners expect to need even more water in coming decades. City officials believe the project won't harm existing wells in Park County.

"It really won't impact other wells up there," says Griswold. "If it does, we won't do it." Griswold insists Aurora is serious about replacing the water it takes out of the aquifer. "The city has a policy that prohibits using non-renewable water supplies," he says.

Others are more skeptical. They say Aurora needs to prove the project won't disrupt the water supply for both humans and wildlife in Park County. "The biggest flaw in their logic is that they say they'll recharge in wet years and draw down in dry years, but dry years outnumber wet years by at least six to one," says Steve Glazer, head of the Colorado Sierra Club's water resources committee. Glazer says drawing water out of the aquifer could also affect streams and lakes in the area, since all sources of water are connected. And he's critical of the helter-skelter development in Aurora that's driving the need for more water diversions.

"Aurora has aggressive real estate interests involved in their political decision making," he says. "They're trying to encourage development that may not be the wisest use of resources."

Aurora expects it may take up to ten years to put the plan into effect, with an eventual cost of as much as $100 million. But first the city must prove its proposal won't harm the water rights of so-called senior water holders, including existing well owners. The case will likely be tied up in water court for years before Aurora gets permission to move forward. Interestingly, one of the parties filing opposition to the project is the Denver Water Department. Denver has extensive rights to surface water in Park County, and the city wants to be sure Aurora's plan won't harm its water supplies.

"We need to find out how it will affect us," says Jane Earle, spokeswoman for Denver Water. "We always take what steps we have to to be in the position to defend our water rights."

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