The Next Bad Thing

Creeping traffic. Strained schools. Dwindling water. Commuters are flocking to Elbert County for a little bit of country, but there isn't much country left.

But the research team was also intent on learning more about the region's future, by examining aquifer characteristics and monitoring the deep well's water level.

"The fact is that water is a finite resource," says geologist Bob Raynolds, one of the project leaders. "There's considerably less water in the Denver Basin -- 30 percent less -- than state engineers thought. And the water is not being replenished; it's being depleted. There's recharge over geologic time, but not on a human scale."

Raynolds has been an outspoken revisionist on the water question, challenging the assumptions that have led to over-reliance on Denver Basin aquifers for runaway growth along the Front Range. "Elbert County may not be where it's going to hit the fan first," he says. "Certainly not before Douglas and El Paso counties. There's going to be anguish in those places in our lifetimes. The infrastructure changes that are required take a long time."

Mark Manger
John Dunn has weathered forty years of growth in 
Elbert County.
Mark Manger
John Dunn has weathered forty years of growth in Elbert County.

The fairground project has been of particular interest to Jerry Koch, a geologist who lives in Elizabeth. A few years ago, when John Dunn was a county commissioner, he asked Koch to head a water advisory board charged with assessing the state of the precious resource in the county. Koch's 1999 report, based on available data at the time, paints a less grim picture than the subsequent Denver Basin Research Project -- but even its modest recommendations on limiting development to ensure a so-called 300-year supply, as well as its warnings about the exponential cost of drilling deeper and deeper wells as the shallow wells peter out, have been shunted aside and the water board disbanded.

"Basically, it was ignored," says Koch. "[Commissioner] Metli tried to tear it to pieces. He sat down with some amateur hydrologists and came up with some different numbers."

Metli says he's satisfied that the monitoring done by the Colorado Division of Water Resources at 23 wells across the county indicates no dramatic changes in the available supply. "The biggest problem with Highlands Ranch is that they put the wells too close to each other," he says. "We're doing it differently."

Koch says he's sometimes referred to as "the water guy nobody listens to." That title could also go to Robert Ransom, a retired petrophysics expert and Elizabeth resident who's written a series of scathing columns in the Elbert County News about shortsighted water policy -- to little response, he says. Ransom points out that the comforting talk of 100-year or 300-year supplies is based on dubious calculations about the theoretical capacity of water within an aquifer, which ignore the practical problems in actually extracting that water for surface use.

"There's no scientific background for it," he says. "The volume of water, if you could get it out, might produce a 300-year supply. But you can't get it out."

The water board found that a "realistic" estimate of residential water use in the county is an average of .7 to 1.0 acre-feet per household per year. But the commissioners have downsized those numbers when it suits them, Koch notes, particularly in the proposed Spring Valley Ranch development, where the water allocation for 1,186 homes works out to .4 acre-feet per household. "They've embraced this concept at Spring Valley where you define the use, even if it's not what they actually use, and go by that," he says.

But Spring Valley developer Ron Heggemeier says the smaller number is a realistic one, given that up to 60 percent of residential water use is for irrigation. His development will use treated sewer water for lawns and other outside uses -- a recycling scheme that's been used in more populous states but has never been tried in a residential community in Colorado before.

"I not only think it's the wave of the future, I think it's going to be demanded by jurisdictions down the road," Heggemeier says. "This is one way of getting further use of the existing aquifers. The downside is that you have to use two completely different water systems. The upside is that the cost of drilling wells is very expensive, and you eliminate or slow that need."

The proposal has triggered concerns among some nearby residents about giardia and other health risks. Jesse Yates, a business consultant and member of the county planning commission, has read up on effluent treatment studies done by the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies that suggest Spring Valley's plan deserves closer scrutiny.

"Every study I have read says it's hazardous to apply this on residential lawns," Yates says. "It shouldn't be applied near where food is being prepared or in high-traffic areas. But these guys are going to allow people to wash their cars and let their kids play in the sprinklers with this stuff. It's crazy."

When Yates shared his information with the county commissioners a few months ago, he got a chilly reception. "It was either over their heads, or they'd already made their minds up," he says. "The county knew what Spring Valley was doing, but the citizens didn't know it. It's all about politics and resources, not health."

Heggemeier says he's "absolutely confident" that the treatment process poses no health risks, and the commissioners agree with him. "They can get that water down to where it's all but drinkable," Metli says. The Colorado health department is expected to rule on the proposal in a few weeks.

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