part 1 of 2
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.

Just over the hill from C-470 and Quebec, a modest building disguised as a barn sits on a bare hillside still visited by coyotes and deer. With its stone base and mud-colored crossboards, the Centennial Water and Sanitation District's groundwater treatment facility could be mistaken for a horse stable on a prosperous ranch. Instead, it is a suburban wellspring, processing 4 million gallons of groundwater per day for the district, which serves Highlands Ranch exclusively.

That water comes from a dozen wells scattered around Highlands Ranch, and new wells are drilled every year. If you walk a few hundred feet from the plant and listen closely, you can hear the whir of electric pumps on one of those wells. This particular well goes down 1,200 feet and siphons between 150 to 450 gallons of water a minute from the ground. The pumps are enclosed by a chain-link fence and covered by metal containers that could be mistaken for telephone switch boxes. The only clue to their function is their constant hum, which sounds like an outdoor vacuum cleaner.

Paul Grundemann, the water district's assistant general manager, looks out over the horizon and points to well sites scattered over the 22,000 acres that make up Highlands Ranch. A new reservoir to store the well water brought to the surface is under construction at the base of the hill, and Grundemann points out an existing reservoir just above the groundwater treatment plant. So far, the district has laid 151 miles of water lines in Highlands Ranch. "We're continuing to develop the groundwater system," says Grundemann matter-of-factly.

Highlands Ranch residents now use about 20 million gallons of water per day. About two thirds of that supply comes from surface water: The Centennial water district has rights to a limited amount of Platte River water and also leases surface water from the City of Englewood. As Highlands Ranch grows, however, so will its dependence on groundwater--for the simple reason that there is no readily available surface water left for the district to buy. When the community is fully developed, Mission Viejo's plans call for its 90,000 residents to receive 65 percent of their water from the ground. This dependence on groundwater may seem startling. Compared to the rest of Douglas County, however, Highlands Ranch is a paragon of environmental virtue.

Most of the other booming developments in Douglas County are almost wholly dependent on the aquifer. The Douglas County Water Resource Authority, which counts thirteen water districts in northern and central Douglas County as members, estimates that those districts provided 18,239 acre-feet of water to their customers in 1994. (An acre-foot is 325,580 gallons, or about enough to supply a family of four for a year.)

Such well-known commercial and residential developments as Stonegate, Castle Pines, Meridian International Business Park and the Pinery, as well as dozens of new subdivisions in Parker and Castle Rock, are drawing the vast majority of their water from the aquifer. The county water authority estimates that demand will increase by a factor of six over the next few decades, meaning those residents will need 117,161 acre-feet of water per year.

Under state law, developers or individual well owners have to prove they have at least a 100-year supply of groundwater before they can break ground on a home or subdivision. They also have to get a permit from the state engineer's office allowing them to tap into the Denver Basin aquifer, a subterranean sponge that is often regarded incorrectly as an underground lake. Actually, the water is trapped inside porous sandstone in four formations that extend down several thousand feet. Because the water is contained inside the stone, it moves very slowly within the formations. Rights to the groundwater are usually tied to ownership of the land above that part of the aquifer.

The state has seen a huge increase in the number of well applications filed in the past few years. In 1995 there were 488 applications filed for wells in Douglas County, almost double the number filed in 1989. Under state law, permits must be issued if a property owner proves he has a 100-year supply of water. But even as they rubber-stamp permits, state hydrologists have no illusion about what's happening to groundwater in the south metro area.

"It's water mining," says Steve Lautenschlager, assistant state engineer in the Division of Water Resources. "We're withdrawing it faster than it comes in." He adds, "It's anticipated that we're going to dewater the aquifer."

The state monitors water levels in 26 wells scattered around Douglas County. Some of those wells are already seeing dramatic declines. At Stroh Ranch near Parker, the monitoring well has dropped seventeen and a half feet every year for the past six years. Three wells in Castle Rock have dropped nine feet per year for the past seven years. A well at Castle Pines, the ritzy enclave of luxury homes and golf courses developed by oilman Jack Vickers, dropped 139 feet between 1991 and 1994.

Many homeowners are reassured when told by real estate agents that they have a 100-year supply of water. But the truth is far less comforting. "We have a state law that assumes a 100-year aquifer life," says Lochhead. "Local governments approve development based on that. In reality, the economic life of the aquifer is substantially less than 100 years."

As the water level drops, costly new wells must be drilled at deeper levels. Often, multiple wells are required to draw the same amount of water once generated by a single well. That means that even though water may remain in the aquifer at low levels, retrieving it will become prohibitively expensive--and the aquifer, for all intents and purposes, will be tapped out. The time is coming, say state officials, when the sheer cost of getting the water out of the ground will send water bills upward with the force of a geyser.

"We have a state law that's inadequate and local laws that aren't working with state laws," says Lochhead. "The train wreck will be when these areas run out of water and have to be retrofitted with surface supplies. The disruption and cost will be mind-boggling."

Some Douglas County homeowners are already experiencing costly problems with their wells. Their tribulations are likely to become commonplace all over the county in the future.

When Holly Bohlen bought her seven-year-old home in a rural subdivision south of Highlands Ranch, she assumed the water supply was adequate. Then she discovered water levels in her family's well had dropped radically--and that the developer of the subdivision was claiming he actually owned the water in the deepest part of the aquifer. She was told she'd have to pay the developer $6,000 just for the right to drill deeper. Now the Bohlens and their neighbors are suing the developer.

"When we bought the house, I didn't know much about wells," Bohlen says. "This is my first experience with a well. Who thinks of these things? The state will say you have a 100-year life on the aquifer. People sign off and buy the house. You can go over to the tap and turn it on and say, `It's no problem.'"

The Bohlens are now drawing water from the bottom of their well. However, the water is low-quality, and only limited quantities are available. "It's drawing up sediment and we have to filter it," says Holly Bohlen. "You have to adjust your lifestyle. You can't run the dishwasher and washing machine simultaneously, and you can't have the number of trees you'd like."

The Bohlens aren't served by any of the water districts in Douglas County. Like other rural residents, they have to maintain their own well. Still, the family is better off than some of its neighbors. Bohlen says one family two miles away was told it would cost $35,000 to drill a new well. They've opted to truck in water instead.

"If you have a problem, you're on your own," she says. "There's nobody to help you. People don't worry until they're totally out of water. I know what's going to happen to this area. It's not going to last."

Castle Rock hydrologist Steve Boand has heard lots of stories like Bohlen's. Boand tests wells all over the county, and he's seen the sinking water levels firsthand. As the former mayor of Castle Rock, he also has unique insight into the political problems the county will face in trying to find a permanent water supply.

"When the county was zoned, there wasn't even a second thought there would be a water problem," Boand says. "Counties in Colorado have virtually no experience with water planning. Everybody assumed the state engineer's office would make sure adequate water was available."

Until the late 1970s, Castle Rock was able to support its relatively small population with wells along Plum Creek, which runs through town. "Until Castle Rock started to grow, those shallow wells were adequate," Boand says. But since 1980, he says, the town has begun tapping into the deep, nonrenewable water in the aquifer. Castle Rock now has about thirty wells in operation, and the city of 13,000 has approved zoning for an eventual population as large as 175,000.

Cities like Castle Rock, Boand says, will have to spend huge amounts of money to drill new wells as the current ones become obsolete. "The cost they'll face is putting in another well, then a third one, a fourth one, a fifth one and a sixth one," Boand observes. "When the Denver Water Department develops a water supply, they don't have to pay to redevelop it. We're looking at a process here where we have to keep redoing it and redoing it. Nobody knows what the impact will be on water rates."

Since water rates in Douglas County are now comparable to other parts of the metro area, there's little immediate incentive for residents to think about the future. Boand notes that many people moving to the county take for granted the notion that a logical water policy is in place. "People who buy homes can't conceive of a policy where a government would allow homes to be built without an adequate water supply," he says.

Complicating the situation is the unpredictability of wells. Forecasting how much water a well can produce and how long it will last is an inexact science. Hydrologists can only make estimates about how long the water in one spot will flow; there are no guarantees.

"It changes from point to point," Boand says. "I've seen homes where the well is no good and only produces one gallon per minute of poor-quality water. Across the street, a well will produce crystal-clear water in copious amounts."

Many people moving to Douglas County are buying homes outside the urban centers of Highlands Ranch, Castle Rock and Parker. That worries Boand, because it not only contributes to urban sprawl and the loss of open space, it also increases the likelihood of legal disputes over groundwater.

"We've got thousands of rural residents, each with their own well," Boand says. As urban development bumps up against rural homesteads, he predicts, trouble will ensue. "When you have four homes per acre next to these people with rural wells, that's when we'll have conflict."

Boand has noticed that some developers are now keeping the rights to water at the lowest levels of the aquifer when they sell property. Homeowners will have little choice but to buy those rights when water levels start to drop. In his hydrology consulting business, Boand refuses to work for any developer with less than a 250-year supply of groundwater. He says the next ten years will be crucial ones for Douglas County; if action isn't taken to find a permanent water supply, he's afraid the county will lurch into a crisis.

"We've thought about this for ten years and haven't come up with a solution," Boand says. "If we don't have water supplies lined up in the next decade, you have to fear the worst."

end of part 1


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >