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When the Well Runs Dry

He looks like a mountain man. Rugged, bearded, Rick Beane is a certified arborist by trade — and yes, he very much looks the part. He used to draw his drinking and living water from a well on his property … up until the well went bone dry seven years ago. Now he lugs water onto his property three times a week, 300 gallons at a time, from a not-so-convenient fire hydrant. 

You might think Rick lives out in the middle of nowhere. But in fact he lives in a fairly upscale community northwest Douglas County, on the southern fringes of Denver — a metro area now boasting more than 3 million residents.

He lives in Chatfield Estates, where residents have for decades relied on wells and septic tanks. But a growing number, the unlucky ones, whose wells have gone dry. So many of them have been forced to begin hauling in water or having it delivered — almost 1 in 6 of them, at last count.

The water in this area of the county is not replenishing. That’s because it’s encased in solid bedrock and thus rain and snowmelt cannot easily seep in and replenish any waters that have been pumped out. Add into this mix the growing population in the south metro area and the wells, such as in Rick’s community have gone dry.

How is it that a something so seemingly basic and simple as drinking-water service is lacking here in this day and age? Therein lies a tale … but a tale with a happy ending achieved through establishment of the Northwest Douglas County Water Project.

To fetch a pail of water

For Rick and his neighbors with dry wells, choices are limited. Delivery is expensive, so Rick prefers to do it himself, though that option is neither cheap nor convenient by any stretch.

He placed a one-time $1,100 deposit for on-going usage of the meter and pays $50 per month to rent a fire-hydrant meter from the Centennial Water and Sanitation District. Such meters record the amount of water that passes through it — serving the same purpose as an in-home meter. Often these same meters are used at construction sites where permanent urban water hookups are not yet established. Each month, the meter is submitted to Centennial, and Rick pays $5 per thousand gallons, plus the $50 charge for each visit to the hydrant for tap water.

Rick agreed to let me tag along on one such trip. Not for the weak of body, Rick hefts the 30- pound fire-hydrant meter onto the back of his pickup truck. Behind us, we drag a trailer with a 350-gallon water container. I jump in the passenger side and off we go to fetch his family a few days of “tap water.” Rick and his family will drink it, bathe in it, cook with it … but they’ve learned to be careful and frugal with this premium-priced commodity.

We pass more than a few hydrants before veering off onto a side road a few miles down Santa Fe Drive. A couple turns later, Rick pulls his rig alongside our final destination — a decidedly ordinary fire hydrant.

I wonder aloud what makes this hydrant special? “It’s easy to park in front of,” he offers. “And since it’s in an industrial area, I don’t have to worry about homeowners wondering what I’m doing.”

Using a large wrench he clamps the meter to the hydrant on one side, and to a hose leading to a topside opening of the water container in his trailer. He loosens the cap of the hydrant, and water quickly floods into his cistern. Water weighs about 8 pounds per gallon, so Rick figures 300 gallons is about as much tow-weight as he wants his F-350 to handle. Some about 15 minutes later, we’re ready for the return trip to add to his 1,200 gallon capacity cistern back at home.

The trip home, though, is a more difficult one. The weight of the water makes it a formidable challenge. Navigating even those few miles, with more than a ton of water in tow, proves tedious and nerve-racking. Stopping at red lights, I feel like we’re being rear-ended — even though Rick is careful to draw to a cautiously slow stop.

Once at home, the hose is attached again to link the water tank and a hole in the ground leading to his storage cistern well below his truck — which is lined, unlike most groundwater wells. The cistern holds the water until family members need to flush a toilet, cook, drink, shower or wash dishes. Of course, he never waters his landscape, which is completely Xeriscaped in natural grasses.

A Water Solution

In December 2010, the Roxborough Water and Sanitation District (RWSD) obtained a permanent raw-water supply through an agreement with the City of Aurora. The surface water supply was a little more than was required by residents of Roxborough, even at total build-out. Shortly thereafter, the groundwater-dependent Plum Valley Heights (PVH) community asked to be connected to the RWSD surface-water system. Wells in PVH were, like Chatfield Estates, becoming unreliable and well owners were beginning to understand their options were limited. Groundwater across northwest Douglas County was and is simply not being replenished — a multifactorial problem that continues to worsen today. The once ample water table has receded, and precious little water underlies the communities in northwest Douglas County.

Some residents on groundwater wells in the Roxborough area are buying and hauling water to their homes several days per week. The RWSD Board offered reliable drinking water connections to the 29 Plum Valley Heights households, PVH residents agreed, and paperwork to close the deal was completed expeditiously.

The next step for the PVH homeowners was trickier: Funding not only the cost of the water itself, but the infrastructure required to connect with the RWSD system as well. The two sides created a “Subdistrict,” allocating new costs to PVH property owners and providing a financing mechanism. The Subdistrict was simply a legal tool that allowed an existing district and its new partner to share costs equitably.

Concurrently, Douglas County Commissioners began actively pursuing solutions for other rural property owners who, like the PVH community, were shackled to unreliable groundwater wells.
In 2013 they created the Douglas County Water Alternatives Program to encourage groundwater- dependent communities to survey residents and assess interest in common solutions. Ideally, many would follow PVH down the road to also join in the Subdistrict of RWSD. Shortly after the PVH agreement was consummated, Douglas County Commissioners approached RWSD with three other neighboring communities wanting to pursue connections to its water system, including the one Rick lives in.

The RWSD did not have enough water contracted to accommodate the additional communities, so DC Commissioners took the lead in obtaining an additional annual 150 acre-feet of raw water from Aurora on RWSD’s behalf. This bold step enabled RWSD to partner with three additional communities: Chatfield Acres, Chatfield East and the Titan Road Industrial Park. The County and the RWSD assembled a financing package and secured voter approval for inclusion into the existing PVH Subdistrict. Then RWSD and the County helped secure $11.8 million in lowinterest loans and $2.1 million in grants needed. Construction on the water distribution system began August 1, 2016.

A Happy Ending

And so, our mountain man and the other residents and business owners representing the four communities stand at the verge of a new era.

The Northwest Douglas County Water Project is today a reality — an integral part of the County’s overall Water Alternatives Program. Once complete, the project will deliver highquality, renewable drinking water to approximately 300 area homes and businesses. Rick Beane and his neighbors are understandably excited at the prospect of having a reliable water system. The market value of their homes will be rightfully restored. Fire insurance premiums will be reasonable again.

And no longer will people like Rick face the time, effort and expense of hauling or having brought in water to their homes and businesses. The project serves as an example for other rural communities in Douglas County and around the state of Colorado — a showcase for what the governments of persistent, committed and unified communities can accomplish.

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