FLORISSANT • Rumors that have been circulating among Teller County residents were confirmed Tuesday night at a Florissant Water and Sanitation District board meeting: The free spring water that flows continuously from a spigot on the side of South Colorado 67 at Gillette Flats will be capped in November and public use prohibited.
What’s considered good news for the water district, which expects to add customers as a result, is devastating for residents, who for decades have hauled the water home for cooking, cleaning, drinking and their livestock.
“We have five children and animals, and that’s the only way we can really get water,” said Don Brownlow, who lives outside of Cripple Creek and has been filling containers from the wellhead for five years. “It’s all about money and the government, and the fact that we’re getting the water for free.”
The well, which for years has had an unclear ownership among locals and area governments, appears to be located on Colorado Department of Transportation land, said Tracy Kosloff, assistant state engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Moreover, the well is not “decreed or permitted for the current public use,” she said.
With Colorado’s persistent drought conditions and the state cracking down on water rights, the Gillette Flats spring water is being illegally consumed and robbing senior water-rights holders, meaning people whose water rights take precedence by law, according to the state.
“When we don’t have enough water to go around, it’s those newer uses of water, who don’t have the ability to use water under our system, that are cut off — those without any water decree of the court or permit,” Kosloff said. “This tank is an example of that. There’s not enough water in the Arkansas River Basin to go around for all the demands, and users of this tank are cutting in line for those who have a legal priority to the water.”
Stopping the flow will revert the Gillette Flats water back into the groundwater system, which ends up in the Arkansas River, she said.
While the surrounding property is for sale and under contract, the well is not included as an asset, since its provenance has been unknown, said Mike Slaback, owner of Your Neighborhood Realty, which is listing the property.
“We’ve never been 100 percent sure who owns it or who has the water rights,” Slaback said. “It’s sad the state will close it. There will be a lot of people upset. Another group will say they don’t get their water for free, why should these people. But a lot of folks depend on it.”
The spring water has been available to the public for at least three decades. Brownlow said he’s heard old-timers say it’s been there for a century.
“Thousands of people rely on that water,” he said. “It’s ridiculous and stupid to close it.”
Kosloff said her agency queried local governments, including Cripple Creek and Florissant, in May, asking if any would be willing to make the system legal by agreeing in water court to augment the water loss from the well and having it properly permitted.
None expressed interest, she said.
The watering hole is so popular that people line up daily to fill anything from bottles to gallon jugs to large cisterns.
Water quality has been another concern, said Paul Kennedy president of the Florissant water district board. No one regularly tests the quality of the Gillette Flats spring, whereas suppliers such as water districts must do that. A tank the spring water flows into also isn’t monitored for contamination, he said.
Brownlow, who raises goats, said he’s never heard of anyone getting sick from drinking the Gillette Flats water.
“Nobody’s had a problem,” he said. “One guy I know has been using it for 40 years.”
Layce Tillitt said she’s scared for her community.
Some homes in the area outside of Cripple Creek don’t have running water, and residents say they can’t afford to pay for water.
Like others, Tillitt does not have an agricultural-use permit for her well to provide water for her horses, so she collects water from Gillette Flats.
“This is insane,” she said. “It’s already a 40-mile trip to Gillette Flats — where am I going to get water now?”
Kosloff said in coming weeks signs will be posted at the tank, pointing users to options where they can obtain water, including the Florissant Water and Sanitation District.
Independent water haulers also supply the area and fill cisterns at homes.
Tillitt said public stations that sell water in Divide and in Florissant are not reliable and were periodically shut down over the summer because the state rations allocations based on water rights.
“There’s not going to be any water here,” she said.
Kennedy said while the coin-operated machine for water sales at Florissant Water and Sanitation District, at $1 for 40 gallons, was turned off for a while, it’s now back on.
The privately owned public station in Divide, which shut down in May due to due to drought conditions, senior water rights precedence and state augmenting requirements, is expected to remain closed until sometime in November. It sells water for $1 for 30 gallons.
Water district board members hope closing the free spring will drive more residents to use its coin-op sales and also join the district. Members pay property taxes and a monthly water bill for the water service.
The 93 customers it has now are barely enough to sustain operations and maintenance, the board said Tuesday.
“This is a water district that desperately needs money,” said board member Barb Faux. “We have a lot of bills, and water sales are incredibly important.”
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656
An earlier version of this story misstated that the Divide public water hauling station had oversold its rations allowed by the state and is now operational.