Natural spring water that flows free for the taking off the side of the road at Gillette Flats outside the small mountain towns of Cripple Creek and Victor won’t be shut off without a fight.
Teller County residents are collecting signatures on a petition opposing the state’s plans to cap the spigot in November, allowing the water to drain, instead, into the Arkansas River, where officials say it legally belongs.
Victor resident Wendy Lee Sobisky has gathered nearly 2,500 signatures in an online petition to stop the state from closing the decades-old spring that thousands of people use each year for drinking, bathing, cooking, and watering pets and livestock.
She said she intends to give the petition to lawmakers who represent Teller County.
“You’ve got people who are depending on this,” Sobisky said. “We’re not robbing from anyone — it’s been there, 40, 50, 60 years or more, several generations at least. It’s wrong.”
But the well lies on Colorado Department of Transportation land, leading the state’s Water Resources Division to reclaim the longtime supply of free artesian water.
“It’s definitely an unfortunate situation,” said Bill Tyner, water engineer with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “We’re not trying to indicate folks knew they were doing something wrong — there’s no blame from our standpoint — there was nothing saying they couldn’t use the water.
“But going forward, it’s got to have a legal right to be there and safe for folks to use.”
Ownership of the well, at mile marker 57 on South Colorado 67, has been unclear for years. In trying to determine who owns it and has water rights to the spring, the state’s Transportation Department unearthed a portion of the pipe this year.
“There was a point in time we weren’t sure; we knew the stock tank was on CDOT right of way, but we weren’t sure if the piping went under the highway or to adjacent private land,” Tyner said.
Excavating confirmed that the pipe belongs to the state, he said.
State Rep. Polly Lawrence, one of several lawmakers residents say they are turning to for help, said she believes people “have a right to a better explanation and more information before the spring is capped.”
Lawrence, a Republican who represents Teller County, said she thinks it’s “a pretty big leap for CDOT to claim ownership, when they have no records of that,” adding, “I think ownership of those water rights needs to be established first.”
While the state was unable to verify whether the spring had originated on private or public land, Tyner said it clearly sits on public land.
Lack of regional pipeline
Tyner believes that other water sources that cost money will be able to handle the additional customers who have been using the Gillette Flats spring.
Florissant Water and Sanitation District and Divide Water Providers offer coin-operated machines for public use. Sierra Water, Gold Rush Water and Rainbow Valley all deliver to homes.
“We’re trying to get folks prepared,” Tyner said.
A sign with information on alternative water suppliers was supposed to have been posted last week but was postponed to remove suppliers that don’t want to participate.
Tyner said state water resources staff contacted nearby water districts to see if they would be willing to make the well legal, a process that would involve a Water Court hearing and a plan to augment the supply of water that’s being consumed.
Leaders from Cripple Creek and Florissant said they were unaware of any such request, but doubted they could replace the spring water.
“It would be a logistical nightmare for our small district that’s 20 miles away,” said Paul Kennedy, president of the board of the Florissant Water and Sanitation District.
The lack of a regional pipeline serving the area is a factor in the inability to augment the water that’s lost through the spring, Tyner said.
Neither Victor nor Cripple Creek officials want to provide bulk water sales for residents, Tyner said.
Ray White, Cripple Creek’s interim city administrator, said it would be too costly for his city to install a bulk water sales station.
“The well is totally outside of our jurisdiction, we have no connection to that water source, and while we have our own water system for businesses and residences in city limits, we do not have the capability of bulk sales,” White said. “It would be very expensive for us to establish that.”
Moreover, the investment would not pay off, he said.
“This seems to have created a bit of a hornet’s nest,” White said, “and we understand it impacts a lot of people.”
Rainbow Valley resident Donna Evans Shadowens had erected a sign at the site, saying, “Don’t cap me bro’, Let me flow.’”
Many people signed the back of it before someone removed it, she said. Signs last week promote the online petition.
“So many people have been using it for years and years, one woman said she’s been drinking that water for 80 years,” Shadowens said. “It’s not hurting anyone. We need to stand up and have a voice. Why wasn’t there a vote? It’s for profit — they want people to buy water.”
Locals are concerned about whether the region has enough water to go around.
More moisture is sorely needed and soon, said Kennedy, of the Florissant Water and Sanitation District, which provides water to nearly 100 households and businesses in the area. The district also sells water from a coin-operated machine.
Twin Creek, the district’s primary water source, ran dry this summer, Kennedy said, although there was water underneath the spring.
When that happens, the district’s pay station closes temporarily, he said, adding that it also goes out of service for maintenance.
Every water district in Colorado has a certain number of gallons it is allowed to sell, and if the limit is exceeded, the state shuts it down.
“If we find we’re getting close to the edge, we shut down the pay station, to make sure there’s enough water for people in the pipeline,” Kennedy said.
Already, Kennedy said, the pay station has seen an increase in users, presumably from the impending discontinuation of the Gillette Flats well.
The public water station in Divide has been shut down since May, primarily due to drought and augmentation requirements when stream levels are low, said Bryan Johnson, executive vice president of Divide Water Providers.
He said he expects it to reopen in November.
Residents say many people living in Teller County cannot afford to pay for home delivery or bulk sales.
“They inflate the prices, and they won’t deliver what you want — you say you want 1,600 gallons and you get 1,500,” Shadowens said. “All our neighbors use the Gillette Flats water.”
Florissant resident Jack Daniels said water prices in Teller County are much higher than Denver or Colorado Springs.
“It’s highway robbery,” Daniels said. “It’s a private corporation getting together with those in government to make things go better for them.”
The reason for the price discrepancies, Kennedy said, is that smaller water districts with fewer customers charge more than larger municipalities to meet expenses.
“We have 94 customers; if we had double that amount, we could lower our rates,” he said. “That is a big burden on all of us.”
Daniels said he and wife are taking a different route. They’ve captured 2,000 gallons of rainwater annually since Colorado lawmakers made it legal in 2016.
“People don’t realize how much water they can get off their roof from rain and snow,” he said.
While some people think it’s unfair that users of the Gillette Flats spring haven’t had to pay for the water, others don’t care.
“It doesn’t bother me whether they get free water, even though I pay for mine,” said Colorado Springs resident Sally Hall.
“People don’t want to give the other guy anything. I feel sorry for these people.”
Drought has been more pronounced in southern Colorado, Tyner said, particularly the Arkansas Basin, making water rights more of an issue.
“The fundamental issue or set of facts with this particular situation is this spring is a specific diversion of water that nobody claims ownership of, but CDOT understands it’s in their right of way,” he said. “Without any senior water rights, or approved plan for augmentation, it will be put back underground to stay in the aquifer.”