TELLER COUNTY • A grassroots effort to save a free artesian well off the side of the road at Gillette Flats from being closed by the state’s water division is becoming an official movement.
A small group of Teller County residents met in Cripple Creek during Friday’s snowstorm and decided to form a nonprofit association, the Gillette Flats Spring Organization, and work on action plans to legalize the water that flows from the natural spring.
“The state seems amenable to working with this group to bring the spring into compliance with the law, in one way or another,” said Sherri Renner, a nonpracticing lawyer from Woodland Park who was voted chair of the group.
The task: “Figure out where the spring crosses the line into an illegal use and how we can remedy that,” she said.
It won’t be an easy haul.
The group identified two solutions: augment the water that’s being used by purchasing unused water rights, such as from ditch irrigation, or determine if the well is somehow exempt from state water regulations due to historic and grandfathered rights.
“We’re looking at every possible angle that’s available to us,” said Victor resident Wendy Lee Sobisky.
The site also needs to be metered for exactly how much water people are removing from the flow, the group established as a short-term goal. Testing the makeup of the water also is planned.
“We’ll be researching the law and the history of the area and talking to people about longtime generational uses to get a better picture of the spring,” Renner said.
Volunteers conducted informal surveys with users in November, after a heated meeting in October with the community and water resources officials.
Sobisky, who led the initial protest and continues to be involved in saving the spring, stood at the site of the wellhead, at Mile Marker 57 on South Colorado Highway 67, for days and asked people who pulled over to fill containers how long they’ve used the water and for what purpose. Some drink the water; others use it for cooking, bathing and livestock.
She’s heard all kinds of stories that solidify her belief that the spring should remain as a community resource.
“No one can say exactly where the spring is flowing from,” she said, “and for years and years people have depended on it.”
A cattle rancher on Pikes Peak is rumored to have drilled the well in the late 1800s to provide water for his cattle. Who owns the well or the water rights today remains a mystery.
State officials have said that the spigot and the large holding tank the water spills into are on Colorado Department of Transportation right-of-way land. Adjacent property owners do not lay claim to the well.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources announced in September that it intended to close access in November because the well has unclear ownership and is not decreed by a water court or permitted for public use. Cutting off public use would allow the water to return to the aquifer and to the Arkansas Basin, where senior water rights take precedence.
But people from near and far have been stopping to fill bottles, jugs and even cisterns with Gillette Flats spring water for at least decades and possibly a century or more.
After residents complained about the state’s plan to shutter the source, water officials extended the closure to April of this year to give residents more time to find alternatives, such as drilling wells or buying water from independent suppliers or local coin-operated machines.
No municipality or area water provider was interested in working with the state to augment the spring to keep it open, state officials said.
Bill Tyner, water engineer with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, told attendees at the October community meeting that historic benefit, community value and hardship to lower-income families were reasons the community could work with water commissioners to create an augmentation plan that would satisfy state water regulators.
“We feel the state is very open to working with us and keeping an open line of communication,” Renner said.
“We’re so passionate about keeping the spring open because there are people who rely on it for life.”
The Gillette Flats Spring Organization has a new Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/groups/Gillette.Flats.Spring.Project/. The group plans to meet regularly.
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.