As access to water in the West becomes an increasing concern, one Black Forest group fears the acquisition of rights to the Dawson aquifer by an outside water company will force Black Forest residents to face the possibility of water shortages; or, worse, dry wells – sooner, rather than later.
Friends of the Black Forest Preservation Plan have raised concerns about Cherokee Metropolitan District’s rights to extract water from the Dawson aquifer, which already provides hundreds of Black Forest residents with water, and the possible impact on proposed private wells in the future Flying Horse North development.
Developed and built by Classic Homes, the Flying Horse North development is a proposed 1,417-acre 283-lot development that would border Black Forest Road on the east and Hodgen Road to the north. The luxury home development could also include amenities like an 18-hole golf course and clubhouse.
The state’s water court granted Cherokee Metropolitan District a series of adjudicated water rights acquisitions between 2011 and 2013, allowing the district to draw water from four aquifers that extend below areas of Black Forest, as well as the Flying Horse North development, according to a March 5 article, ”Colorado Springs real estate company looks to bring its Flying Horse concept to Black Forest,” written by Rich Laden and published in the Colorado Springs Gazette March 5.
Cherokee provides water to about 17,945 customers in its roughly 6,300-acre service area, including residents in Cimarron Hills, portions of Falcon, Schriever Air Force Base and other areas 20 miles east of the main district boundaries near Ellicott.
Now, Cherokee will also provide water to Flying Horse North residents and have rights to pump from the Dawson, the shallowest of the four aquifers that comprise the underground Denver Basin, said Black Forest Land Use Committee Chairman Terry Stokka.
“They have rights to pump huge amounts of water. We feel this could very easily impact individual wells,” Stokka said.
Black Forest residents believe the water in the Dawson should be kept for Black Forest use, rather than pumped and provided to customers several miles away, he said.
However, Kurt Schlegel, Cherokee Metropolitan District interim general manager, said that belief is a misconception about Colorado water laws.
“Colorado water laws are very complex, but there is no law that states a certain amount of water under a certain amount of property should stay there,” Schlegel said.
The biggest concern for Black Forest residents is the possibility that Cherokee’s use of water from the Dawson could drain the aquifer enough to where Black Forest residents would experience disruptions in water service or see the wells run dry, Stokka said. “If wells run dry, it’s going to cost anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 each to drill new wells,” he said.
Leif Garrison, president of the Friends of the Black Forest Preservation Plan, said Black Forest residents would bear the cost to drill new wells. It would be a significant burden, Garrison said.
“The Dawson aquifer is not renewable, and a lot of Black Forest residents don’t have access to renewable water ... there are no funds set aside to re-drill or deepen wells to get back down to where water levels are,” he said.
Adding more than 200 homes in Flying Horse North to Cherokee’s service area would only exacerbate the possibility of water shortages for Black Forest residents, Stokka said.
“Using the normal 5-acre average for each residential lot, one 1,000-acre area where the Cherokee wells are sited would contain 200 homes and 200 individual wells. If Cherokee pumps their allotted water from the Dawson aquifer, the water taken from the Dawson would equate to 2,100 homes, a tenfold increase,” Stokka said.
Stokka also said dry wells can impact property values.
Schlegel said to his knowledge no studies have been done by Cherokee Metropolitan District on the impact of taking water from the Dawson to service the Flying Horse North development. “Any time you pull water out, depending on the water flow and the rate at which the water is being pulled out, there is always concern when it’s drawn from a non-renewable resource,” Schlegel said. “Water is a property, and each landowner has a right to do with their water as they see fit. We want people to exercise their water rights, and it is true that if water supplies are in jeopardy it will adversely affect property values.”
Craig Dossey, executive director of El Paso County Development Services, said it is difficult to tell exactly how much water is in an aquifer at any given time.
“Even the most experienced hydrogeologists would disagree on how much water is in the aquifers ... no one really knows,” Dossey said. “The amount of water available hinges on how fast these aquifers recharge. We can’t say with certainty how fast the wells are recharging.”
But Schlegel said that the water rights adjudicated to Cherokee by the state provided proof there is enough water to support the Flying Horse North project, as well as Black Forest residents and other customers in Cherokee’s district. Had there not been sufficient water levels to support its customers, Cherokee would not have been granted the water rights to the Dawson, said Schlegel.
Garrison disagreed: “I don’t think that assessment comports with my understanding of the way water law works.” Stokka said the Friends of the Black Forest Preservation Plan are planning to work with lawyers and hydrogeologists to create a groundwater model of the area to show how the Dawson will be impacted if Cherokee chooses to exercise its rights to pump water from the aquifer.
Schlegel said Cherokee is looking for a longer-range solution to water service in the area, and is working on a water renewable source plan.
“The idea is to use as little water from the Dawson as possible. The Dawson would be an alternate water source,” Schlegel said.
Currently in the engineering stages, Schlegel said Cherokee is considering several options for water renewable sources, such as purchasing water from Southern Colorado and depositing it into a reservoir in Fountain, then transferring that water to the district through its pipeline.
The water renewable sources would be implemented within the next four to five years, with a total build-out of 10 to 12 years.
“This is all under direction from the (Colorado Division of Water Resources),” Schlegel said.
Garrison said Cherokee’s plan to use water renewable sources is good news to concerned Black Forest residents.
“We appreciate the friendliness from Cherokee ... the situation that we see with this high-level (water) pumping is unprecedented. We’re very hopeful that alternative usages for Cherokee are not the Dawson aquifer,” Garrison said.
Dossey said Cherokee’s water rights to the aquifers has been a “contentious issue,” and he is not surprised it has remained that way. “As development continues in Black Forest, water may continue to be an issue even more than it is now,” Dossey said.
Schlegel said it is Cherokee’s intention to create amenable relationships with its customers and local organizations.
“We’re all pulling from the same resources, and we want to work with our neighbors and partners to work in a responsible manner,” Schlegel said. “We want to maintain water resources and property values; and we want to be good neighbors who provide excellent service to our customers.
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Water restrictions, soils low in organic material and short growing seasons give many new transplants to Colorado trouble with transplanting their flowers, vegetables and trees. Community design review councils and landscape designers are quick to suggest “xeriscape,” which means “dry or low-moisture landscaping,” but it’s often mispronounced “zeroscape,” because of its focus on rock mulch and sparse native plants.
Groups of organic gardeners and small farmers are trying to popularize two other organic practices with odd-sounding names: permaculture and regenerative agriculture.
“Permaculture is a design system that looks at nature and how nature does things,” said Becky Elder, co-founder of Pikes Peak Permaculture. Permaculture, derived from the term “permanent agriculture,” was developed in 1978 by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison.
Gardens and home landscapes that use permaculture principles will have far more perennial edibles inter-planted with other species. The collection of different species, or “guilds,” work together to add nutrients to the soil, provide living ground cover mulch, attract beneficial insects or repel pests, and provide shade or wind breaks. Rather than spraying pesticides to get rid of aphids, a permaculture home landscaper would plant the flowers that attract ladybugs and other beneficial insects.
The complicated relationship between soil, bugs, water, plants and people is why permaculture practitioners have a hard time defining the design practice.
“The standard answer on what permaculture is, is no one understands and gives the ‘deer in the headlights’ look,” said Doneil Freeman, owner of Freeman Family Farm in Calhan, Colorado. “It’s figuring out the right plants for the right jobs in your little environment. Find the plant that will repel the pest, one that will add nitrogen to the soil; and each thing is a stepping stone to the next.”
“It’s easy to do mainstream landscaping or even xeriscaping, but it’s not easy to design a landscape that harmonizes with nature,” Elder said. But once the design phase is complete, a permaculture homescale landscape should be easier to maintain than most modern suburban landscapes. “If you’re working too hard in your landscape, you haven’t created a system that works well together. If you’re working too hard, you’re working against nature.”
There are other uses for permaculture ethics and principles besides a garden landscape, Elder said. “Most people apply it to landscapes, but you can also apply the ethics to your house, your life and how you run your business,” Elder said. “You can also take your human ecosystem and connect it with the nature of your community.” The three core ethics of permaculture are care for the earth, care for the people and return the surplus back into the system.
The social aspect of permaculture is where the movement loses people in the conservative-leaning Pikes Peak region. “El Paso County is a very conservative area, and people here may not be ready for that part of it,” Elder said. “Permaculture is not a religion; it’s a way to get somewhere. We have many people working in gardening and agriculture in the area who are students of permaculture but never use the word.”
The idea of growing food or maintaining landscapes with few outside inputs like purchased fertilizer and pesticides appeals to the more libertarian and conservative parts of the community, including the so-called “prepper” movement. Some leaders in the sustainability and self-reliance culture, including Jack Spirko of “The Survival Podcast,” have popularized the term “regenerative agriculture.” This focuses on the soil-building and self-sufficient food growing parts of permaculture practices.
“We have the same thing in mind as preppers, but we get there in a different way,”
Elder said. Regenerative agriculture is a step beyond sustainability and organic agriculture. Rather than just preserving soil health, “notill” practices and continuous mulching and composting will gradually build more soil health, structure and fertility.
“If you follow typical conventional farming methods, it’s constant inputs,” Freeman said. “This pest arrives, people just spray it. Less inputs equals less cost, and it creates a system that just regenerates and sustains itself.”
Permaculture and regenerative agriculture have drawbacks and detractors. Learning permaculture practices can take a long time. By modeling natural forest systems with several inter-planted species, permaculture gardens can look disorganized compared to row-crops and typical home landscapes. “It’s not easy,” Elder said. “It’s a life study.”
Designs usually rely on rainwater capture and diversion, which leads gardeners into the complicated world of Colorado water laws. “The water laws here are a big challenge,” Freeman said. “They’re just absolutely ridiculous in this state. It’s nice to see the rain barrel law signed, but I’d love to see a day I’d be able to dig a pond and have nobody care.”
Homeowners who want a permaculture-inspired landscape planned for them can hire permaculture designers through Pikes Peak Permaculture. “If they’re interested in learning more about it, I’d suggest getting a proper book like ‘Gaia’s Garden’ by Toby Hemmingway or ‘Permaculture Handbook’ by Peter Bane,” Elder said. “And then you can come to permaculture events with PPP, where we do a lot of free classes to introduce people to it.”
Pikes Peak Permaculture is online at http://pikespeakpermaculture.org. The Regenerative Agriculture group is on Facebook at http://facebook.com/groups/ regenerativeagriculture.