Volume No. 17 Issue No. 1 January 2020  

  Colorado’s water issues — Part 1
  Defining the aquifers
  By Lindsey Harrison

     Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of serious discussions on the state of water in Colorado.
   In December 2015, the state of Colorado adopted “Colorado’s Water Plan,” according to the state’s website. Similarly, El Paso County adopted its own “Water Master Plan” in February 2019, according to the county’s website. Both plans cite an intent to provide information about water supply and how to conserve water to meet future needs, but skeptics wonder if the plans are enough to ensure the sustainability of Colorado’s water supply.
   One skeptic is Terry Stokka, a community member who lives in Black Forest and is a member of the Black Forest Water and Wells committee formed in March 2019 as part of the Friends of the Black Forest Preservation Plan organization.
   Stokka said the mission of the water and wells committee is to advocate for groundwater quality and quantity, as well as promote sustainability for the Denver Basin Aquifer system, which is the main or only source of water for most of the people in the basin area.
   Kevin Rein, Colorado state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said it is important to understand the structure of the aquifers beneath the ground in Colorado in order to understand how the state’s water laws work.
   The Denver Basin Aquifer system is a hydrogeological feature that runs from the Greeley, Colorado area down to Colorado Springs and from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the plains in the Limon, Colorado area, Rein said.
   “The Denver Basin is an oval-shaped feature that is layered,” he said. “There are four to six actual aquifers we distinguish for regulatory purposes: the Dawson (aquifer) is separated into an upper and lower section, the Denver (Basin) is also separated into an upper lower section, (and) the Arapahoe and the Laramie-Fox Hills (aquifers).”
   Rein said each aquifer is separated by confining layers of sediment that are tight sand and stone formations, making water transmission from one aquifer to another difficult. There is no connection between the Denver Basin Aquifer system and Colorado’s above-ground stream systems; legally, that under-groundwater is designated as non-tributary, he said. Non-tributary means that groundwater is water found in deep aquifers, like those of the Denver Basin Aquifer system. Non-tributary water is not connected either hydrologically or geologically to rivers, streams or creeks, Rein said.
   In 1973, the Colorado State Senate passed Senate Bill 213, which allocated non-tributary water in the aquifers according to the overlying land, Rein said. “If someone owns a parcel of land that overlies the Denver Basin, that area of land determines how much water they are allowed,” he said. “Take one of the aquifers, draw an imaginary line straight down from the boundaries of that person’s property into that aquifer and that is how much water they are allowed.”
   Technically, each well has a limit to the amount of water that can legally be withdrawn from it per year, but with the thousands of private well owners in the state, it can be difficult to monitor each of them, Rein said.
   "By and large, the small residential wells pumping more than they should is not really the big risk," he said. "They are allowed a certain amount and they usually stay within those limits."
   However, if a development submitted a plan with a well permit that allowed a certain amount of water usage and the well meter indicated much more water had been used, the state has the authority to require that development to come into compliance with what its permit allows, Rein said.
   According to SB 213, there is a 100-year non-tributary groundwater rule as follows: “The minimum useful life of the aquifer is 100 years, assuming that there is no substantial artificial recharge within said period.” The bill also allocates how much water can be taken from a non-tributary source, like the Denver Basin Aquifer system, by a permitted well per year.
   “You can draw 1 percent of the water allocated to you per year,” Rein said. “That prevents people from drawing out more all at once, and that is a state law.”
   El Paso County took the 100-year rule one step further and created a 300-year non-tributary groundwater rule in 1986, with the purpose of encouraging water efficiency and development of additional renewable water sources, according to the county’s Water Master Plan.
   Stokka said while the 300-year rule is a step in the right direction, there is a difference between “paper water” and “real water.” Paper water is what the state of Colorado allows a person to pump from his or her well, but there is no guarantee the water will be there or how long it will last, he said. Real water is the water that is actually in each aquifer, and that amount is unknown, Stokka said.
   “Even though we know the Denver Basin (Aquifer system) has bowls inside it, we do not know what the material is,” he said. “Any time you are using a non-renewable source (like water from underground aquifers), you have to be really careful.”
   A major issue with the state’s 100-year rule is that it was passed in 1973, Stokka said. That means those 100 years are almost halfway over and the amount of water being pumped from the aquifers has significantly increased since the law was passed, he said.
   According to the United States Census Bureau, Colorado’s population in 1973 was 2.496 million. The Census Bureau estimates the population in 2018 as 5.695 million.
   Stokka said requiring new urban development to provide a renewable water source before it is approved would be one way to combat the dwindling water supply in the Denver Basin Aquifer system. “We have to be conservative about development,” he said. “If you are going to approve something like 2,100 homes on an area with water intended for one well per 5-acre lot, you better have a renewable source, like the Southern Delivery System.”
   According to the Colorado Springs Utilities website, the Southern Delivery System transports water from the Arkansas River to be stored in the Pueblo Reservoir before it is pumped to Colorado Springs, Security, Fountain and Pueblo West.
   Rein said his department recognizes that the aquifers are non-renewable resources. “It is not going to run out tomorrow, but it is non-renewable and it is not going to be economical to use. We have to be developing renewable supplies of water.”
   According to Denver Water’s website, a regional partnership, called Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency, was created in 2009 to help the Denver area reduce the use of non-renewable groundwater. The WISE partnership allows water from one provider to be shared with another provider, according to the website. If one provider's usage is low, they can share the extra water with another provider who might not have as much.
   Rein said he admires counties and suppliers for trying to develop renewable sources of water and hopes additional measure will be taken in the future.
   Stokka said more needs to be done, and the status of Colorado’s water supply needs to be considered more realistically. “Statistics are not proving that there is as much water as the state says they have,” he said. “What they say is there — really is not.”
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