BRANSON — The remote beauty of the landscape and this rustic town’s time-worn structures harmonize in a traditional rural narrative of self-sufficiency, an up-by-your-bootstraps ranchland culture cradled by a wall of mesas to the south, the Mesa de Maya to the east and, off to the west, the snow-tipped Spanish Peaks.
The southernmost town in Colorado has only 55 residents, people comfortable with the idea of not having every convenience at their fingertips. A grocery run might be the better part of an hour away in Trinidad. A doctor’s appointment might consume an entire day in distant Pueblo.
But one priceless resource that Branson has in abundance — water — has posed an existential challenge. State health department groundwater rules, tightened over the last several years, have reclassified the town’s water source, a shift that requires Branson to bolster purification of the spring-fed system that has slaked the thirst of both residents and local livestock for roughly a century. But costs loom as a budget-busting blow to the all-volunteer town council.
After suggested remedies topped $1 million and traditional avenues of financing through grants and loans didn’t work, Branson may finally have found a viable solution — in a small Rocky Ford company that has taken economical water filtration technology to developing countries all over the world.
And the town has launched an unusual way to pay for it: an online crowdfunding campaign that seeks to mine the generosity of anyone with a connection to Branson or who appreciates the challenges faced by small rural towns. So far, they’re nearly a quarter of their way toward a $100,000 goal.
Branson Mayor Rachel Snyder also hopes that the town’s efforts might be a model for other small water systems — at least several dozen so far, with more likely to come — that find themselves caught in a regulatory conundrum.
“Everybody in town knows water is the lifeblood,” Snyder says. “If we don’t have our drinking water system, it’s a downhill slide from there.”
Scott Thomas, a water circuit rider for the Colorado Rural Water Association, which provides training and support for small water systems, said that in just the last four months that he’s traveled the state, he’s seen at least a half-dozen systems that find themselves in the same predicament as Branson.
“I‘ve kind of focused on those now, just because it’s such a major issue for a town like Branson,” he says. “I’ve run as far west as Paradox, near the Utah border, to Branson and the Arkansas Valley. Around here it’s happening extensively.”
Brad Doherty, a descendant of one of the early ranch families, got an economics degree from Princeton in 1998 and moved back to Branson in 2006 to be the pastor of a local church. Almost immediately, he was groomed to take on an additional role — water commissioner — and has spent the last several years tending the town’s system and navigating the search for an affordable fix.
“One ongoing lesson of this whole thing has been learning how to ask for help and asking people to step up to get things done — and accepting that help when it’s offered,” Doherty says. “In a small community we all have to work together. It’s not a me-versus-the-world mentality.”
The problem has hung over the town’s head for several years, since discovery of E. coli first raised concerns, even though locals staunchly defend the quality of their drinking water and can recall no instances of water-borne illness. Although the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says that it has never shut down a system over reclassification, locals nonetheless worry about potential civil and criminal liability if they can’t bring theirs into compliance.
That led them to this unconventional course of action.
“Ambitious, sure,” Snyder says. “Are there people in town paralyzed by the concept? Yes. But we just have to get to the right people, connected to Branson or who appreciate the quest of a tiny rural settlement with a bunch of incredibly self-reliant people who are actually saying, ‘We can’t do this by ourselves.’ We just can’t. We don’t want to end up being another one of the vanishing rural communities.”
Drone footage of Branson’s water tanks, with the small town in the background, as well as footage of Branson’s spring water sources at Saddle Rock and Brown Mesa, which are gravity-fed into water tanks. Finally, the clip includes aerial footage of Branson with the Mesa de Maya in the background. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Like many rural towns, Branson once upon a time bustled with possibility.
In the late 19th century, homesteading and the Denver, Texas and Fort Worth Railroad foreshadowed the birth of a town as a switching station and nearby underground springs made a convenient stop for steam engines snaking up from New Mexico. A community started to coalesce around this activity by 1916, when a developer named Josiah Branson bought the land where the town now stands for $1,350.
The population swelled to about 1,000 in the 1920s, triggering construction of commercial buildings and even a pool hall. With the pool hall came a jail — twin stone cells with barred doors that still sit just off the main road through town, an irresistible setting for shutterbugs and Branson’s primary tourist attraction.
As the story goes, aside from all the folks who had their pictures snapped while smiling out from behind the bars, only a few drunks actually did time in the cells, and two escaped when their wives chopped off the locks and busted them out.
With the decline of the steam engine and the arrival of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the town began to diminish, and except for a brief resurgence after World War II, it continued to slip until the population dipped into double-digits. Today, Branson has only one commercial building — no restaurants, stores or hotels (although it does have a single Airbnb listing). It has managed to retain its post office.
In some ways, it has leveraged its unique circumstances to considerable public benefit. Its 75-student, K-12 brick-and-mortar school carries on as the hub of activity and employment, drawing students from as far as Trinidad, while Branson School Online, one of the state’s early adopters and better performing online options, serves 400 statewide.
Branson also has benefited from a fortuitous bit of geography that for decades has endowed the town with the water so many other arid communities find in short supply.
Five springs tucked in the mesas along the Colorado-New Mexico border have long provided more than ample supply to feed the railroad in the early days and continually provide for the town ever since. The entire system is gravity-fed, meaning it requires no pumps, just the sloping landscape that sends water downhill to be stored in two giant tanks. Even if the power goes out — which can leave the town without electricity for days in particularly bad weather — the water continues to flow.
Doherty, water commissioner in Branson since 2009, steers his pickup truck out of town, along the gravel road that mirrors the railroad tracks and then turns uphill, bouncing along on barely the suggestion of a path. On a break from his regular job as one of two technology support people for the local school district — he also serves as football coach — he tells the story of a connection to the water that extends generations into the past.
When trains no longer required water, as steam engines went the way of the horse and buggy, railroad interests in the 1950s sold their water rights to Doherty’s great-grandfather, who immediately entered into a sharing agreement with the town. Branson had by then already established a water system with three springs situated next to Saddle Rock, a solitary landmark that rises apart from the mesa.
Doherty stops his truck. Here, in a patch of grass amid the low brush that dots the hillside, sits the original storage tank, about 40 feet by 40 feet and 10-feet deep. Prying a manhole cover from a nearby concrete slab, Doherty descends into an underground space where he can control two outlet pipes — one that leads to his ranch and the second that points water toward town.
Today, he’s diverts more water to the ranch.
“When the springs are at full capacity on a normal month, we only use about 40 percent of what the springs produce — the rest is just extra,” he says. “If the plumbing is where it needs to be, it comes to some cattle pens.”
Aside from abundance, Branson’s water system was blessed for decades with the designation by state and federal rules as groundwater, generally a purer source, less susceptible to contaminants, that requires less stringent measures to maintain.
But that changed in 2013, thanks to new protocols instituted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment just a year earlier. They revolved around a concept that water experts simply pronounce “gwoody,” for the acronym GWUDI, or groundwater under direct influence.
Direct influence of what? The crucial element is surface water — anything from rainfall to rivers, lakes, ponds or creeks.
Nicole Graziano, drinking water compliance assurance section manager at CDPHE, says any time there’s an opportunity for surface water to enter groundwater, it creates a potential pathway for contamination.
“That’s why EPA and our regulations require the system to install filtration and to be effectively operating their disinfectant treatment,” she says. “We call it the belt-and-suspenders approach…The filtration hopefully takes out a lot of the pathogens, and the disinfection is the suspenders part that makes sure we’re adequately protecting public health.”
So in 2012, CDPHE implemented a policy that prescribed the methodology it would use to evaluate systems to determine if they really were groundwater or GWUDI. Branson is one of 80 smaller public water systems across the state (out of nearly 2,100 total public water systems) that have been reclassified from groundwater to GWUDI in the last six years, Graziano says, and with more in line to be tested, that number could increase.
What’s at stake?
“We’ve never really shut down a water system because it’s been reclassified to GWUDI,” Graziano says. “What normally happens, if they miss that deadline for installing filtration, they’re generally put under a drinking water enforcement order that has deadlines and additional requirements and working with the system to get that treatment installed.”
Typically, she adds, penalties are not associated with those circumstances.
Even before the health department enacted its 2012 policy, it issued a boil-water advisory for Branson due to discovery of E. coli bacteria, Graziano says, noting that triggered the evaluation process that ultimately resulted in the GWUDI designation.
Branson installed a filtration system, but it turned out to be a functional and financial disaster.
In this case, gravity worked against the town’s water system. There simply wasn’t enough water pressure to make the filters perform properly, Doherty says. The town wound up spending $2,500 on replacement filters in the first month.
“The engineer under-designed it, the state approved it, we installed it according to what they told us to do,” he adds. “It was absolutely absurd. We realized within a month of it being in, ‘We cannot do this, we’re pulling it out, it’s not working.’ We tried to follow everybody’s advice and counsel and it didn’t work — not even remotely close.”
So Branson decided to stop filtering its water, Doherty says, and immediately notified the state health department. CDPHE put Branson under an enforcement order to fix the system and, in the meantime, disinfect the water by quadrupling the chlorine level.
The town hired another engineering firm to come up with options to bring the water system into compliance, but they involved big-ticket items like installing a septic system or constructing an impermeable holding pond. And the numbers were staggering for a town of 55 people — the total price tag on the new solution came in at $1.1 million.
The state tried to steer Branson toward a variety of grants but the town didn’t qualify.
“I think it comes down to population,” Doherty says. “We’re not a big enough fish to justify taxpayer dollars.”
Loans wouldn’t work, either. The town is still paying down a $200,000 loan for improvements that added the storage tanks in 2005, an expense that by Doherty’s estimate accounts for about 60% of the cost of running its water system.
There was another option: Jump through the necessary hoops to see if Branson could get its water source reclassified as groundwater instead of GWUDI — something that figured to be about a 50-50 proposition. But after a 6-month testing cycle, including nights Doherty had to babysit testing equipment so curious black bears didn’t disrupt it, the effort failed.
That’s when he made a last-ditch phone call.
The home of Innovative Water Technologies sits just off U.S. 50 in Rocky Ford, about two hours north of Branson, in a massive warehouse building that president Jack Barker recently purchased after 10 years of growing his company.
Inside, where the 11-employee firm makes water-purification systems that it has sent to 29 countries, the floor — and everything else — is spotless. Flags representing the nations where IWT has installed its systems line the top of one wall, and below them Barker has printed the words from an email he received from a little girl in an orphanage in India that changed his life.
He was running a company outside of Denver that did contract management, operations and maintenance for public drinking water and wastewater systems. The email, forwarded to him from a Rotarian friend of his working overseas, was stark and shocking: “I drink water every day, because I have to, it makes me sick.”
“When I got that email from that little girl,” Barker says, “from that day on, I thought of nothing but this place.”
So what is a company that specializes in small, self-contained water systems that mixes profit and social conscience doing in the Lower Arkansas River Valley?
Barker happened to be consulting with the town of Rocky Ford when a key patent for his product came through, and he mentioned he’d have to find manufacturing space. The city manager took him to this building on the west end of town, which had been empty for a decade, and then one thing led to another. The price was right — far cheaper than the Denver metro area — and the local workforce proved up, with people who are quick studies and dedicated employees.
About five years ago, Barker spoke with Doherty about the town’s problems with its system, but at that point, told him the technology that would best help a place like Branson was still in development. Fast forward to the town reeling from the million-dollar estimate on a filtration solution.
“We were looking at being a half-million in debt, at minimum doubling our customers’ water bills,” Doherty says. “We’ve been dragging feet for awhile. CDPHE encouraged us to get back in compliance. So I said, ‘What if we call back that Rocky Ford company and see what they can do?’”
Two days later, Barker and his project manager, Cisco Perez, showed up in Branson and took a first-hand look at the problem. They could provide a solution for $76,000. They just had two questions: What color and when should we start?
Branson wouldn’t deploy IWT’s primary product, the filtration model known as a SunSpring. Barker proposed installing a smaller system composed of two units called Wall Springs, which literally mount on a wall inside a small structure built at a tiny-home company in Pueblo. IWT then would build and install the water plant inside the structure, transport it to Branson and do a relatively simple installation.
With membrane technology that blocks impurities down to 0.02 microns, the town won’t need to spend money on replacement filters. The life of the membranes, which resemble thousands of narrow straws grouped in a cylinder, is estimated at 10 years, though some have lasted longer. IWT will add three wind turbines and six solar panels to power the entire operation off the grid — an important feature, given the town’s susceptibility to power outages.
“It’s a really small system for us, but we have the exact technology they need to do it,” Barker says. “Our systems are designed for places like Branson.”
The price is still not exactly couch-change for a small rural town, so the crowdfunding effort was born.
“I just love the way they’re doing it, as far as raising the money,” Barker says. “It’s innovative. No system I’ve worked with in 35 years has used an approach like that. They’re always on a waiting list for state money or federal money.”
Both Branson and Barker hope that their collaboration could provide proof of concept that might apply to the many small systems across Colorado that could find themselves required to improve their filtration, if they aren’t already. Barker claims that there are close to 200 small systems that could be reclassified as GWUDI.
“I’m very confident that CDPHE is going to make some changes for small systems to make this process easier,” Barker says. “We’re going to be a part of this process and so is Branson, just showing them how we can do this. What we do in Branson could be a model for the whole country.”
Already, there are lessons learned.
One of them, Doherty says, “is that the government isn’t evil. The people who work for the government are good people, even if they have to abide by silly rules. I can’t be angry at the EPA or at CDPHE or people who work for them. Those rules in place were put there for a good thing. Nobody wants towns to have contaminated, deadly water.”
Meanwhile, the mayor continues to widen the town’s appeal for assistance through social media, word of mouth and any other way she can think of. Mayor Snyder points out that the cause recently received its first international donation, from a far-flung Bransonite in England, that helped push the running total to $21,500.
“Which,” she notes, “in small-town world is a heck of a lot of bake sales.”