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The fierce fight over an artesian spring in southern Colorado provides a glimpse of coming water wars

The state says the spring at Gillette Flats in Teller County breaks the law. Locals say they depend on it.

Chris Becker of Georgetown, Texas, fills a container at the Gillette Flats natural artesian spring Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. Efforts are underway to keep the spring open along Colorado 67 on the way to Cripple Creek. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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TELLER COUNTY — Until Colorado water authorities announced a plan to cap it and locals started a petition drive to save it, the little spring at Gillette Flats never inspired much reflection.

No one knows when someone first stuck a pipe in the ground to tap the water burbling up a few miles north of Cripple Creek. No one knows who pulled up a stock tank to capture it.

But the spring over the years became just another part of the local landscape — as free to enjoy as the county’s soaring views of Pikes Peak.

Then, amid a severe drought this year and worries of even worse water shortages in the future, the state in September declared that the spring is illegal. It would have to be shut down.

“No one really has stepped forward with evidence that there ever was a permit or decree for it,” said Bill Tyner, the division engineer for Colorado’s Water Division 2, which covers the Arkansas River basin. “We’ve got dozens, if not hundreds, of people who claim they’ve used water from the well but no one who has stepped forward and said, ‘That’s mine; I own that.’”

The ensuing fight over the Gillette Flats spring shows what happens when the state’s historic laws for apportioning water crash head-on into community sentiment over what it means to live in Colorado.

With prolonged drought becoming the norm, it will hardly be the last time.

To officials at Colorado’s Division of Water Resources, the debate over the spring is not a close call. The spring sits just off Colorado 67 on land owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation — which doesn’t want responsibility for it. The owner of the surrounding land says it’s not his.

The state doles out water based on an orderly queue of rights. So, to state regulators, taking water you don’t have a right to isn’t just cutting in line, it’s like skipping the line and breaking in through a back door.

But, to locals, capping the spring is akin to shuttering part of their community. People depend on the water from the spring, they say. But their arguments for keeping it open also spiral into broader concerns, over the rising cost of living and increased crowding and a looming sense that the Colorado they grew up in — or moved to — is vanishing.

“It’s taking away the ambiance of what Colorado is,” said Wendy Lee Sobisky, who lives in the nearby town of Victor and is leading the campaign to keep the spring open. “I didn’t come here from California to see it look like California.”

The Gillette Flats natural artesian spring sits along Colorado 67 on the way to Cripple Creek at mile marker 57, and for decades area folks have free access to fill up all manner of containers. The Colorado Division of Natural Resources has announced that the spring will remain open until April 2019. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

And this fight is being waged over a relatively small amount of water.

Tyner estimated that the spring produces no more than 15 gallons of water a minute — about the same as a good-producing residential well. The majority of that, though, likely overflows the stock tank and soaks back into the ground, returning to the water supply. Some gets flushed down drains or toilets, going back to streams via water treatment systems. All told, Teller County residents and visitors might be consuming only an acre-foot of water a year from the spring — in a state that measures its total downstream obligations in millions of acre-feet.

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

For a long time, it was little enough that the state turned a blind eye. But Tyner said a 2017 article in the Colorado Springs Gazette showed that some locals had begun using the spring as an alternative to drilling their own wells or buying water from a supplier. (The Gazette was also the first to report earlier this year on the spring’s planned closure.)

There was sometimes a line at the spring. People brought huge tanks and used motorized pumps to fill up.

“Hauling water away for domestic use, that’s the use that starts to consume water and take it out of the system,” he said.

The fact that Colorado was in a drought year only heightened the stakes. Tyner said there are plenty of permitted water rights owners in the Arkansas basin who got no water this year because those with more senior rights took all that was available. Though it wasn’t a huge amount of water, the Gillette Flats spring likely took a little bit more from those playing by the rules, Tyner said.

So the state made an announcement: The spring would be capped.

And that’s when the fight really began.

Andy Coron of Colorado Springs fills containers at the Gillette Flats natural artesian spring Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. Coron said he collects water each time he drives past the spring on the way to Cripple Creek casinos. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Inside the historic Florissant Grange hall, two dozen people in the audience stared forward with incredulous expressions.

Before them, Tyner and two other district water officials tried to explain the decision to cap the spring.

“As citizens of Colorado,” he said at the meeting, which took place in late October, “if you want to have water for your homes, it’s probably going to cost you something. You’ve had a unique system where it didn’t cost you as much. But people in Colorado have to pay for water.”

The crowd grew increasingly restless.

Audience members accused the state of trying to strong-arm the poor. They accused local water districts of greed because capping the spring could bring in new customers.

Told that it would cost people tens of thousands of dollars each to drill new domestic wells at their homes, one woman asked: “How do you expect people to fork over the cost of a new car just to get water when they can get it now for free?”

To Tyner’s explanation of the water rights system, a man asked: “Why do we think that all of Denver owns all of our water and all of Colorado Springs owns the rest of the water?”

The voices in the Grange echoed much of the public outcry over the spring’s planned closure.

After Sobisky started an online petition to keep the spring open, more than 3,000 people signed their names to it. In comments on the petition site, people wrote about childhood visits to the spring or the need to preserve a free water source for the poor. They lamented what they believe Colorado is becoming.

“Water is sacred,” one woman wrote.

And, back in the Grange hall, Sobisky tended to agree.

“I know Colorado has this whole water rights thing going on with legal beagles,” she said. “But I just don’t understand it. It’s a natural spring.”

Wendy Lee Sobisky is leading up a change.org petition to keep the Gillette Flats natural artesian spring open along Colorado 67 on the way to Cripple Creek. She was photographed at the spring Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One agreement did come out of the meeting: A potential way to preserve the spring, legally.

An initial shutdown date in November has already been pushed back to April. But Tyner told the crowd that, if they could come up with a plan to replace the water they take from the spring, the state could issue the spring a permit and bring it permanently into the water rights system.

It wouldn’t be easy. Such plans — called augmentation plans — require detailed research, a good chunk of money to buy replacement water rights elsewhere and lots of work in water court.

Sobisky has created a new Facebook group and begun, with others, conducting surveys out at the spring. She needs to know how many people are using water from the spring, how much they’re taking, where they’re taking it and what they’re using it for. Likely more than $30,000 needs to be raised.

But she’s optimistic — and a little chastened.

“I do get the reasons of augmentation, because the people living in lower elevations south from the spring do need all they can get,” she wrote on the Facebook group’s page shortly after the meeting. “When word first got out, reactions spoke for themselves including my own. At the moment of shock, we just don’t take others into consideration right off the bat and now, my heart pours out for these people.”

The group has also picked up a newly powerful ally. Incoming state Rep. Mark Baisley, a Republican, attended the meeting in Florissant when he was still just a candidate and vowed to help with the augmentation plan as best he can — as long as everyone works together.

“It’s an issue that evokes some feelings,” he said then. “Water is life.”


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Water flows from a pipe at the Gillette Flats natural artesian spring Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. The spring sits along Colorado 67 on the way to Cripple Creek at mile marker 57. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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