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Wesley Wigfall, of Colorado Springs, fills up a water jug at the Gillette Flats spring in Teller County on June 19, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

TELLER COUNTY — Nearly three months after the deadline state officials set to cap it, Wesley Wigfall pulled up to Colorado’s quirkiest water source with a car full of 5-gallon jugs.

He’s been making this trip every two or three weeks for years, driving up the windy roads from his home in Colorado Springs to an artesian spring that flows from a pipe in the shadow of Pikes Peak. He has tap water at home, but the taste and smell have never suited him or his wife. Hence, the jugs — roughly 50 gallons worth that he filled up on a recent day.

“This was absolutely the best thing that ever happened to us since we moved here, being able to find some mountain-fresh water,” he said.

But it’s water that, technically, is not legal for anyone to take. Under Colorado’s strict system of water rights and appropriations, every water use needs an official stamp of approval. Nothing comes free.

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Within this system, the spring at Gillette Flats, just a few miles outside the gaming town of Cripple Creek, is a glitch. There is no water right for it, no legal decree. No one claims ownership of it. No one can even say who stuck the pipe into the ground to harness it — or when. There is perhaps nothing like it in all of Colorado.

Last year, amid historically dry conditions, state officials said the spring would have to be capped unless residents could come up with a plan to make it legal. People taking water from the spring were robbing water from rights-holders downstream, state officials reasoned.

Tense meetings and feverish planning ensued. Residents of Teller County and beyond said they felt the state was trying to take away part of Colorado’s mountain heritage.

And now, months after the April 1 deadline the state set to cap the spring, residents are trying a Hail Mary — one that currently seems hung up in the winds of bureaucracy, unclear where it will land.

Residents say they have a plan to bring the spring into Colorado’s water system, but state water officials say the plan falls short. Water officials say they are working with the Colorado Department of Transportation to remove a stock tank that captures water from the spring, which sits on a sliver of CDOT right-of-way next to Colorado 67. CDOT says it is waiting to hear what comes of residents’ efforts to preserve the spring. Residents say they can’t move forward with their plan because of a CDOT requirement for anyone working on agency property to carry $1 million of liability insurance.

In the meantime, dozens of people a day continue to stop at the spring to fill up jugs both large and small, maybe their last drops of free water.

“We’ve really been hoping and praying they would not bother it,” Wigfall said.

Wesley Wigfall carries a jug back to his car after filling up at the Gillette Flats spring in Teller County on June 19, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

In the grand scheme of things, this is a fight over a tiny amount of water.

Last winter, people who want the spring to stay open organized their efforts into a group called the Gillette Flats Spring Organization. Members of the group stood out in the cold and collected information on everybody who pulled up to the spring, how much water they took, where they were from and what they were going to do with it.

Almost everyone said they were using the water for domestic use. Twenty percent of people said they didn’t have access at home to a water source, either a well or a municipal water system. The average user took 38 gallons per stop.

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

Based on the results, the organization estimated a number: 483,732 gallons a year. That’s the amount of water people were taking from the spring, or about 1.5 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre a foot deep, an amount that can supply roughly four households a year.) For comparison, Denver Water currently has more than a half million acre-feet stored in its reservoirs.

For the spring to stay open, the group has to replace the water taken out of the system — so that downstream users aren’t hurt by people using the spring. That should be no problem, group members said. Toni Moore, the group’s secretary, said it might cost only $500 to $2,000 a year to buy the water.

“If we have a big chicken dinner, we’ll have the money to buy the water,” she said.

But it’s also not that simple.

State rules require the group to replace the water in the right place. In the plan that it submitted to the state, the group said it would replace the water by purchasing cleaned water discharged from Cripple Creek’s water treatment plant.

In their reply, state officials said that won’t work. In addition to disputing how the group calculated the amount of water it would need to replace, state officials said they believe the spring is a tributary to Beaver Creek, which trickles off the west and south slopes of Pikes Peak. Water discharged by the water treatment plant eventually ends up in Fourmile Creek. Both waterways ultimately go into the Arkansas River — but at different places.

“Fully consumable effluent purchased from Cripple Creek Sewer Plant would not be able to be released in the location where it would be needed,” the state wrote in its letter.

A water jug being filled up at the Gillette Flats spring in Teller County on June 19, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

Moore said she’s not so sure that the spring does feed Beaver Creek and still thinks the group’s water-replacement plan can work. But that’s also not what she’s most concerned about.

The group’s plan calls for removing the stock tank, putting in meters and limiting the spring’s flow to only a couple of gallons a minute. This would allow people to fill up small jugs, she said, but not gigantic water tanks that the state was most concerned about.

To do the work on the spring, though, CDOT requires a permit. And to get the permit, the group has to have that $1 million in liability insurance.

“They are very diligent about protecting their property,” Moore said.

A CDOT spokeswoman said the agency is doing its best to work with the group. But Moore said the insurance rule is a back-breaker for residents, who are operating entirely on donations. Bill Tyner, the state water division engineer who oversees the region, said water officials are working with CDOT on a plan for the site.

“The best that I can tell,” Moore said, “if people want the spring open, the less attention we can give it, the better. … Right now, people are still able to get water. So I’m happy.”

But, in the meantime, another member of the group has crafted her own just-crazy-enough-to-work plan to save the spring.

A truck drives by the Gillette Flats spring in Teller County on June 19, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

Wendy Lee Sobisky was one of the first people to step forward when state officials announced the spring would be capped. She helped organize the petition drive and set up some of the earliest meetings.

And now she thinks the spring’s best chance for survival may be designating it a historic landmark.

People have been drinking its water for decades, she said. Gillette Flats used to host a large town and, infamously, was the site of Colorado’s one and only bullfight.

“I think there’s enough story behind it to make that happen,” Sobisky said.

She believes state officials might be more inclined to let the spring run if it has historic status. But, right now, after trying to navigate Colorado’s famously complex rules for water, she’s just starting to dive into a whole new set of rules — and trying to convince others to join her.

“I need community support,” she said. “Without community support, it’s teetering. It’s 50/50 whether it’s going to close or not.”

John Ingold

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...