For a while, it looked like tiny Branson, home to 55 souls in the southernmost part of the state, might almost literally dry up and blow away, becoming a footnote to history.
Not surprisingly in the arid West, water loomed as the culprit. Not that the town ever lacked abundance. Springs in the nearby hills quenched the locals’ thirst for generations. But when the state health department tightened groundwater safety regulations, then found Branson’s purification system out of compliance, the news threatened its very existence.
One engineering report put the cost of fixing the problem, which stemmed from E. coli detection and the determination that the spring water was subject to contamination by surface water, at $1.2 million. Even with loans to cover a new water system that would serve the existing 29 customers, the debt burden promised to crush Branson into the dust, even though locals note that no one has ever reported a water-borne illness.
So, just about a year later, how can the town be planning a celebration?
Last week, Branson learned that that it will receive a state grant that pushes its own unconventional efforts — including a crowdsourcing campaign to raise funds — over the finish line. Only a few bureaucratic hurdles remain before the town begins construction of a new filtration system it discovered through a company just a couple hours away in Rocky Ford. The new system will both satisfy health department standards for purity and cost a tiny fraction of the original estimate.
By embracing the narrative of the rural underdog and adopting an unrelenting bootstrap mentality, Branson found a way, starting last April when it created a web site and began its appeal for contributions from current and former area residents, as well as anyone sympathetic to the plight of diminishing rural towns.
And, as Mayor Rachel Snyder readily admits, a strong element of serendipity also figured into the equation.
The Colorado Department of Local Affairs grant used a point system to determine who would receive money, and Branson’s individual efforts and circumstances aligned to check off a lot of the boxes. Then there was the discovery of Jack Barker’s Innovative Water Technologies, the small company right up the highway that specializes in inexpensive but effective water purification systems, primarily for third-world countries.
Timing also played a significant role: If Branson had applied for the round of grant funding prior to Gov. Jared Polis taking office, it would have missed out on some significant additional savings.
It all added up to a stunning victory for the once-bustling railroad stop that has receded to a quiet outpost whose only bustling activity occurs in the four-day school that serves families in the wide-open rangeland tucked between picturesque mesas and the distant Spanish Peaks.
“At some point,” Snyder said, “we will be popping the champagne cork. We’ll have to have some kind of party and celebration, but let’s get it done first.”
Just about a year ago, the town learned that its attempt to reverse the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s reclassification of its water supply — a last-ditch effort to avoid an expensive rebuild of its filtration system — had failed. But Branson would not succumb quietly.
With the fundraising spearheaded by Snyder, a relative newcomer to town, and mayor pro-tem Christine Louden, part of a local family with deep roots, Branson launched its pursuit of a $100,000 goal. That would cover the roughly $75,000 cost for the unit Innovative Water Technology introduced as an almost made-to-order solution for Branson’s purification issues.
The technology proved a godsend, since the town already had determined that taking on debt to install more conventional, and far more expensive, equipment simply wasn’t a viable option. Connecting with IWT in Rocky Ford, and then seeing the fundraising effort begin, gave Branson water commissioner Brad Doherty new hope that the water challenge could be met.
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“When we started the crowdsourcing efforts, going our own way, and dealt with fellows like Jack Barker directly instead of recommended state channels, I became more optimistic,” Doherty said. “Once we started down this path, I was confident it would come to pass. Once it’s done, it’ll be a load off everybody’s shoulders.”
Barker said that he’s still engaged in a back-and-forth permitting conversation with the CDPHE, but doesn’t see “any major snags that can’t be worked through. Sometimes they come up with valid concerns, but we’ve been through this so many times, I think now it’s just a matter of making sure it’s the perfect water system for the town when it’s completed.”
Basically as soon as Branson secures the funds and places the order, he’s ready to begin production. The timeline for building the purification unit in Rocky Ford is about four weeks, though completion of the structure that will house it, which will be built by a tiny-house manufacturer, remains uncertain.
Barker said he’d hoped that the project would be approved in time to move forward during the summer months but stands prepared to do whatever needs to be done.
IWT has gotten lots of inquiries from small water systems trying to figure out creative ways to finance the equipment. Barker said he has spoken with lenders about getting equipment approved for low-interest financing in much the same way farmers and ranchers do, but hasn’t had much luck yet.
“I think in time we’ll be able to help people out there,” he said. “It’s a unique thing Branson did, and I commend their hard work and effort and ingenuity to focus on a problem and never say never.”
The fortuitous timing of the grant, which followed Polis taking the governor’s office, means that Branson will net more money than it originally requested, Snyder said. IWT’s design incorporates both wind and solar power to run the water purification station, which dovetails with the governor’s focus on renewable energy.
The initial request for $50,000 required a $50,000 match, but since the project included renewable energy sources, the match was reduced, DOLA Deputy Director Natriece Bryant said. It became a grant for $67,500 with a match of $22,500. After raising $30,000 through its web site for the Branson Water Worth Protecting Upgrade Project, the town has some cushion.
The grant is part of the $12 million Renewable and Clean Energy Challenge stemming from Polis’ goal for Colorado to use 100% renewable energy by 2040.
DOLA says the technology was recently approved by the state health department but the permit still needs approval. Meanwhile, the contracting with DOLA is underway.
The crowdfunding rolled in from all sorts of donors — from local ranchers who pitched in significant chunks to $10 donations from all over the country. After a quick start, the project started to lose steam, as did Snyder and Louden, around midsummer. Though well short of the original goal, the town did raise about $30,000.
Branson officials huddled with their regional manager from the state Department of Local Affairs, Tara Marshall, and began looking at grants.
“They told us it would be really competitive, that they have a point system,” Snyder recalled. “We were just able to put together the application and hit on a lot of the important factors.”
These encompassed things like the degree of need, measurable outcomes, readiness to proceed and the project’s relationship to community goals. It turned out the application won extra points for the crowdfunding program.
Scott Thomas, a Highlands Ranch-based water circuit rider for the Colorado Rural Water Association, which provides training and support for small water systems, said that having that additional money to offer as matching funds proved key to winning the grant.
“Everybody wants free grant money, but that’s hard to come by,” he said. “Without matching funds, it would have been a far greater battle, and they might have had to incur more debt on top of what they had. With that few ratepayers, even the slightest bit of debt is a big deal. So matching funds were an absolute foundation for all of this.”
Snyder said they never considered that the crowdfunding money might come in handy as matching funds to a state grant. The big motivator was to keep the town from incurring more debt.
“We held fast and that’s what’s been driving us,” she said. “While we were raising $30,000 and having people give gifts from all over the country, we didn’t have a five-person team working social media. The town council is all volunteer. Everybody here wears lots of hats. We pushed it hard.”
Among the big donors were a savings and loan from Trinidad that chipped in $5,000, a handful of ranchers who pitched in $1,000 each, regional electric and livestock associations that also gave $1,000, and the local school district. Smaller donations, many with heartfelt notes attached, came in from all over the country.
“All the lovely tributes we’ve collected from people, who gave money in honor of ancestors, or their children, we’ll also find some way to have a wall of honor or something,” Snyder said. “That will come later. First, we need to get the executed contract, then actually do the work.”
Still, the announcement raised spirits in Branson when the locals learned their persistence and creativity have paid off.
“It’s been cool,” Doherty said. “This last push goes to Rachel and Christine, they’ve been the ones getting our ducks in a row with funding sources. It’s good to see that we’re rounding third, with home in sight.”
Branson also had sought a grant from the El Pomar Foundation, but withdrew from consideration once the DOLA grant came through.
“It’s not a massive construction project,” Snyder said. “If Mother Nature treats us right, it’s possible this could be done before too long.”
Thomas, who travels all over the region helping rural water districts deal with meeting the more stringent new safety standards, figures that the Branson model could become a template for some of them — though so far, he hasn’t seen anyone replicate their approach.
“I haven’t seen anybody follow their lead yet, but it’s a pretty new story,” Thomas said. “I’m sharing it far and wide. ”
At the very least, it’s nearly a fairytale ending for the community.
“More than anything, we’ve breathed a collective sigh of relief,” Snyder said. “We’re not dancing in the streets yet. But we’ll be toasting the day with sweet Branson water.”
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