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Kurt Huffman holds a self-closing valve and water meter June 5, 2020, that were among the items he donated to the Gillette Flats Spring Organization for the artesian spring that many Teller County residents rely on. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Two sophomores at the Colorado School of Mines designed a $564 system to allow an unclaimed but locally beloved artesian spring in Teller County to remain open.

Installation not included.

That is mostly because getting permission to install the few feet of connecting pipes, a water meter and a self-closing valve is among the last bureaucratic hurdles for the Gillette Flats Spring Organization.

But also because of the coronavirus, of course. The statewide shutdown closed the Mines campus and sent students Natalie Brooker and Dodd Weyandt to their homes in Colorado Springs and Plano, Texas, to finish out the semester.

“Our hope was to finish the project by helping to install it, but we didn’t get to because of COVID,” Weyandt said. “They were very happy with what we came up with.”

Gillette Flats Spring Organization members, left to right, Eric Running, Wendy Lee Sobisky and Tom Greive talk on June 5, 2020, near the artesian spring that many Teller County residents rely on. A plan is underway to install a $564 system to allow the Gillette Flats spring to remain open. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Finishing the work remotely, Team Hydration emailed the project to the Gillette Flats Spring group on April 27 and followed up with a Zoom meeting the next day.

“It’s a good little design that allows the water from the spring to go back to where it automatically would go,” said Toni Moore, secretary for the Gillette Flats Spring Organization. “You push down on a lever and get clean water for your bottle or jug – all of that water would be metered. Then we can take a look and see how many gallons that is and twice a year we will pay for that amount of water to be augmented.”

The community group has been working for nearly two years to save the spring bubbling up along Colorado 67 north of Cripple Creek.

MORE: Colorado said a quirky artesian mountain spring has to be capped. Residents are trying one last Hail Mary to save it.

It sits in a flat, ranchland area once home to Gillette, one of numerous mining towns that popped up during the 1890s as gold was discovered in Cripple Creek. And like most of the others, as mining dwindled in the early 1900s and the two World Wars ensued, the town was largely abandoned. Most of the town’s ruins were washed away on June 16, 1965, when an earthen dam above the town burst amid heavy rain that flooded much of the Front Range.

No one knows when the spring was discovered, or when a pipe was stuck in the ground to bring the water up to jug-filling level. A large stock tank mysteriously appeared under the pipe to capture water and allow anyone with a hose and pump to fill a 500-gallon tank in minutes.

Southern Teller County residents love the spring water, some swearing by its health benefits. Many came to rely on it, regularly filling jugs for drinking or making great coffee.

But in Colorado, there is no such thing as free water, so the state Water Division stepped in when it got wind people were taking enough water for all their domestic needs rather than drilling a well or buying it from a supplier.

“Hauling water away for domestic use, that’s the use that starts to consume water and take it out of the system,” Bill Tyner, the division engineer for Colorado’s Water Division 2, told The Sun in December 2018 after the state said it would cap the spring. 

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

Colorado water law is complex. But in the Gillette Flats Spring case, it boils down to a simple concept: If someone takes too much water from the free-flowing spring, downstream users in the Arkansas River basin who have legal rights to the water might not get enough.

Teller County resident Colton Peed fills containers at the Gillette Flats Spring near Cripple Creek. “It’s the best water I’ve ever tasted,” he said. He said he fills up a couple of times a week. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Teller County residents initially bristled at the idea that they might be stealing water and sprang into action to keep the spring open. But they soon realized that if they were going to fight the state they needed to know a lot more about the spring, who was getting water from it and what they were using it for.

Wendy Lee Sobisky of Victor led the charge, creating a Facebook group, starting a petition drive and enlisting others to help survey those filling up at the spring.

The state delayed the closure several times as the Water Division and the Colorado Department of Transportation, which owns the land where the spring comes out of the ground, worked with the Gillette Flats organization on a solution.

Under an agreement with the organization and Teller County, CDOT last year removed the stock tank. That means those filling 500-gallon tanks can no longer drop a hose in the tank, turn on a pump and in minutes carry away a large supply of water.

Moore said they can drive to suppliers in Divide and get bulk water for a few dollars.

That action resolved many Water Division concerns, according to an emailed statement from Tyner.

Now “water from the spring primarily runs back to the stream or seeps into the ground without substantial use so we have been patient with those who have been working to arrive at a long-term permanent solution to provide the final information necessary to get the plan approved by our agency as soon as they resolve their permit with CDOT,” he wrote.

“The water resource commission has really tried to work with us and be a good source of information,” Moore said. “We know we have to protect downstream.

“CDOT also has tried to be helpful with the permit process. For the most part most of the bureaucrats have been pretty good to work with. I’m disappointed with the nonprofits,” she said. “Still, we’re way further than anyone thought we were going to get with the spring.”

The CDOT special use permit to install the student-designed device and getting a nonprofit to take the Gillette Flats group under its wing are the two remaining hurdles, Moore said.

It is not the permit per se, but the insurance required to get it to work at the site. Installing the meter and self-closing spigot would likely take only an hour or so, Moore said, and the parts have been donated by Kurt Huffman of the Gillette Flats Spring Organization. But CDOT requires $1 million in liability insurance with any special-use permit.

Kurt Huffman holds a self-closing valve that was among the items he donated to the Gillette Flats Spring Organization for the artesian spring that many Teller County residents rely on. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A local company had agreed to add a short-term rider to its insurance policy but got scared off by the CDOT paperwork, Moore said.

The group also has contacted numerous Teller County nonprofits in search of one that will take it under its umbrella. Such an arrangement would allow it to take donations that could be used to offset the cost of paying for water augmentation, which Moore estimates to be less than $500 a year.

Under the augmentation plan with the state, the group would pay another water supplier, such as the Cripple Creek water treatment plant, to put water in the drainage that the spring runs into. Where precisely that water would go in remains under discussion, but the parties have agreed in concept.

Moore said the group could create a nonprofit, but there are dozens already in Teller County that work to preserve history and attend to community needs.

“Why spend $3,000 to set up a new nonprofit?” she said. “$3,000 would cover years and years of water. We have to find somebody who shares our vision.”

Some nonprofits have said the project doesn’t fit their mission – it seems it’s too much historic preservation or not enough, or too much charitable service or not enough, she said. Others have simply not responded to inquiries.

Moore said she believes participating in such a community project would benefit a nonprofit, and it wouldn’t cost them anything. It would simply provide the group with the structure it needs to raise and distribute money to keep the spring open.

Weyandt said he hopes the device he and Brooker designed for their required engineering design class can be installed soon. As the two students looked at five or six community project options, both were instantly drawn to the Gillette Flats proposal, he said. He’s majoring in petroleum engineering and Brooker is majoring in environmental engineering.

“It was something we were both passionate about and interested in,” Weyandt said.

“It was great to see that the community itself had already come together,” he continued, noting that much needed information had already been collected.

The students worked to ensure all legal and mechanical bases were covered with the design, including that the device will work in freezing temperatures, is sturdy and requires little technology or maintenance.

Moore said once the device is in place and all the agreements are sealed, she’d like to have a small celebration and hopes the student engineers can attend. Weyandt would like that, too: “I hope to see the spring sometime.”

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.