What can we do before the well runs dry?

Shawn Yoxey, a lawyer in Pueblo, is a member of the Pueblo City Schools Board of Education and serves on the board of directors the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Benjamin Franklin said, "Only when the well runs dry, do we learn the wealth of water." An Arabic Proverb stated, "Into the well from which you drink, do not throw stones," meaning care for the water upon which you depend.

"Dry Times-Growing Water Crises Seen in West," "Cities Hunt Water to Feed Growth," "Groundwater Overuse Tied to Fisheries" - titles of three April 15 articles by Chieftain reporter Chris Woodka -dealt with different events, but the message was clearly the same: The West is drying up due in huge part to overdevelopment of our water resources.

In the "Dry Times" article, Woodka reported climate changes are projected to reduce the amount of water available in the future. The ultimate price might be the quality of life in the West, not just the sustainability of the water supply.

In "Cities Hunt," he reported that water managers from Colorado Springs and Las Vegas, Nev., see their jobs as providing more supply to meet the demand, rather than looking at policies to limit growth.

Finally in "Groundwater Overuse," Woodka reported most fish don’t live underground, but the water underground is as important as the rivers, streams and lakes that fish do live in. In fact, a significant amount of base flows in rivers is made up of ground water, according to Melinda Kassen of Trout Unlimited.

Woodka noted Trout Unlimited's report, "Gone to the Well Once Too Often," on the importance of ground water in the West. The report details how well-pumping, if not regulated, can create economic and ecological disasters. Over-reliance on groundwater impairs water quality and in some areas has led to land subsidence.

Why am I bringing all this up?

Recently, good friends of mine brought me concerns about a development in Beulah that was in the planning stages and would soon be going before the Pueblo county commissioners for approval. This development includes drilling wells to provide domestic water for approximately 95 new homes.

Get something straight: I am not anti-development, nor am I against any person wanting to move to Beulah. I grew up there and, having experienced its beauty first hand, understand why many people love living in or want to move to Beulah.

I don’t necessarily consider myself to be an environmentalist or tree hugger. However, I do care about our environment. I care about how overdevelopment of the Pueblo area's precious water resources is going to impact water availability for our children and grandchildren.

So, I went in front of the county commissioners and expressed my concerns about how the cumulative effect of drilling all of these new residential wells was going to affect the surrounding wells, as well as water quality and quantity in the St. Charles River drainage.

The Chieftain reported the response of a developer of the proposed Beulah cluster development. His response basically was to assuage any fears those in Beulah or the St. Charles drainage may have.

He said an existing well on the property was producing steadily and other wells in the area that have no problems at present. One well appearing to produce steadily is not enough evidence.

I have no personal beef against the developer. In fact, under current Rural Land Use Plan regulations, he is probably doing everything the "right" way. He proposes to preserve another 1,100 acres of open space through a perpetual conservation easement.

But what about the water?

Of the 800-plus pages of water law on the books in Colorado, none protects aquifer integrity or tributary groundwater from the type of development likely to be realized in Beulah.

At a recent Arkansas River Basin Water Forum in Rocky Ford, I asked a panel of water conservancy district directors about when do we need to be concerned about cluster development affecting already-scarce water resources in the Arkansas Basin. The only panelist who attempted to reply was Terry Scanga of the Upper Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, for which I give him credit.

Despite the fact that Colorado courts have ruled that all ground water is presumed to be tributary to a natural stream, little attention is paid to the lack of real integration with surface water supplies. Some facts for consideration:

In the 1965 Groundwater Management Act, Colorado integrated the administration of tributary ground water and surface water rights because "if a well causes the level of underground water to be lower than that of the surface stream, the latter will drain into the former with consequent losses to the surface flow." - Fellhauer v. People, 447 P.2d 986, 989 (Colo. 1969).

Yet most private domestic wells, such as the ones that will be drilled as part of the Beulah development, are exempt from administration in the priority system and do not require an augmentation plan. - Private Wells for Home Use, Marx, Waskom & Wolfe, CSU Cooperative Extension, June 2006.

Ground water aquifers are recharged naturally through precipitation (which this area lacks) that filters through a recharge area, but the process is typically very slow, taking from decades to centuries.

If the withdrawal or pumping rate matches the recharge rate, the aquifer is a renewable resource; if the withdrawal rate exceeds recharge, the aquifer becomes a non-renewable resource. - Groundwater Law Sourcebook of the Western United States, Bryner and Purcell, University of Colorado School of Law, September 2003.

In 2002, this area experienced the worst drought in over 200 years. Beulah residents had no water despite never previously having problems pumping enough water from their wells for domestic use. They had to haul tanks of water to Beulah for residential use.

So, I ask again: At what point should we be concerned about development taking place in our own backyard which will, and does affect, the integrity not only of our ground water, but of our surface rivers and streams as well? Are we going to be proactive or reactive?