A Journalist's Archive

Paper Water is Hard to Swallow
By Kathy Hare

                    Clicking from one news program to another on June 22, I noticed they were all delivering the same message.  People living in Cimarron Hills and the Claremont Ranch subdivisions were ordered to stop all outside watering immediately because Cherokee Metropolitan District's water supplies were dangerously low.           

          A press release issued by CMD said the water shortage was caused by "residents watering more than twice weekly in violation of the established policy."  

          At first my blood began to boil, then I laughed as my mind conjured up pictures of women sneaking around outside in their curlers and nightgowns moving hoses.  I wondered just how many residents are colliding in the dark, as they go about stealthily watering their lawns.  But my laughter was only a release mechanism because I realized the seriousness of the situation, and I sincerely believe the water shortage was caused by more than mere over-watering. 

          One day soon this area may experience a major economic collapse because subdivisions have been built on "paper water rights" with little scientific data to show how many of those rights will actually produce a glass of water. 

          That's the real news story, but it doesn't fit into 30 second sound bites and CMD isn't writing press releases about it, so the television news media has never reported that part of the story.

          When a person applies for a determination of water rights, the Office of the State Engineer determines the amount of water available for use based on a formula that takes into account the amount of land owned and the number of aquifers that exist under that land.      Those paper rights do not reflect the actual amount of water a well will produce. 

          Large landowners all over this state have tons of paper water rights that say they can pump thousands of acre feet of water each year.  Water providers and developers buy up those rights, apply for the proper permits, drill wells, and then ship the water off to urban areas where it is needed.

          Because of growing pressure to develop more and more subdivisions in the state, those "paper water rights" are often leased, sold, or traded before wells are ever drilled.

          Cherokee's first water crisis happened because the "paper water rights" in their Sweetwater Wells, located south of Ellicott, did not deliver enough real water.  So when CMD couldn't meet its water commitments in eastern El Paso County, they used an additional eight wells in the Upper Black Squirrel Basin to make-up for the shortfall. 

          But on November 27, 2006, the Colorado Supreme Court ordered CMD to stop exporting water from those eight wells.  That water supply can only be used within the UBS Basin and was not allowed to be exported to developments on the edge of Colorado Springs.  According to figures in the Supreme Court decision, that left CMD with a water shortage of 1537 acre feet per year.   

          Then earlier this year, Steve Hammers, of Hammers Construction, asked El Paso County Commissioners to approve a final plat plan for the Claremont Business Park.  At first county commissioners were reluctant to do so, but CMD officials assured the commissioners that water for the business park was being supplied by Rodney Preisser, through the "Kane water right."  CMD's water distribution system would only be used to pump the water into the park.

          The Kane water right allows 200 acre feet of water to be pumped annually.   However, the Upper Black Squirrel Creek Management District Board wrote a formal letter informing the county that the Kane well was filled with concrete. 

          Plus, after reading through the documents involved in the deal it became clear no additional water sources were being developed.  Water rights were being exchanged.  A three-way deal had Hammers paying Preisser for water, and paying CMD to "wheel" the water to the park.  In exchange CMD water commitments to Preisser were reduced, but they hadn't been delivering most of that water anyway.  Not one drop of additional water was actually being pumped from the ground to supply the business park.

          Frantically, I called the county attorney's office, reminding them that no actual water could be pumped from the Kane well.   I was informed that the county regularly approves development based on paper water rights, and the county commissioners went on to approve the final plat.

          In my estimation, CMD now has a water shortage of 1737 acre feet of water per year.        Still, CMD manages to juggle its water supplies in order to deliver water to all its customers during the winter; it's only during hot summer months when water demands increase that residents in Cimarron Hills and Claremont Ranch find themselves with little water to irrigate their lawns.

          I'm not picking on CMD; it's only my position on the UBSCGWMD board that allows me to understand what is actually happening.  Recently there have been reports of water shortages in both Palmer Lake and Monument; I can't help but wonder if their problems can also be attributed to "paper water rights."

          The policy of building homes based on paper water rights should be stopped before an economic decline far greater than the Savings and Loan fiasco of the 1980's occurs.  Developments should be built only after the state can confirm the amount of "real" water available for residents.

          As the customers of CMD could tell you, paper water doesn't irrigate a lawn.  And I'm betting paper water is awfully hard to swallow.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2007 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
All Rights Reserved