Summit County owners of exempt wells must be in compliance
May 10, 2014
If you live in an unincorporated part of Summit County, you soon might see Troy Wineland knocking on your neighbors' doors. And depending on where your water comes from and how you use it, he might be coming for you.
As water commissioner for District 36 of the state Division of Water Resources, Wineland manages water rights in the Blue River basin. This runoff season, he will focus on getting residents using "exempt wells" illegally to change their ways.
"I'm just continually optimistic," he said, that "if given the information people will make better choices, the right choices."
Of the county's 2,500 wells, three-quarters are exempt, meaning the prior appropriation system that governs Colorado water rights doesn't apply to them.
For the unfamiliar, that system started with the California gold rush. In times of shortage, those who staked water claims first have seniority. Junior water rights holders must limit or stop their use until senior rights are satisfied.
Unlike most of the Eastern U.S., which has plenty of water to go around, Colorado's annual precipitation averages a dry 15 to 20 inches, a number that would be much lower if not for more than 100 inches of snow (mostly air) that falls in the mountains.
"Every winter we look up on the mountain and we see that white reservoir," Wineland said, "but the extent of that white reservoir is deceptive."
Exempt wells aren't shut off during shortages because they require special sewage systems that return used water to the ground. If done properly, the water loss is about 5 percent, which the law says isn't enough to impact those with senior water rights.
Permits for exempt wells say water must be used only inside the walls of a single-family housing unit and restrict the amount used per year. Owners can pay to use water in ways that violate their permit as long as they augment the water, or ensure that the used water won't affect the surrounding watershed and senior water rights.
In the next six weeks, Wineland will knock on hundreds of doors where people without the right permits are irrigating, filling hot tubs or using water in other illegal ways. If the well owners are home, he'll talk with them about the rules and why they're important.
"You have to back out from the micro level. 'Oh, this is my own little fiefdom, and what I do here is not going to affect anyone else,'" he said. Remember the long-term drought and projected shortages, he said. Think about the hundreds of nearby wells and cumulative impact on local streams and rivers. They feed the Colorado River, which supplies seven states.
He'll explain the options: Stop the illegal use or get an augmentation contract. Most people are responsive, he said. They just didn't know or didn't think it was important.
In a couple of weeks, if well owners haven't done anything, he'll issue a courtesy warning and deadline. After that deadline, violators will receive an injunction and be fined for unpermitted uses: $500 a day.
People who contact Wineland by July 1 with the necessary information will have until June 1, 2015, to get into compliance.
"I'm going to put it in their hands and say, 'Hey, you can do this on your own time line,'" he said, "'or if I come and knock on your door, you can adhere to my time line,' which is much tighter, more than likely 30 days."
To contact Wineland, call (970) 355-4516 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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