Unauthorized water well in Silverthorne causing stir
January 21, 2016
Water rights have increasingly become a critical issue throughout the western United States, and neither Colorado nor its townships are exempt.
A tiny local enclave known as the Tanglewood Village subdivision in Silverthorne is one of the latest examples of heightened scrutiny concerning water compliance to ensure all are following the rules. Residents of the 23-lot development north of Wildernest, and just east of the Silverthorne Recreation Center, were caught off guard when they were informed in June of 2014 that their common well drilled in the mid-1960s was operating without the required state permit.
"It's interesting," said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson. "How many decades did we all go without anybody in the state saying, 'Oh hey, there's a problem going on with this well'? A lot of early-on subdivisions and collections of homes (in Summit County), there was no other option but to drill a well to get water. We know those continue to exist out there, but most people even back then got a permit for their well."
Which is precisely why Tanglewood residents were a bit startled to hear they weren't up to code when Troy Wineland, the local district water commissioner, sent each a formal letter bringing the problem to their attention, seemingly out of nowhere.
"Obviously a lot of homeowners were surprised," explained Jim Lenzotti, a resident of Tanglewood since 1982, "but if you're involved in water law, you know it's complex, and it's just unfortunate. It slipped through cracks of the state, the original developers and the county. It's something we're dealing with now, but should have been dealt with when the subdivision was approved."
Estimates for getting into compliance and on the county water augmentation plan are imprecise at the moment, but if each homeowner chooses to take on optional outdoor use for, say, lawn watering, a hot tub or accessory dwelling, in addition to the necessary indoor access, it could cost as much as $5,000 per resident. While not a desirable situation for any party involved, Summit County is uniquely positioned to resolve the issue fairly painlessly, considering many regional territories don't possess their own water rights, and did not have the forethought to create a water plan of their own years ago.
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Summit County submitted its application to the state for its own water augmentation plan, basically a community strategy for acquiring and distributing water to residents, in 1995. It wasn't until May of 2004 that a judge signed and approved the decree allowing the blueprint to move forward as proposed, and allowing the county to maintain its own portfolio of water rights and storage for use.
"I'm familiar enough with other counties in Western Slope to know that lots of other places in Colorado would struggle to resolve this with the state," said Davidson. "People need to understand that we're fortunate the county was very forward thinking and over the decades has invested in water rights, the acquisition of a delivery system and reservoirs. Because of the augmentation plan we're well positioned to help these folks out to ensure the state doesn't shut off anyone's water supply."
Since 1992, after years of complicated negations with multiple parties, Summit County has owned rights to Clinton Gulch Reservoir, with its 4,447 acre-feet of capacity. It also owns the Old Dillon Reservoir, which the county increased in 2015 from 46 acre-feet to approximately 300, as well as a portion of the Dillon Reservoir.
Water and the rights associated with it are complicated.
"There's about as many deals on water around here as there's day in the year," said County Manager Gary Martinez.
The bare bones of it is that Troy Wineland stumbled across Tanglewood, an "oddball, little, carved-out development, not serviced by the town of Silverthorne," and became curious about the source of its water, Martinez said. Upon further inspection and notable research, no permit nor augmentation plan could be furnished and Wineland eventually warned the property owners as early as 2012 or 2013 that not addressing the issue sooner or later could result in a cease-and-desist of water usage.
The well in use was never designed for 23 properties — it serviced six or seven homes when the issue would have come under initial investigation some four decades ago when Colorado passed a new law a few years after the well was drilled. The Water Rights Determination and Administration Act of 1969, required a formal request and subsequent grandfather clause of those out of compliance before 1972. Additional considerations were made through 1977, but if an application was never submitted, that would not apply.
Following Wineland's notice, the Tanglewood Water Association hired water engineers and attorneys to assist with getting up to code, but the process has taken longer than anticipated and is still being worked out through the county.
"It's was a shock to them," said Martinez, "and it's a new expense to them, not one they understood they were going to have."
What neither Davidson nor Martinez say definitively is whether or not there are other instances of this type of flawed system functioning around the county. But it's a factor the county government is mindful of in helping Tanglewood residents. Whatever solution officials provide, it will set a precedent.
"We've never used our water augmentation plan to deal with a situation like this before," said Davidson, "so let's make sure that as we do all of this, we do it the right way. The goods news is the county, because of water augmentation plan, has a way to help them, and so that's certainly the direction we've given to our staff."
Wineland, meanwhile, is on the look-out for similar situations in Summit.
"Given my experience with wells in unincorporated areas, there's probably a handful of them out there," he said. "Stuff like this was not out of the ordinary or unusual. At that time it was OK to drill a well and service a couple properties, and put water to use that you needed. But it emphasizes the significance of the 1969 Act, because very late in the game they said, 'Hey, big, high-capacity wells have measurable impact on downstream senior water rights.'"
As for Tanglewood, Martinez has a Monday, Jan. 25, meeting with its water association in the hopes of getting the subdivision up to compliance and perhaps even offering either a waiver or at least a financing plan in doing so.
"We have the water to make things work well for them," he said, "and we're going to talk about how to make the deal down there, and we're happy to do this, to work with citizens of the county, and it puts everyone right back in the right position they need to be in. The county, under its augmentation plan, is the best way to go. That's what it boils down to."