Are Wells Really the Solution? What Do You Do When Groundwater Might Actually Be the Solution?

By Katherine E. Rider, AICP

Historically, many citizens in Douglas County, Colorado have relied on non-renewable underground aquifers for much of their water supply. Over time, the number of Douglas County homes on individual wells has increased along with the population.  Area water providers and citizens understand the implications of depending upon a non-renewable water supply to adequately support the type of growth Douglas County has experienced since the early 2000s.   As a result, the Douglas County Board of County Commissioners prioritizes partnering with the County’s water providers to secure renewable and dependable water supplies for its citizens.  

So, what does a staff person do when a community decides that non-renewable groundwater wells are the solution for their water service needs?  It creates an opportunity to be an empathic public official that utilizes innovative approaches to solve problems, rather than act as an administrator that leans on regulations to put up roadblocks in response to community needs.  

The Douglas County Manager faced a complex community dilemma and responded by enlisting a mediator and multiple staff people with different specialties to work with one residential community called Bald Mountain Estates to address a water service dilemma.  An innovative approach that set the stage and expectation to work outside the typical regulatory role and approach this multi-year project in non-traditional ways. 


Good Intentions Lead to Unintended Consequences

In the 1950s, the Colorado Baptist General Convention of Colorado, a private non-secular institution, purchased a 658-acres of mountain retreat area in the southernmost part of Douglas County.  This Southern Baptist religious camp retreat is known as “The Ponderosa.” The original plan for the property was to have residential lots available for purchase and vacation use by its members. These lots were platted in 1960 and are now referred to as Bald Mountain Estates. Over time, The Ponderosa members sold the residential lots to private owners and many of them are now developed by people who are not members of the church.

When Bald Mountain Estates was zoned for residential uses in 1960, zoning regulations required central water service.   In the 1960’s, this non-secular religious camp qualified as the water provider and built the water service infrastructure.  A private covenant was put in place to ensure The Ponderosa was committed to providing services. Since then, an entity that is focused on providing religious retreats has provided water services for the Bald Mountain Estates residents.  Over time, the good intention of creating a retreat for church members led to unintended consequences of managing an aging water system and strained customer relations.  

The average monthly water fee was $90, which was far too little to maintain a water system that serves close to 50 homes. The cost of maintenance and repairs to the aging infrastructure was becoming too onerous for residents and The Ponderosa to address without other funding sources. It was at this time that executives from The Ponderosa came to the Douglas County Community Development Department with the intent to form a metropolitan district to fund repairs to the aging water infrastructure.  

The structure of the proposed district was such that The Ponderosa’s headquarter property comprised the entirety of the district boundary, and the community would be provided services through an extraterritorial service agreement. Community Development staff encouraged public outreach from the outset, but The Ponderosa representatives waited until about two weeks before the County Commissioners’ hearing to conduct public outreach.   This approach with the community, and the structure of the metropolitan district, fueled the homeowners’ mistrust of The Ponderosa and its ability to professionally provide water services. 

As a result, many residents spoke against the proposed district at the public hearing.  Noting the lack of public involvement solicited by The Ponderosa, it reinforced concerns that they would have no say in the administration of the district. The County Commissioners voted against the proposed district and it was not created.

Continued Need to Address an Aging Water System

Despite this outcome, The Ponderosa still faced providing water services to the homeowners in Bald Mountain Estates.  Since 2014, when the County Commissioners denied the metropolitan district application, Douglas County staff has worked with the homeowners and The Ponderosa to mend the relationship, facilitate collaborative problem-solving, and develop alternative options for water service.  Knowing the history of mistrust between the residents and The Ponderosa, the County Manager hired a professional mediation service in 2015 in hopes of creating constructive conversations.

This led to the creation of a “water solutions committee” consisting of six homeowners and three representatives from The Ponderosa. This committee met regularly for two years and spent hours on relationship building while researching multiple water service options for the residents consideration.  The options included revisiting the creation of a new metropolitan district, drilling wells, continuing the existing water service arrangement with The Ponderosa or joining another existing district in an adjacent county.

The committee also held meetings with the larger group of homeowners to inform them of potential water service options, answer questions, and propose ways to select a water service option.  Subject matter experts, like the health department, the state water resources office and the local fire department participated to educate the residents of potential pitfalls and requirements associated with implementing a selected solution.  During all of this, the need to address an aging water system was always in the residents’ thoughts due to on-going water line breaks in the neighborhood. 

Community meeting addressing The Ponderosa (courtesy Kati Rider)

Community meeting addressing The Ponderosa (courtesy Kati Rider)

Ad-Hoc Self Governing

The residents held a formal election to select a water service solution.  If the water service solution was chosen by the homeowners, and not The Ponderosa executives, then it could foster community buy-in and instill a sense of integrity in the process.

In January 2017, The Ponderosa Executive Director and four Bald Mountain Estates residents volunteered to establish an election team tasked with carrying out the community vote.  The Ponderosa hired an attorney to guide this process and develop a ballot. Ranked choice voting was utilized so that residents could identify their preferred water service solutions in order of preference and remove the need for multiple elections. The community’s initial reaction was to reject this concept as it was perceived to discount votes for certain service options.  Again, some homeowners simply did not trust the process and presumed a pre-determined option had already been selected by The Ponderosa or the County. It took additional explanation, including a You Tube video tutorial, for residents to better understand ranked voting and to be reassured that all votes would be counted fairly. To instill even more trust in the process, the neighboring County’s Clerk and Recorder’s office was enlisted to conduct the election.

This preparatory work resulted in 90% voter turnout and individual wells was selected as the preferred solution by 82%.  But had the homeowners crossed the finish line? Now the real work began to implement this solution.

The Perfect Regulatory Storm

Homeowners were required to address zoning requirements that precluded the use of individual wells for a water supply.  Something the residents were made aware of during the initial discovery process but did not dissuade them from selecting it as the solution.  

Staff examined multiple ways to resolve this zoning requirement, all of which came with their own potential unresolved issues.  After additional research, staff utilized a provision in the zoning code that enables the County Commissioners to waive certain standards in the code; in this case, a two-acre minimum lot size to use individual wells.  The lots in Bald Mountain Estates are one-acre and the homeowners use individual septic systems; the lots are considered too small for both a well and septic system. The waiver tool is not utilized very often but can be a useful solution in a unique circumstance like Bald Mountain Estates when life, safety and welfare issues can be properly addressed.  

Given that a central water facility was required, The Ponderosa felt a continued obligation to address water services and applied for the waiver on behalf of the residents. This included obtaining input from agencies, like the local fire department and health department, to address the life, safety, and welfare issues that are the impetus for zoning.  Most of these agencies had also been engaged in this process since 2014. 

Not knowing that individual wells would be the chosen solution, the health department had not highlighted a major regulatory conflict until the waiver application was in process.  Health department and state water regulations regarding the separation distance between wells and septic systems did not fit together. One agency measured it vertically, while the other measured it horizontally, resulting in additional variances necessary to address the discrepancies.

The institutional history of the health department is one where variances were not utilized often and could raise the ire of the Board of Health officials.  Concerned about the potential for multiple hearings for variance considerations on each individual property, health department staff was forced to think creatively.  They proposed a concept to the Board that enabled staff to administratively review the variances and implement specific well design standards established partnership with the Board and state water resources office.  A one-time subdivision-wide variance that provided flexibility at the staff level. The Board agreed to this approach and Bald Mountain Estates homeowners began drilling wells in the Fall of 2018; almost half of the homeowners have completed wells at this time.

Well rig drilling in the neighborhood.

Well rig drilling in the neighborhood.

This regulatory squall enabled multiple agencies to take non-traditional, non-bureaucratic approaches to address community needs.  Staff employed innovative approaches to solve problems, rather than act as administrators that may use the regulations to put up roadblocks to community requests.  

Main Takeaways

Very rarely are county staff people challenged with a conundrum where an entire community must address an aging water supply system, made even more complex by the need to repair community relationships.  Over the past five years, Douglas County remained engaged in a process to build community capacity and provide technical support to help citizens navigate various policies and regulations to address their own needs.  All led by the Douglas County Manager who took a risk and set the stage for an innovative approach to a long-term civic, and civil, engagement process.  

By investing in professional mediation services to establish positive community relationships, community members were emboldened to take the reins and solve their water service needs.  County staff was expected to help navigate the various policy questions or help overcome obstacles, rather than pre-determine the “best” solution. This included engaging with the Board of County Commissioners and County Manager through the process to keep them apprised of potential outcomes based on the community’s input.  Knowing that wells could be the County’s least preferred option, staff continued to check in with the elected officials to ensure this process could stay on track to meet the community’s needs and desire.

Douglas County employee on site for the first well to be drilled in 2018.

Douglas County employee on site for the first well to be drilled in 2018.

From a staff perspective, this venture provided valuable lessons.  First, allow the process to play out and do not assume to know the ideal outcome.  Second, never stop anticipating additional issues that may require creative solutions.  Finally, create an environment with the community and other agencies to establish a positive, collaborative partnership – get invested. Enlist the subject matter experts to help in this process but it’s equally important to invest time in creating strong working relationships with stakeholders.  This requires time to manage expectations and understanding the institutional approach other agencies take to unique issues. In doing this, it is possible to create a shared purpose resulting in a positive outcome.

A five-year process such as this has its ups and downs, which can wear heavy on those involved, but staying rooted in the civic process does have a pay-off – the true appreciation from a few citizens that felt local government worked for them.   In the end, the community got what it wanted, but of course, those of us involved may never get away from being known as the few that advocated for groundwater wells in a county that focuses on promoting access to surface water and renewable water solutions.

About the Author: Katherine E. Rider, AICP, is a Planning Manager for Douglas County Community Development and has worked in the County for 13 years.

Paul Moberly