Conserving Aquifer Water for Elbert County's Future
Over the past few years, Elbert County (EC) has taken several actions to support the conservation of our water supply. Almost every resident of EC receives their water either directly (individual private wells) or indirectly (water district, community well, or municipal water service) from the bedrock aquifers below us. As our population grows, it is natural that concerns over our future water supply are raised.
Our Current Water Supply:
In 2015, we received a state grant to conduct a countywide Rural Water Supply Study, originally envisioned as a study focused on the costs and feasibility of bringing renewable water by pipeline into the county. In late 2016, we awarded a contract for the study. In 2017, we modified its primary focus to determining the adequacy of our current water supply.
Based on existing USGS aquifer data, current usage data, and growth projections through the year 2050, the Rural Water Supply Study revealed surprising results. In 2017, Denver Basin groundwater supplied EC’s water demand of 17,900 acre feet (AF). Total annual demand in the county is projected to approach 23,000 AF by 2050. Meeting the projected 2050 demand with only Denver Basin groundwater would represent an 80% increase over its 2017 use. While this is a huge increase, the water currently available far exceeds that needed to support the growth projected by the State Demographer.
The total recoverable volume of Denver Basin groundwater in EC is currently estimated at 54 million-acre-feet (MAF). Cumulative demands through 2050 would be expected to reduce the total recoverable volume by much less than one percent to 53.6 MAF, and the annual demand in 2050 would take only 0.03 percent of that remaining volume.
One area the study did not explore was the impact of water use in the rapidly growing counties adjacent to us. This is something that needs to be determined to have a full picture of water availability in decades to come.
While the results of the rural water supply study indicate we are not in any immediate danger of running out of water, this does not mean we should not still make every effort to conserve it. In fact, the study recommended several means of conservation that we have integrated into the county’s updated subdivision regulations.
In 2015, the county received a grant to support USGS in conducting a three-year well monitoring program that provides data on pressure levels in the aquifers from over 30 Denver Basin wells within the County. In 2019, we continued to fund this important program and will do so for the foreseeable future to ensure we have good data to validate the predicted water levels forecast by the Rural Water Supply Study. Additionally, the 2019 update to the county subdivision regulations provide the authority to require large subdivisions to install, and/or fund, additional monitoring wells adjacent to their borders.
Formalizing a 300-Year Water Rule:
During the process of updating the County’s Comprehensive Plan and Land-Use Regulations, we discovered the �€•300-year�€– water rule that most assumed provided strict assurance that the water allocated to a subdivision would provide a 300 year supply actually contained many loopholes that would allow much faster consumption. It could be argued that the state’s 100-year rule for subdivision are the only enforceable standard other than what might be negotiated for each individual development for every project brought forward.
The wording in the previous regulation described many types of development where the 300-year requirements could be greatly relaxed. Left alone, this structure could lead to dense housing developments with high water usage—the very condition the 300-year water rule was supposed to eliminate.
With this in mind, we adopted new, stricter rules that reside in regulation. They ensure no development can be approved that doesn’t demonstrate a minimum of 300-years of water availability, and encourages conservation, recycling and reuse.
The water use position of the subdivision regulation adopted in 2019 states, �€•In order to assure a long-term water supply, and given the concern with dependence on bedrock ground water, and the difficulty in supplying future surface sources outside the urbanized areas, the following additional criteria apply to all proposed subdivisions. The Applicant shall present a water supply plan that provides for a 300-year aquifer lifespan when aquifer groundwater is the proposed water source.�€–
Further, it establishes a strict requirement for how to determine usage rates, requires appropriate third-party verification at the developer’s expense, and supports multiple forms of conservation. Additionally, the regulation supports installation and/or funding of monitoring wells to determine their potential impacts on neighboring communities and established the state as the final arbiter of water supply sufficiency.
As a result, the County can now truly state it has an effective 300-year water rule. What was notional is now actual and new developments can be held to extremely strict standards for water usage.
Controlling Water District Uses:
Only a single new Water & Sanitation District has been approved in recent years. During the public hearing process for the Independence development, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) inserted language in the district’s service plan
that forbids supplying water outside the County and only allows supplying of water to other developments within the county if approved in a public hearing process. The continued build-out of Spring Valley Ranches, a project begun in 2001, allowed the County to place similar restrictions on the Water District serving that community.
The BOCC will continue to take opportunities as they arise to place reasonable limits on water uses to reduce the potential for aquifer water to be sold for use outside the county.
Conservation of water is the most critical component of ensuring our water future. Your Commissioners support the continued monitoring of well levels throughout the county, encouraging conservation, recycling, reuse of water in new developments, and the strengthening of our 300-year water rule. While water rights are individual property rights and therefore deserve government protection, the resource is finite and critical to the long-term viability of our communities. For that reason, we support all reasonable efforts and development requirements that extend the life of our aquifers.
Christopher A. Richardson
Commissioner District 1