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Living with rural water scarcity in southwest Colorado

Jordan Caler refilling the water tanks at his home outside of Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. Aspen Springs, the subdivision where the Calers live, no central water system.
Christi Bode
Rocky Mountain PBS
Jordan Caler refilling the water tanks at his home outside of Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. Aspen Springs, the subdivision where the Calers live, no central water system.

Nestled in the San Juan Mountains, Pagosa Springs is located right at the source. Water flows through an elaborate network of streams, rivers, lakes, treatment plants and pipelines. It can be accessed through the simple turn of a tap.

But living at the headwaters of a major Western river system does not equal water security for all.

“There’s not public water everywhere you go and … sometimes, there’s different situations for different folks, especially in Southwest Colorado,” explained Jordan Caler.

Southwest Colorado includes two tribal nations — the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute — the City of Durango, and the towns of Pagosa Springs, Bayfield, Silverton, Telluride, Norwood, Cortez and Dove Creek. Approximately a quarter of this region consists of rural water users who use domestic water via wells, non-community water systems, water hauling, surface water diversions or a combination of these methods.

Some of the most affordable land and housing in Archuleta County can be found in Aspen Springs. New custom homes with panoramic views and quaint, manufactured dwellings dot forested hillsides, with only a fraction of the community visible from the main highway. From flat meadows to rugged ridges to off-grid cabins in the woods and horse ranches spanning meadows, the area is free of homeowners associations or restrictions. The resulting range of living situations and lifestyles have caused locals to coin this the “Wild, Wild West.”

By definition, Aspen Springs is considered one of the largest subdivisions in the United States. It is also one of the most rural. There is no central water system in this nine-square-mile area, located 10 miles west of downtown Pagosa Springs. Aspen Springs was the first of its kind for the county in the early 1970s: out-of-state investors platted a large development of thousands of lots. Today, it includes over 2,000 homes and continues to grow. Most of the lots are one acre, though many are larger. Functional roads, utilities, running water and sewer services were never considered in the original development plans.

Over 50 years later, Aspen Springs still lacks the infrastructure to provide domestic water utilities. To make living here feasible, a few households have sunk wells to tap into groundwater, despite poor water quality and costly drilling fees. While it’s hard to pinpoint the number of lots occupied due to the sparse, unregulated nature of the community, it is presumed most households haul water and manually fill a cistern. These large containers hold thousands of gallons of water and are typically stored underground, then pumped through the home’s plumbing system.

For Jordan and Kalie Caler, purchasing a home in Aspen Springs was both a financial and lifestyle decision for their family.

“We could have looked at places in town, and it probably would have cost a little bit more as far as monthly payments,” Kalie said. “But we have more land than we would have probably had in town, and that’s been great for our family.”

Around the state, mountain towns are grappling with an affordable housing crisis and limited resources. Home and land values in Pagosa Springs have risen sharply in the past five years, pushing more buyers toward outlying communities that are not connected to the town’s water system. At the same time, sovereign peoples in the Four Corners region, including Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Diné, were forced onto land with no running water, with the nearest reliable source located hundreds of miles away.

“At first, we didn’t have a truck to haul water, so that was one thing we definitely had to change quickly when we first moved here,” Kalie explained. “We are pretty fortunate for how close we are to the water filling stations. Some families do it everyday, just to stay on top of it so that they don’t ever have to worry about running out, especially if you have a bigger family. For us, being a smaller family, we can get by just fine hauling it every week and a half, two weeks.”

Jordan described the process as simple and manageable: “I throw the tank in the back and I go into town every single day anyways. On the way back, I’ll just get a load ... and three, four loads will fill [the cistern] right up, and then we’ll be good for the next week or so.”

There are three self-service stations located around Pagosa where residents can fill their tanks with potable water. Jordan’s commute is shorter than most, averaging 20 minutes round-trip per load. Travel time to the closest filling station varies widely for each household because of Aspen Spring’s elaborate network of gravel roads.

Then there is the cost of water itself. The Calers’ use around 1,200 to 1,800 gallons per month depending on seasonal needs, averaging $20-$25/month for their family of four. The family also faces the added expenses of keeping cisterns clean, maintaining pumps, vehicle maintenance and gas.

“It’s obviously gonna be a lot more once you start adding in gas and the time it takes me to go get the water and come back, but [it’s] cheaper than, I think, living in town,” Jordan said.

One of the Calers' daughters plays in a paddling pool in their yard.
Christi Bode
Rocky Mountain PBS
One of the Calers' daughters plays in a paddling pool in their yard.

By comparison, it is estimated that one person tapped into the town’s water system averages 150 gallons per day, or 4,500 gallons monthly. On the low end, a family of four spends roughly $75 per month on water utilities in the winter months, and upwards of $250 or more in the summer, depending on outdoor watering needs and precipitation.

The Pagosa Area Water Sanitation District (PAWSD) is responsible for providing water to over 6,300 residential connections within its 76 square mile service area in Archuleta County. The district relies solely on surface water, or annual precipitation in the form of snow from the Upper San Juan watershed. PAWSD also supplies potable water to the filling stations.

“Maintaining a reliable and cost efficient public water system is no different for Pagosa Springs than any other community,” said Justin Ramsey, general manager of the Pagosa Area Water Sanitation District. “A community cannot be sustainable, grow or thrive without an available, reliable, clean water supply.”

Growing population demands and a finite water supply, paired with aging infrastructure and new regulations, makes it challenging to maintain the water system.

“There's talk in our area of plans to hook Aspen Springs up to the city water supply so that people don't have to haul water anymore. I do know that one of the biggest factors is the money. The money has to come from the people of Aspen Springs and I know there's gonna be a lot of people who aren't gonna be interested in taking on that extra financial burden of paying for all of that,” explained Kalie.

Connecting Aspen Springs to the PAWSD water system would be a huge undertaking, given the size of the subdivision and its distance from the closest service line. Ramsey estimates extending the existing water line two miles would cost about $2.5 million for engineering and construction. That figure does not include the infrastructure needed for individual household connections.

A conservation mindset dominates the Calers’ decision-making around water usage, both indoors and outdoors.

“It just sits in the back of your mind, no matter what you’re doing. It affects how you think about your surroundings around the house. We may never get a big lush garden here because of our land, but it definitely makes you think about the seasons, how the water’s being used and where it’s going,” Kalie said.

While their two young daughters, Kinley and Jaxcy, can’t discern how much water it takes to fill a play pool, they will absorb their parent’s ingrained relationship around water.

“I think it would be a mindset that will stick with them for the rest of their life just like it has with me,” said Kalie, “And I don’t think being conscious of your water usage is ever a bad thing.”

This story from Rocky Mountain PBS was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.