Tag: Colorado water

The Road to Flood Recovery

The Road to Flood Recovery

Hwy7 floods CDOT
State Highway 7 near Lyons, Colorado following Sept. 2013 flooding. (Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation)

In September 2013, driving rains flooded North St. Vrain Creek to nearly 10 times its typical volume and caused it to rise more than 5 feet in barely 24 hours, chewing up sections of U.S. Highway 36, the adjacent roadway between Lyons and Estes Park, Colorado. In Apple Valley, a small side canyon off the highway, the swollen river uprooted and inundated houses and buried cars as it carved a brand new channel.

The close proximity of houses and the highway to the river not only left them vulnerable to damages, but also compromised the natural function of the North St. Vrain’s floodplain.

With last fall’s floods, opportunity has followed tragedy. Recovery efforts have meant a chance to upgrade and restore both river systems and infrastructure, which haven’t always functioned in harmony. Initiatives to protect property and lives in the short term are feeding into long-term plans to reduce flood risks while also restoring the natural patterns and functions of rivers.

The vision is a herculean one, requiring the coordination and cooperation of scores of federal, state and local government agencies, businesses and conservation groups, and thousands of landowners—all with slightly different interests but a common goal of improving flood resiliency. The project unfolding along Highway 36 is a prominent, initial example of what that cooperation might look like and the results it could produce.

“Race to Recovery”

Headwaters Magazine, Summer 2014

The Power and Energy of Water

The Power and Energy of Water

"Boulder Power Plant Park" by Jason Bellegarde (via Flickr)
“Boulder Power Plant Park” by Jason Bellegarde (via Flickr)

The energy-water nexus defines the mutual relationship between two essential resources. My Fall 2013 article for Headwaters Magazine, “The Power (and Energy) of Water,” explores how planners and policymakers in Colorado and the West are increasingly evaluating energy sources based on their water use and looking at how their choices can help address growth, climate change and other issues.


The Long Dam Wait

The Long Dam Wait

Construction of Moffat Tunnel near Denver, 1936 (Denver Water)
Construction of Moffat Tunnel near Denver, 1936 (Denver Water)

Colorado water managers say they desperately need to shore up supplies and storage in a region growing larger and seemingly drier. But proposals for major storage and pipelines now face high regulatory hurdles, long waits, and ever-escalating costs.

My September 2013 story for the Northern Colorado Business Report looks at water projects stuck in “regulatory limbo,” and how some cities are adjusting their proposals and expectations in response to new administrative and environmental realities.

Read More Read More

The Ever-Evolving Farmer

The Ever-Evolving Farmer

lamar hay crew 1912
Hay crew, Deeter Farm, Lamar, Colo., 1912 (Source:www.waterarchives.org)

During a summer of drought, farmers, ranchers and agricultural researchers in Colorado are living with and adjusting to environmental changes and economic realities. I wrote on Colorado farmers’ adaptations and attitudes  during dry times (“The Ever-Evolving Farmer”) in the Fall 2012 issue of Headwaters Magazine.





The Water Commish

The Water Commish

With Colorado bracing for a hot and dry summer of 2012 — which ultimately brought extreme heat, drought and wildfires — I spoke with state water commissioners for University of Northern Colorado’s Northern Vision magazine to hear about the challenges of managing flows for a parched state of farmers, river runners, and homeowners.

My Spring 2012 story, “The Water Gatekeepers,” tracks the tasks and tribulations of several Colorado water commissioners, faced with administering river flows and reservoir releases to meet legal, public, and environmental needs.

Watered Down

Watered Down

This story comes from Headwaters Magazine, the quarterly publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. It’s definitely what I call a water wonk piece, but if ever someone wanted to know more about how states manage (or ought to manage) groundwater resources, Colorado is a good state to learn from.

Water Underground

Optimizing Use of an Unseen Resource

Headwaters Magazine, Summer 2009

By Joshua Zaffos

Growing up on his family’s ranch along the Rio Grande River near Alamosa, Ken Knox got an early education in the contentious field of groundwater use. The San Luis Valley is a high-altitude desert that averages just 7 inches of precipitation a year, so every drop of water—from the sky or the ground—is precious. Knox recalls neighbors fighting over rights to one-quarter of a cubic foot per second of water, equal to about 180 acre feet per year. The argument landed in court, and by the time it was resolved, the only way the families could pay off their legal bills was to sell their land.

csu1948-sprinkling1From ranch kid to chief deputy state engineer, Knox has spent much of his life thinking about groundwater. Today, after 24-plus years in the Colorado State Engineer’s Office, Knox works for URS, a private engineering corporation.

“The development of every set of [groundwater] rules is incredibly complex,” Knox says, “because you’re talking about people’s livelihoods.”

There’s another reason groundwater administration is complex—the movement and replenishment of groundwater itself is complex. The Rio Grande Basin, for instance, sits in a rift valley with multiple aquifer systems. One is a deep, confined source that runs more than 1,000 feet below the surface. There are also relatively shallow alluvial aquifers that feed into the Rio Grande and Conejos rivers. And there is a shallow, unconfined aquifer in a closed basin. These sources are all partially interconnected, and their interactions must be understood to provide accurate administration.

The movement of groundwater in other river basins, like the Arkansas and the South Platte, isn’t quite as complicated, but determining the impacts from groundwater use on stream flows is hardly straightforward. Figuring out how to simultaneously protect senior water rights, meet interstate compact conditions and utilize groundwater resources is no simple affair, legally or hydrologically.

“There isn’t a rule of thumb” when it comes to groundwater administration, says water attorney David Robbins, who has represented the State of Colorado in river compact litigation and groundwater users in additional court proceedings. Groundwater administration has developed by “fits and starts,” a function of science and technology, nature and necessity, Robbins adds. “It’s sort of a coming-of-age story.”

Tapping Wells and Passing Laws

Groundwater regulation was something of an administrative afterthought until 1953, when the Colorado General Assembly passed the Underground Water Act. Up until that time, when someone wanted to drill a well, they just went ahead and did so without much consideration of its effects on the underlying aquifer or nearby stream. From 1953 until 1957, the law stipulated the Colorado Water Conservation Board would issue well permits. Although the CWCB required well drillers to file a license, it was more of a registration system than any meaningful regulation.

Four years later, the 1957 Colorado Ground Water Law put the State Engineer’s Office in charge of these permits and acknowledged that a well license was not a water right, but only a permit to drill the well itself.

Despite these first steps at administration, water users with senior surface rights in the Arkansas, South Platte and Rio Grande basins faulted the expansion of groundwater use, a response to drought and lower stream volumes, for depleting river flows. Studies backed these assumptions, but there was little regulatory muscle to effectively manage the impacts.

The state legislature responded by passing the 1965 Ground Water Management Act, which provided new laws for application procedures and an injury evaluation standard for high-capacity wells. For the first time, state law enabled the State Engineer to consider—and potentially deny—well applications on the basis of injury to senior surface water rights. The law recognized the tributary connection between surface and groundwater in certain basins, a major hydro-legal epiphany that still makes Colorado stand out among other states. The law also created the Ground Water Commission, which could declare Designated Basins where surface water is scarce and/or groundwater is the predominant source of water. There are currently eight Designated Ground Water Basins in Colorado.

A few years later, the 1969 Water Rights Determination and Administration Act represented another advancement in the state’s groundwater administration. Kevin Rein, assistant state engineer for intrastate water supply development and litigation, says the 1969 law is significant for two reasons: It recognized that previous laws did not adequately address injury to senior water rights holders, and it established augmentation plans as the preferred avenue for allowing out-of-priority groundwater pumping under the prior appropriation system, which orders both the use of surface flows and groundwater.

According to Rein, augmentation plans include terms and conditions for obtaining groundwater while protecting against the depletion of river flows that could affect senior water rights. The plans demonstrate how much water will be pumped and consumed and how much will be returned to an aquifer or stream. Each plan must be approved by the water court and stand up to any individual objections.

The state continues to tweak its groundwater administration, but the framework developed in the 1960s still guides tributary groundwater use today.

Nontributary groundwater, on the other hand, has minimum or no connection to surface flows and is mostly regulated by state statutes adopted between 1973 and 1985. Those rules allow landowners to use nontributary resources, including those within the Denver Basin, at a rate of 1 percent a year for 100 years to pace the depletion. Additionally, the Ground Water Commission regulates non-tributary groundwater as designated groundwater if it’s within a Designated Basin.

“I really applaud Colorado,” says Knox, “because even in that time [dating back to the 1950s], they said we need to manage these resources for the future, in balance with economic development. We are literally decades ahead of some of our surrounding regions.”

Compacts and Models

Just as Colorado was hammering out its groundwater policies, another challenge presented itself. In 1966, the states of Texas and New Mexico sued Colorado because it was failing to meet the conditions of the 1938 Rio Grande River Compact. The interstate compact divides the annual flows of the Rio Grande between the states it runs through, and Colorado must ensure its downstream neighbors receive their allocated flows. Other compacts also dictate the use of river flows—and groundwater—in the South Platte, Arkansas and Republican river basins.

Water users in the upper Rio Grande began drilling more wells during the 1950s drought to supplement diminished flows in the river and its feeder streams. The fulfillment of senior surface rights and the increased use of groundwater meant Texas and New Mexico weren’t getting their legal share of water. Later lawsuits—by the state of Kansas with regard to Colorado’s overuse in the Arkansas River Basin and by Nebraska in the Republican River Basin—made similar claims.

“We had no rules or regulations that dictated use of groundwater up until that time,” says Steve Vandiver, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa and a former division engineer for that region. “The science hadn’t really caught up to us.”

A tangle of legal action ensued over the following decades—and continues today—to determine the connections between groundwater and surface flows. The State Engineer’s Office instituted a 1972 moratorium on new wells in the unconfined aquifer that feeds into the Rio Grande and Conejos rivers. Well drillers targeted the deep, confined aquifer until another moratorium was put in place in 1981. Small, home wells were exempted from the ban.

Legal and regulatory fixes were limited by the understanding of the Rio Grande Basin’s intricate hydrogeology, Vandiver says. “Impacts are not one-for-one,” he adds, meaning that tapping an acre foot of groundwater from a well in the Rio Grande Basin won’t directly deplete an acre foot from the river.

Engineers worked to develop groundwater models, both to determine what was going on underground and to figure out how to address depletions for users in Colorado and downstream.

Groundwater modeling, however, remains an evolving science and perhaps something of an art. Prior to the 1980s, electric analog models replicated aquifers using plywood fitted with a grid of resistors to simulate flow and capacitators to simulate storage. Computers replaced paper spreadsheets and slide rules in the 1980s, and modeling went digital, providing a more sophisticated understanding of groundwater’s movement.

“The parallel with the technological advancement is the need to have more effective groundwater management tools,” says Knox.

Not that computer models have prevented groundwater administration from being debated in courtrooms. The U.S. Supreme Court has had to settle disputes over water use and depletion according to the compacts for the Rio Grande, Arkansas and Republican. South Platte water users in Colorado have looked to the courts to handle in-state quarrels. That’s because on top of all of the legal bounds, there is another great limiting condition, Knox says: “We live in a dynamic hydrologic environment.”

Drought and Disruption

Drought initiated the first wave of Colorado groundwater regulation half a century ago, and dry times are influencing current management.

Compared with the hydrology of the Rio Grande region, the South Platte is a pretty simple system. Robbins describes the river as “a trough in bedrock,” meaning it’s a shallow and fairly narrow stream with water moving relatively easily between the ground and the channel. As a result, well drilling has a direct impact on river flows.

Farmers and others along the South Platte have relied on groundwater for several decades. Some users had obtained decrees for augmentation plans, but Ground Water Appropriators of the South Platte and others relied on annual substitute supply plans. Both water court-approved augmentation plans and State Engineer-approved substitute water supply plans aim to ensure that depletions caused to the river by well pumping are replaced by some other source of water. That became a front-and-center problem when the 2002 drought kicked in, and surface and groundwater flows couldn’t measure up to past uses.

In 2001, the Colorado Supreme Court decided the State Engineer didn’t have the authority to approve substitute water supply plans, ruling that plans for replacing depletions to the stream system must be approved by the water court. Known as the Empire Lodge case, the decision forced groundwater users in the South Platte and other basins to obtain approved plans of augmentation or shut down their wells, says Robbins. The state legislature later passed a law allowing the State Engineer to approve substitute water supply plans if an augmentation plan is concurrently filed in water court, but hundreds of farmers have essentially lost their ability to legally pump their wells, wreaking havoc on communities in the South Platte Basin.

Rio Grande groundwater users have also suffered since 2002, Robbins adds, “but we’re trying to avoid the economic destruction and social dislocation” that has occurred on the South Platte. To that end, users have discussed buying out existing wells while preventing the drilling of new wells to create sustainable aquifer conditions. “Our job is to solve the problem in the least disruptive way,” Robbins says.

Groundwater Management Matures

In the Arkansas River Basin, resolution trumps disruption these days, according to Robbins. After Kansas sued Colorado over the Arkansas River Compact in 1985, a decades-long court battle ensued until the U.S. Supreme Court backed Kansas’ claims of depleted flows. Well-measurement rules followed, to monitor Colorado groundwater users’ impacts on river flows.

Like the South Platte, the Arkansas is an alluvial stream where groundwater depletion can be directly detected in lower surface flows. All groundwater users there are now required to have plans to replace depletions resulting from groundwater use, and group associations have formed to lease augmentation water supplies from cities and other water districts.

Groundwater use in the Arkansas Basin has undergone “intense scrutiny,” Robbins says, due to the compact litigation and subsequent regulation. “The rules have been successful.”

In the Rio Grande Basin, Vandiver describes the region as still “maturing in the groundwater arena.”

Surface and groundwater users have spent decades in court, and Vandiver says engineers have finally devised a computer model that accounts for the complex relationship between groundwater use and surface flow depletion there. Groundwater users have developed a plan of water management—instead of a plan of augmentation—that will enable many current well operators to continue pumping while guarding against injury to senior surface flow rights. After a degree of encouragement, some users have agreed to cease their water consumption, and managers will measure impacts to surface flows.

Vandiver says the Rio Grande district will also create its own subdistrict to manage wells locally. The subdistrict should enable more flexibility and hopefully prevent well curtailment from being the primary means of regulating groundwater use. If it’s a successful model, the district would form other subdistricts, but so far surface water users have objected to the plan and are in court to make sure the priority system is enforced. The maturation process continues.

Recently, the State Engineer’s Office has fielded an increased number of requests to mine or utilize geothermal resources, says Rein. In some cases, projects will remove water while others might return flows but at different temperatures, so the state must determine what constitutes an injury to other water users. The small but growing industry is a prime example of how and why groundwater administration will continue to adapt and change.

“It’s the right thing to do,” says Knox, of the continuing efforts to refine groundwater administration, “to optimize use of this resource for short-term gain and long-term benefit.”

Flare Up

Flare Up

Health problems. Environmental degradation. A billion-dollar business with ties to the White House. Landowners on the West Slope are fighting back against the oil and gas industry.

By Bethany Kohoutek and Joshua Zaffos

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 7, 2005

Laura Amos wakes up in the middle of the night and shuffles from the bedroom of her log home to her computer desk upstairs. She looks in on her 4-year-old daughter, Lauren, as she sleeps, and then sits down at the keyboard to read through technical reports from government commissions and energy corporations. Sitting in front of a glowing computer screen at three in the morning isn’t how Laura expected to spend her nights when she moved to Silt, Colorado, in 1992 to help her husband run his hunting and fishing guide service, Winterhawk Outfitters.

She steps away to her backdoor and stares off at the glowing bulbs of gas wells that surround her and drown out the stars. These aren’t the lights Laura pictured filling the night sky around her 30-acre ranchette. Less than 100 yards away, a compound of six gas wells flares and lets out fumes. She turns to see the 10,000-gallon tank that looks like an industrial dumpster and holds her family’s drinking water. Laura thinks of her sleeping daughter and goes back to the computer.

The water well on the Amos’ property became mysteriously contaminated four years ago, at the same time the gas industry was setting off mini-explosions of pressurized water, sand and toxic chemicals to get at natural gas beneath her neighbor’s land. The process, known as hydraulic fracturing, or frac’ing (pronounced “fracking”), increases the amount of recoverable oil or gas.

While in Kansas visiting Laura’s parents with their new baby, the Amoses got an unexpected call. A metal cap had blown off the water well after it erupted like a geyser. They returned home to find their tap water undrinkable.

“The water bubbled like 7Up, and it was a goopy gray,” remembers Laura, as she sits inside Winterhawk’s office on Grand Avenue in the small town of Silt. “After a few days, it had this much sediment”—she holds her forefinger and thumb an inch apart and refers to a glass of water—“and an oily sheen on top.”

A large banner proclaiming “Support Our Troops” hangs in the office window, and the walls are decorated with photos of clients and their trophy kills. A picture of Laura hugging a cougar she killed with a crossbow greets visitors when they walk through the door.

The fizzy and noxious water flowing from her faucets turned out to be saturated with methane gas. The gas industry denied any connection between Laura’s undrinkable water and the well explosion. And it wasn’t until four years later that the state regulatory body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, finally linked frac’ing to the water contamination.

“We felt abandoned by the commission,” says Laura, “and abused by the industry.”

Immediately after the contamination, EnCana, the oil corporation performing the frac’ing, provided fresh drinking water in giant tanks for Laura’s family. But that stopped after a few months, and the Amoses had to seek out potable H20 on their own.

In January, after four years, the company resumed its weekly water deliveries. A few months later, the oil and gas commission finally issued a violation to EnCana. By then, Laura had developed an even more critical problem. Two years after the water well blew its top, Laura became curiously yet critically sick. Her doctor eventually diagnosed her with a rare adrenal tumor, which was removed in July 2003. She’s convinced the illness was linked to the frac’ing chemicals she ingested.

“And what was my daughter exposed to?” Laura asks now. It’s one of those questions that keep her awake at night.

Laura isn’t alone among obsessive insomniac landowners living in Garfield County these days. Landowners around the towns of Silt, Parachute and Rifle all can gaze at well pads and drill rigs from their property. Most locals hold only the deed to the land on top while oil and gas companies own the minerals below. The arrangement gives the energy industry the upper hand to build roads and erect gas wells, visibly—and some say, permanently—altering the West Slope’s landscape and environment.

Laura Amos and her neighbors are finding out it’s not a bargain. Frustrated by a no-holds-barred industry backed by a presidential administration that many locals have supported at the polls, these landowners are rising as a new, unlikely class of environmentalists ready to fight back. And they’re quickly learning what they’re up against. After all, Halliburton Services, where Vice President Dick Cheney was once CEO, pioneered frac’ing, and the Veep’s 2001 energy task force pushed to exempt the process from any governmental regulation.

“Billion-dollar industry,” says Laura of the oil and gas companies. “Million-dollar lobbyists, connections to the White House.”

Garfield County is currently home to 2,500 active gas wells—more than any other county in the state. And with 1,000 new drilling permits expected by year’s end, it seems the region’s energy boom is just beginning.

Oil companies are now extracting more than a billion dollars’ worth of oil and gas from beneath the soil of Garfield County each year. And much of that is tapped from private land, like Laura Amos’.

Because Colorado’s Western Slope, particularly Garfield County, has been handpicked by the Bush administration for rapid oil and gas development, the gate to the county has been thrown wide for the petroleum industry. The sheer density of drilling activity in Garfield County is greater than anywhere else in the world; oil producers are authorized to bore wells twenty acres apart—and they’re pressing for an even-tighter ten-acre density allowance.

Before a company can drill a new well, a qualified geologist must suspect that oil or gas is lurking below the surface, says Ken Wonstolen, general counsel for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, an industry trade group. Once that’s established, industry workers (most of whom are out-of-towners; employees are rarely hired locally) raze a two- to four-acre “pad.” The company then erects a drilling rig that augers deep into the earth—anywhere fron 2,000 to 15,000 feet deep—to reach the prized resource.

The towering rigs, which protrude conspicuously from Garfield County’s rugged landscape, competing with the expansive mountain vistas, are the most visible and ubiquitous reminder of the oil industry’s footprint on the region. Of all the extraction machinery, rigs are the noisiest, and their lights cast an orangish light into the night sky—“like a carnival,” as one local activist put it.

While the rigs are an annoyance to the Amoses and other local landowners, it isn’t the tower itself that makes them lose sleep. It’s the next step in the process.

After the hole is dug, hydraulic fracturing fluids, or “frac’ing fluids”—essentially, water laced with chemicals—are injected into the well to force the earth’s natural faults and creases to expand, making it easier for the gas to flow to the surface. These additives can include, among others, benzene, diesel and 2-BE, the frac’ing chemical that Laura Amos believes caused her tumor.

Wonstolen says frac’ing is “essential” in the West, because of the nonporous nature of the tightly packed, sandy soil. EnCana utilizes the process in 100 percent of its well operations within the county, says Florence Murphy, a company spokeswoman.

And both Wonstolen and Murphy maintain that the practice is perfectly safe. In fact, Wonstolen says allegations of contamination, like the Amoses’, amount to a “phony issue.”

Wonstolen contends that 2-BE is found in Windex and other household cleaners; what’s more, only “tiny, tiny” amounts of such chemicals are pumped into the ground, he adds. Otherwise, frac’ing doesn’t involve anything worse than water, sand and gelling agents like guar gum, which is a natural plant derivative. One industry official likes to point out that guar gum is an ingredient in Snickers bars.

And the Environmental Protection Agency backs him up.

In June 2004, the EPA released a rule stating that frac’ing fluids pose “little or no threat” to drinking water. A provision in President Bush’s energy bill, which is working its way through Congress, would permanently exempt frac’ing from any regulation, including the Safe Drinking Water Act.

This particular exemption is plucked from the wish list of the 2001 energy task force convened by Vice President Cheney, who has collected more than $500,000 in deferred salary from the energy giant Halliburton since taking office. The Supreme Court allowed Cheney to keep the task force’s proceedings secret, but the Los Angeles Times retrieved confidential records that hint otherwise.

Cheney’s office, a resulting Times article shows, pressured the EPA to portray frac’ing as a benign process, and to suppress concerns from EPA scientists over the accuracy of the June 2004 regulations.

When asked whether EnCana would support increased regulation and reporting of the frac’ing process, Murphy says the EPA is a “sound regulator.”

Over the past year, several independent organizations have taken the EPA to task over its rule. The Durango-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project produced its own report. “We found that EPA removed information from earlier drafts that suggested unregulated fracturing poses a threat to human health,” it reads, “and that the Agency did not include information that suggest fracturing fluids may pose a threat to drinking water long after drilling operations are completed.”

Carol Bell is standing in an unfinished room that will one day become her writing studio—she hopes. She and her husband, Orlyn, have lived on this rugged and rural acreage outside of Silt for the past 24 years, raising kids and horses, and farming hay.

The couple planned to construct their dream home on their land and retire here, and the new building is already half-completed. That was before EnCana installed four wells on the Bells’ 110 acres, before they endured three explosions on or near their land—one that coated their field in paraffin wax spiked with hydrocarbons, another that spilled 2,000 gallons of diesel, and another that leaked frac’ing fluids onto the well pad—and before they watched their road morph from a quiet country drive to a heavily traveled EnCana thoroughfare (“We counted 22 trucks in one hour’s time,” Bell says).

Today, Carol Bell throws open the giant picture windows of their new home, affording grand panoramas of the mountain ranges that wrap the horizon. She points to them in succession: “The Bookcliffs—and just beyond that, we can almost see the Roan Plateau—the Hogbacks, the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, White River National Forest.”

The room smells of sawdust and freshly mown hay. But don’t be fooled, she warns.

She takes a few steps out of the building and toward the drilling rig just past her barnyard, and the usual farm aromas turn rancid.

“Methane,” she says. “Can you smell it?”

With two dogs trotting close at her heels, the petite woman with cerulean eyes and suntanned shoulders heads toward the rig. She stops and rubs her forehead. Late last night, she admits, she broke down and cried.

“The last three nights, the odor was terrible. Oryln woke up with a splitting headache. It’s so awful. We can’t sleep. We’ve had it,” she says. “But no one will buy this place. … [Drilling] just takes your property value to zero.

“It’s sad, and I hate to [move], but Orlyn just turned 60 and…” she trails off.

In early 2004, EnCana approached the Bells about drilling on their property. Already,rigs were sprouting up on the land adjacent to their farm, and they’d heard inklings of other families’ struggles with the oil industry. They immediately hired a lawyer.

When Carol and Oryln Bell bought the ranch a quarter-century ago, they purchased only the surface rights, not the claim to the resources underneath; the previous owner refused to sell the mineral rights. At that time, no one knew that this pristine and remote swath of Western land would later become the epicenter for a battle over oil and gas.

Under Colorado’s “split-estate” laws, oil companies are permitted to drill on private land, as long as they give the surface owner a 30-day notice. If the company and the landowner fail to reach an agreement about compensation and well placement, the company can post a one-time bond of $2,000 for dry land, or $5,000 for irrigated land.

Unlike the Bells, some Garfield County residents own both the surface and the mineral rights to their land. While they have an advantage over surface-only owners (mineral deed-holders receive monthly royalty checks from the oil companies), they, too, have little say in where wells and roads are situated, or how they’re cared for.

Often, “They just bond on and bring the bulldozers over,” Carol says.

Some state lawmakers are determined to level the playing field. Rep. Kathleen Curry, a Democrat from Gunnison, attempted to restore balance to the split-estate conundrum when she introduced House Bill 1219 this session.

The measure would have required companies to work with property owners to determine a fair compensation for any damages incurred by drilling.

It also took a harder line on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Many West Slope landowners charge that the commission is tangled in ties to the industry and takes a soft stance on violation enforcement.

“They [the commission] rely too heavily on staff,” says Duke Cox, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, an environmental activist group that has been outspoken in its criticism of the oil industry. “We believe the staff leans almost always toward industry. We are the outsiders in this equation, because we’re rocking the boat.”

But it was the industry that made waves over Curry’s bill, and HB-1219 eventually was defeated in committee.

EnCana opposed the legislation, spokeswoman Murphy says.

“The thinking behind the bill—and we applauded and recognized the need for improvement in the way the industry dealt as a whole with private landowners—was that there already are regulations in place, and we’re not certain that putting another level of regulations in place would be the solution.”

Landowners in other states, however, have been more successful. Wyoming recently passed a tougher split-estate law, and lawmakers in New Mexico and Montana are crafting comparable legislation. And U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, a Boulder Democrat, has expressed interest in introducing a similar measure at the federal level.

After battling EnCana for nine months over specifics like where to place the wells and pipelines so they wouldn’t interrupt the ditch irrigation system or the horse-grazing pastures, the Bells finally signed “out of duress.” Carol Bell says: “It was hell.”

The couple eventually received a one-time payment that Carol Bell deems “minimal.” She estimates EnCana siphons millions of dollars’ worth of oil from their property alone.

The experience has changed their lives, she says, as well as their political outlook. From the window, she points out at Orlyn, perched atop a tractor, mowing the hay fields. Before their experience with EnCana, he declared himself a staunch Republican. While he hasn’t joined his wife on the roster of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, he’s much warier of the Bush administration and how its energy policies are playing out in his backyard.

And there’s more like him, conservative ranchers, shop owners, outfitters, construction workers who’ve watched their fields, their air quality, their property values—and some believe, their health—sacrificed to a tidal wave of drilling and extraction. In the midst of a red county that selected Bush as its choice for the country’s highest office in 2004, the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance’s membership has climbed from 75 two years ago to more than 300 today.

“When an industry takes $1.3 million of value from under our feet, we’re not going to take it,” Cox says. “People here are angry—very angry.”

Carol Bell is well aware of the national imperative to beef up oil and gas reserves. She understands that the issue casts tentacles into domestic security, foreign policy, the Iraq war, and the price she pays at the pump. She just wants some balance—and some assurance that the land she’s tended for 24 years won’t be permanently marred when the oil has dried up and the companies move on.

“[EnCana] has a right to be there, they absolutely have a right,” Bell says. “But I think property rights should be equal to mineral rights. … They don’t have the right to come out here and destroy our clean water and air. They’ve taken everything this property is about, and everything we love about this property.”

“We tried to say, ‘We can live with this. We can handle this,’” she says. “But now, I just don’t know.”

Laura Amos doesn’t know what not to do. One morning, she drives off to Denver to sit in on an industry conference on frac’ing, and then cruises back home to attend an evening meeting of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. A day later, the woman who’s informally been deemed the “Erin Brockovich of the West” spends her morning showing the area to reporters; the following day she meets with Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar’s Western Colorado aide. Every night, insomnia rouses her prematurely, and she works at her computer.

In April, Laura visited Washington, D.C., and spoke with Congressional aides and representatives from across the country, including the offices of Sen. Salazar, Democratic Rep. John Salazar and Rep. Udall, from Colorado. Her trip paid off two weeks later when Sen. Jim Jeffords, an Independent from Vermont, introduced legislation to require the EPA to regulate frac’ing chemicals through the Safe Drinking Water Act. Sen. Salazar is considering signing on.

While Amos’ story clearly had an impact in Washington, she isn’t the only one making sure her voice is heard in the Beltway.

Last October, Weston Wilson, a 30-year-veteran environmental engineer in the EPA’s Denver regional office, raised a series of questions about frac’ing. In an eighteen-page letter to the agency’s Inspector General and members of Congress, Wilson claimed the EPA’s rule failed to consider studies that showed frac’ing fluids could indeed contaminate underground drinking water. He also raised concerns that industry reps, including a technical advisor from Halliburton, dominated the scientific review panel.

The EPA is still looking into Wilson’s charges, but the whistleblower was recently sent from Colorado to Africa, where he was temporarily assigned to work on a project unrelated to the oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, new EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson spoke at the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association in Breckenridge this June and said, “Rather than the EPA being a stumbling block for energy development, I want it to be a catalyst for energy development while protecting the environment.”

Conservation groups concerned that environmental protection has become a secondary priority to energy development for the EPA are finding some new grassroots allies among the landowners of rural Garfield County.

“It’s the rape of our American West by the oil companies, with absolutely no focus on conservation,” says Cox of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. “And the Bush administration’s response to the problem is to drill more wells. We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it.”

Industry analysts recently predicted that Garfield County will be pocked with more than 10,000 wells by the end of the decade. It’s news like this that reinforces a unique bond that has developed between camps more accustomed to being at odds with one another.

“What an alliance this is creating,” marvels Carol Bell. “Environmentalists and ranchers are teaming up together.”

The Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and its members say they’ll continue to fight for regulations on frac’ing, monitoring of groundwater quality and evenhanded contracts between surface-rights and mineral-rights owners. The Bells have decided to dig in their heels and win some concessions from the industry rather than surrender their retirement plans just yet. The Amoses, on the other hand, are ready to get out and relocate—even if it means turning over their property to the mortgage company.

“We have an unusable, unsafe piece of property that is un-sellable,” Laura Amos says. “That’s the situation the state and industry has put us in.”

In October, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will hold a hearing to determine the fine against EnCana for the ongoing contamination of the Amoses’ water.

EnCana’s Murphy says the reason for the hearing is “so that everybody can put their facts on the table.”

But Laura is quick to point out that the commission is not addressing the safety of frac’ing fluids, only the undisputable fact that her well was tainted. And it won’t appease her in her quest to get to the bottom of what happened. She isn’t taking anyone’s word that Windex and Snickers are responsible for her contaminated water and her battle with cancer.

“We probably wouldn’t be so bitter if they just became accountable and said ‘Yeah, we f’d up,’” says Laura. “But all’s they do is lie and deny.”