A Cautionary Tale of Dry Wells And a 1966 Fire Truck

To all appearances, the Afshars have created their own bit of Eden.

Here, where the hardscrabble prairie rolls to the craggy Rockies a few miles southwest of Denver, arid summers turn the landscape to sagebrush and dust. Yet the family's five-acre property is vibrant with pheasants, peacocks, horses, and dozens of flowering Russian olive trees.

But the Afshars are flat out of water. In the winter of 1988, the family well abruptly dried up, and for the past eight years John Afshar and his family have used a 1966 fire truck to cart water from a fire hydrant seven miles away to their cistern. During the summer months, they usually make this trip twice a day.

While extreme, the Afshars' daily struggle is not so uncommon in the West. Rapid growth has put an increasing strain on land that is often ill-suited to support so many people. And as thousands more pour in, stories like the Afshars' serve as reminders that water supplies here are far from limitless.

"People came out West looking for gold, but the smart ones got water. That's the real gold," says John.

Douglas County is one of the five fastest-growing counties in the nation, and wellheads here have dropped as much as 800 feet in recent years, forcing hundreds of homeowners to drill ever deeper - and sometimes they still come up dry. Just east of Denver, wells in Arapahoe County are also drying up, and in rural Arizona, several hundred wells in communities south of the Grand Canyon went dry last summer. Near Phoenix, aquifers have dropped so low that the earth has begun to collapse, prompting authorities to inject water into the ground to "recharge" water tables.

Although water supplies remain plentiful in Colorado for the most part, the unchecked use of these huge underground lakes worries some.

"Whereas surface water is renewable ... if someone has gone to the bottom of the aquifer and they can't get water, they're toast," says Jody Grantham, a Colorado Division of Water Resources official. It takes millions of years for aquifers to form, as rain and snowfall collect in shelved layers between soil and rock.

On Colorado's Front Range, wells tap into the 6,700-square-mile Denver Basin. While this bowl-shaped aquifer holds nearly as much water as Lake Erie, the trouble arises along its margins - like Douglas and Arapahoe County - where the basin is shallow.

The irony for the Afshars is that from their house they can see blue water glistening in all directions. The massive, horseshoe-shaped Chatfield reservoir, only a mile away, curves around three sides of their property. The South Platte River runs west of them, and Plum Creek runs to the east.

But the Afshars, along with some 50 nearby families, have no access to any of this water. In Colorado, surface-water rights are over-allocated - and they don't sell cheaply.

"It's like the saying, 'Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink,' " says Valerie Afshar, John's mother.

The Afshars still recall vividly the winter their well went dry. Their home is heated by a hot-water system, so they were left with just a fireplace to keep them warm. They hauled five-gallon buckets of water home in their Ford pickup. "In the morning, you had to break the ice on the top of the bucket to wash your face," recalls John's wife, Lisa.

Since then, the tight-knit Afshar family has learned to conserve precious water. They take short showers, wash clothes at a laundromat, and water their plants with runoff collected from the roof. They drink bottled water and never leave the tap running when they brush their teeth.

Meanwhile, the Afshars and their neighbors are scouting to purchase water rights and hope they can afford the asking price.

If that doesn't work? "I guess we'll have to keep trucking water," sighs John. "Either that, or we'll have to walk away from all that we've worked for."

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