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Homeowners in Colorado’s Morgan County pay upwards of $200 a month for water they can’t even drink

By Shaun Boyd

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    MORGAN COUNTY, Colorado (KCNC) — Jesse McCoppin remembers the day he arrived at Prairie View Ranch in Morgan County.

A storm was brewing that day and as the wind picked up, power went out, and the pumps went down at Prairie View Ranch Water District.

“That was an immediate wake-up call. I was less than 8 hours in my house,” says McCoppin.

The president of the water district he says assured him there was backup power in the event of a fire. But not only were there no generators, there wasn’t even enough water pressure to put out a fire if it did happen.

Worse still, the water itself, he would soon learn, was toxic.

McCoppin began digging up everything he could on the water district.

The more he learned, the more alarmed he became, “Everywhere I looked I just kept finding more questionable obviously fake or improper documents everywhere.”

While safeguards, he says, were nowhere to be found. Four years after moving in, he now has water he can’t drink, a home he can’t sell, and a water system filled with black sludge he can’t get rid of.

Certified lab results show the sludge is filled with radioactive lead and uranium, “It has to go to the Deer Trail Clean Harbors Facility. It’s actually an environmental contaminant.”

Sheila Brown says it should have never come to this. She was the first to move into the district.

She contacted the Colorado Water Quality Division in 2007 and says it refused to intervene, saying the state doesn’t regulate water systems that serve fewer than 25 people, even though the system at Prairie View Ranch was already in violation of state regulations that require design plans be approved before construction. It was built with no approval, no regulatory oversight, and no central treatment.

It would take another 10 years before the state would step in. By then the damage was done.

“Every square inch of this place doesn’t meet the regulations that engineers require for public water system infrastructure,” says McCoppin.

The Water Quality Division not only issued developers a notice of violation for building a system without design approval, but it also issued notices requiring them to warn residents the water had unsafe levels of manganese. But developers ignored the notices.

Developers were also warned not to make any unapproved improvements or modifications to the system. Apparently selling water taps isn’t an improvement or modification. Developers sold dozens more water taps to unsuspecting residents and the state and county didn’t stop them.

“County health department and county commissioners and zoning had the responsibility to stop more people from getting dragged into this mess and they just turned a complete blind eye to it,” says McCoppin.

He says Morgan County should have intervened before the system was even built.

Special districts are tax-exempt government entities, but the water district was set up as a private for-profit company with a board run by the developers and their family members. And yet, both Morgan County Commissioners and a district court judge signed off on it.

McCoppin wonders how so many people could drop the ball, “There are so many pieces of paper that show wrongdoing that was then accepted by this agency or that clerk. Why didn’t someone notice earlier?”

It gets worse. McCoppin said when he and neighbor Sam Belmonte took over the board in 2021, they discovered $1 million missing.

He says the State Auditor’s Office – which exempted the district from financial audits for years – is now penalizing residents for the errors and omissions of the previous board.

Meanwhile, he says, the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office won’t investigate, the Attorney General’s Office won’t even respond except for an automated reply, and the state has yet to take enforcement action despite nearly 200 violations.

“Everybody wants to kick the can,” says Belmonte.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is now advising the district’s 140 residents to drink bottled water, even as some pay more than $200 a month in water bills.

“Would you pay $200 a month for water you can’t use?” asks Belmonte. “There’s no accountability. None. Zero.”

The developers, Doryea Gibbs and John Pearson, declined an interview but claimed they hired a licensed engineer to design the system and thought it had been approved by the state.

Residents say it’s now beyond repair and they don’t have millions of dollars to replace it. Their only other option is to have another water district take over, but they say developers have refused to give up the water rights.

The state now says it will take enforcement action by the end of the month if all violations aren’t resolved. McCoppin says residents are paying thousands of dollars for tests and filters and fines would sink the district.

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