Thousands of homes dot the hills of Castle Pines, a central Douglas County community about 20 miles from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. But underneath those houses and their hills, a problem lurks.
As residents flush their toilets, shower and rinse out their sinks, their untreated wastewater enters an aging system that’s struggling to do its job.
For years, the Castle Pines North Metro District has logged thousands of gallons of sewage that has spilled from their system. Now, the state has sent them an official warning to address the problem.
As former city Mayor Tera Radloff, bluntly puts it: "Sh-t rolls downhill."
And that’s exactly the issue for the system’s lift stations, which have the role of pumping sewage from low elevation to the nearby wastewater treatment plant.
“I think this system hasn’t been maintained for a very long time,” said Radloff, who is also one of the directors for the water district that manages the system. “Why? I’m not sure.”
The district, which serves the west side of the city, is showing signs of many years of neglect and a significant lack of investment in infrastructure. Last year, the state required the district to issue an advisory telling customers to boil their water before drinking it.
But the reason it was able to get to this point appears to be unknown. Nathan Travis, the interim district manager appointed in August, is working to get the district back on track.
“I don’t know why the treatment plant wasn’t maintained to the level it should have been maintained – why the wells weren’t taken care of on a level that they needed to be,” Travis said.
While he can’t explain the reasons why the system got so bad, he’s determined to simply keep moving forward, bit by bit, until it’s all operating like clockwork. In the past year, the district has invested heavily in its water treatment plant and is now beginning to look at the lift station issues.
“I just don’t have the time or energy to really worry about the why – going back 30 years into a system,” he said. “We take responsibility for the condition they were in and are absolutely dedicated to changing it.”
But getting there won’t be easy and it gets complicated quickly as the system wants to link into a larger one – the nearby Parker Water and Sanitation District. Voters overwhelmingly approved a plan to join with that district in May of 2021, but months later, the deal fell apart over financial negotiations and the issues with the metro district’s dated infrastructure.
While that plan appeared to be on track earlier this year, now Travis says it will take two years to get a deal with Parker done, if it goes through at all.
“I want to look at absolutely all of our options,” Travis said. “While we have this downtime I think it’s our responsibility to prove that Parker is the best option.”
Since homes started spreading here in the early 1980s, the Castle Pines North Metro District has handled water and sewer services for most of the community. The struggles have been a point of frustration in an area with a median annual income of $170,000 and home prices of about $837,000, according to the city’s data and Redfin estimates.
The problems come as the city of about 13,000 grows rapidly. By 2040, its population is predicted to nearly triple, according to the municipality.
Parker deal: dead in the water?
Castle Pines’ efforts to join Parker Water are part of a long-term plan to secure renewable water for future residents.
It also would simplify things for them.
“Everything has been so complicated,” said Michael Penny, city manager for the City of Castle Pines. “This all goes to simplifying the governance so people aren’t going ‘who the heck do I call?’”
While the west part of the community falls under Castle Pines North Metro District, the residences east of I-25 are already part of Parker Water and Sanitation and unaffected by the issues.
Soon after the ballot item to join the rest of the city with Parker was approved, Parker began taking a deeper look at the metro district’s system and announced eight things that needed to be addressed. Negotiations also began over how much the district would have to pay Parker for the repairs.
“The hinge really broke around that financial evaluation,” Travis said.
Ron Redd, district manager for Parker Water and Sanitation, said there were a few things, including the sewage spills, his team had not known about before the vote.
“At the end of the day, they weren’t able to meet those parameters, so we exercised our right to get out of the agreement,” Redd said.
Radloff, who was mayor of the City of Castle Pines from 2018 through 2021, was elected to the Castle Pines North Metro District in May. She campaigned on reviving the agreement.
“I wanted to get that back on track,” she said. “I wanted to make sure our water was safe to drink and I wanted other people to have confidence in it as well.”
Pulling back the curtain
Redd, who has led Parker Water for the past 10 years, says that a few years ago, he would have had nothing of concern to report about Castle Pines’ water system
“They met demands and were engaged in regional discussions,” he said, “But they had a nice curtain.”
Behind that curtain is a record of 12 sewage spills caused by the Castle Pines North Metro District since 2010. Half of those occured since 2020, according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data provided to Colorado Community Media. The largest spill was February 2021, when about 70,000 gallons were released into a nearby detention pond.
The most recent spill was in March, when 25,000 gallons of sewage was spilled by the district.
At the center of many problems are the district’s eight lift stations that help pump wastewater to a treatment facility. Seven of them have some level of issue that needs to be addressed, Travis said.
“They’re all past their designed lifespan,” Travis said about the seven stations.
Outside of the spills, the district has struggled with service stoppages at their treatment plant as well, such as the boil order and another incident a few months later where service was halted to more than 500 customers for about 45 minutes.
“We don't have water districts losing service to their community,” Redd said. “You don't hear that very often and they had it happen twice.”
As a result of the spills and other issues, many residents have said over the years they’ve lost confidence in the system as a whole, Radloff said.
“People are out and about walking their kids and their pets and … and they’re passing by lift stations and they’re seeing the discoloration of the rock and the spillway,” she said. “They’re smelling sewage.”
State issues warning
Over the summer, state officials issued what’s called a compliance advisory. The warning told the district to create a plan to fix the system or face potential enforcement actions.
“This compliance advisory is intended to advise the district of alleged violations of the Water Quality Control Act,” according to the document.
The metro district responded in August and had its plan approved. It recently hired an engineering firm to address the lift stations, with an initial design expected by the end of the year.
The next step will be in-depth engineering and a final design, which will likely take most of next year, Travis said. Then, before the work can begin, the designs will need to be approved by the state, which could take another year or more.
“It’s complicated and it takes time,” he said.
The district has estimated it would cost about $12.7 million to rehabilitate the lift stations. In the past year, the district has invested $3 million in the water treatment plant with $5.5 million more planned in the next year.
The recent compliance advisory for repeated sewer overflows is not the first from water officials. In 2011, the state’s water quality division issued a compliance advisory that said the district’s sewage spills violated state law.
According to Castle Pines North Metro District and Parker Water, there are no records indicating whether anything was done about that previous advisory.
“CPNMD has no records that repairs, system upgrades or corrective actions were taken in response to these letters,” according to a document submitted to CDPHE.
In an email to Colorado Community Media, CDPHE said they didn’t have the historical information about any action taken against the district to ensure spills would stop.
“In the past, based on resource limitations, sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) were typically handled with the initial response being a phone call to gather information about the release(s) as well as what the entity was doing to address them,” according to the email.
Earlier this year, the City of Castle Pines hired an attorney to write to CDPHE, raising concerns about the repeated sewage spills. They referenced the March incident that led to 25,000 gallons of sewage spilling.
“The area where this occurred is adjacent to a residential park (Coyote Ridge Park),” according to the letter. “Given the frequency and size of the (sanitary sewer overflow) events, the city is concerned about the impact of these events on public health, safety and welfare.”
They went on to ask CDPHE to complete a comprehensive investigation of the district and “take whatever actions CDPHE deems appropriate.”
A few months later, the compliance advisory was issued.
“After receiving the letter by the City of Castle Pines, the division evaluated the potential pattern of spills and determined whether additional corrective action was appropriate,” according to an email from CDPHE.
The state makes decisions on how to enforce based on their enforcement management system and the availability of resources, according to an emailed response to questions from Colorado Community Media.
The Castle Pines district said progress is ongoing. By this time next year, all the components of their water treatment plant, which treats drinking water, will be brand new, Travis said.
Even though residents already voted to approve an inclusion into Parker Water, if the deal is to go through, another election is required.
Before that can happen, Parker Water wants to see the state grant them relief from any possible litigation related to the metro district’s sewage spills. The districts will also have to do a new financial analysis of the impact of an inclusion.
That means a vote is at least two years away.
In the meantime, the question of whether the community sees the water as safe lingers. Radloff took a tour of the water treatment facility and said her perception of the system is changing.
“I have more confidence in the water now,” she said. “The other (issues) i think they’re in progress but it’s going to take a while to get them back to where they should be.”