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When gold was discovered in Colorado during the late 1850s, it brought more people here.And all those people, although they were mining for gold, needed water — a lot of it.“Water was the new gold for this area,” Phil Goedert said.Goedert was among the volunteers who worked on the Westminster Historical Society’s latest exhibit: “The Driving Force: The story of Westminster water.”Six panels explain the history of the water in words, photos and maps in addition to additional panels with a timeline and summary of the water laws. There are also a few artifacts, like a cast iron pipe laid in about 1911 next to a PVC pipe that is commonly used today.Ron Hellbusch said the exhibit is appropriately named.Modern-eraHellbusch was in charge of figuring out the city’s water issue in the 1960s — one of the pivotal times that created a channel to the current day Westminster.“To see it develop it where the city has grown … a lot of it, you can point to having sufficient water to control your destiny and to control your growth and keep local decisions,” Hellbusch said.A drought in the 1960s along with the city’s water rights at the bottom of the barrel spurred residents to campaign for change. The water Westminster received had gone through other water treatment plants first before hitting household taps here.“The water was drinkable, but it tasted bad and it looked bad,” recalled George Smith, Westminster Historical Society member.Hellbusch said it was merely a quality — not a safety — issue.“People saw it as unsafe in their mind, although it was being treated and met all standards, but there was an odor, there was taste,” Hellbusch said.But with the uproar from residents, the city had a choice: create its own system or hook into Denver’s system.“So we got our own system,” Smith said.But it wasn’t so easy. Residents were split on whether they wanted to hook into Denver.“The city saw it as controlling our growth and development,” Hellbusch said.Hellbusch was asked to spearhead a proposal for the city’s own system because he started working for the city’s utilities department part-time in 1953 when he was a sophomore in high school. He continued working summers through high school and college.He wasn’t an engineer, but he had more field experience than anyone in the city.In addition to being at the bottom of water rights, city leaders feared that Denver would dictate Westminster’s growth by restricting the number and types of new buildings to stem water usage.In 1963, a ballot question put the fate in the city of Westminster’s hands instead of Denver’s and it won — by just 170 votes, a 4.4 percent margin.“That’s when they started to acquire surface water rights,” Goedert said.Instead of relying on ditch water and canals running through Golden where others had first rights and wells that dried up during droughts, the city made a deal to tap into Standley Lake. Standley Lake was built and owned by Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (FRICO).“Those guys are very protective of their water and they didn’t want any municipalities fussing around with what they could — until they started to have serious problems with the dam,” Goedert said.The dam was cracking and FRICO didn’t have the money to repair it.“So Westminster bought into it and said, `We’ll fix the dam and raise it if you give us half the water.’ And they said, `It’s a deal,’ ” Smith said.And that holds true today.Westminster added 12 acres of height to the dam. The city has rights to more than 50 percent of Standley Lake water with Northglenn, Thornton and FRICO getting the rest.Further backBut the water issues started with the first population influx during the Gold Rush in the late 1850s.“At the time, there were no water laws,” Goedert said. “Whoever was there first, that’s whose water it was.”First, placer mines, which separated sand from gold, were made from ditches off Clear Creek.“We started out with the ditches and the canals,” Smith said.Those were dug with livestock on either side of the ditch dragging a bucket to scrape out earth.The miners drew farmers and ranchers.“So that started to expand the ditches,” Goedert said.Eventually, FRICO built its reservoir in about 1907 to serve agricultural and livestock needs.Westminster was incorporated in 1911 and included an $11,000 bond issue to drill the city’s first well.More in the exhibitThe exhibit also covers water as recreation, like the bond issue in 1979 to build Water World and building city swimming pools.Smith said he hopes to add to the exhibit throughout the next few months and eventually move it to city hall.The Westminster History Center, 7200 Lowell Blvd., is open 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and by appointment. For more information, call 303-428-3993.
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