Will the well run dry?

Column by Hal Walter

Coffee – August 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

One thing I’ve noticed is that it takes water to make coffee.

Now this surely is a less-than-astute observation. But it’s one that takes on a certain irony here in Central Colorado, right in the heart of what early explorers like Major Stephen H. Long called the “Great American Desert.”

Why? Because upscale coffee shops serving espresso and cappuccino are the harbinger of more folks competing for the limited supply of water. We Americans love our drugs, though our rulers quite arbitrarily decide which ones are legal and which are illegal, which drugs receive government subsidies and which drugs subsidize government growth in the industrial prison sector.

It’s interesting to draw a parallel to the gold and silver rush days of the later 1800s. Then the stampede was on for precious metals, and opium tents were quite legal and common in camps like Leadville.

Now the scam is land, and the dope is coffee. And the environmental destruction of unchecked real-estate development is arguably worse, and less easily reversed, than the large-scale mining of the days of yore. You need an Environmental Impact Statement to dig for gold, but typically you don’t need one to subdivide.

True, before these coffee shops opened you couldn’t get a decent cup of “poor-man’s cocaine” between Leadville and Westcliffe. The restaurants only served up thin brown water. If you dropped a dime in a cup of this acrid stuff you could see it at the bottom. Why even bother? This is why for years I carried around a one-burner Primus stove and a device called a “Mocha Express.” But now that paraphernalia is unnecessary.

Let’s start at the top of the watershed. In Leadville — where formerly the only thing in town that even looked like coffee was runoff from the Yak Tunnel — there’s the surprisingly cozy and artsy Tabor Grand Coffeehouse located in the old Hotel Vendome. When I was editor of the Herald-Democrat in Leadville several years ago, the northeast corner of the Vendome came unglued one rainy evening while I was developing film next door, downstairs in the former morgue that is now a newspaper office. A red avalanche blocked the alley. One single brick landed in my pickup truck and dented the bed. And half the town turned out in raingear late that night to stand vigil in the alley behind the historic landmark. But the old building never completely toppled and now it is completely refurbished and houses a coffee shop where many of the same folks who stood vigil that night turn out regularly for a caffeine buzz and to chat.

Down the river in Buena Vista, there’s High Country Coffee, located in the new Colorado Springs-style shopping strip on the south edge of town. Though the architecture is strictly “Modular-Victorian,” I must say the best fresh-roasted beans in Central Colorado are sold here. Still it’s strange to me, all these newer yupped-out buildings along the highway while the lower downtown area off main street looks much as it did 15 years ago — like a 1950s ghost town. I guess you gotta go for the highway traffic.

In Salida, Honey Bear Health used to advertise espresso and cappuccino. Coffee at a health food store? Sure. Any coffee addict knows the stuff is mandatory for maintaining one’s health. Don’t believe me? Just try quitting the stuff. Coffee isn’t just a cheap high. It’s a missing hormone.

If you find yourself with a case of the DTs in downtown Salida, convulse on in to Il Vicino Brewery and Pizzeria or the Crooked Hearts Coffeehouse and someone will help you get strung back out.

If you like to drive when you’re wired, get in your vehicle, put your foot through the carburetor, and drive south by southeast in a caffeine-induced stupor. You can be in Westcliffe at the Rainbow Inn before you suffer a letdown. At the Rainbow, real-estate rangers, farmers and ranchers, tourists, outfitters, buffalo barons and even famous unknown writers like myself belly up to the espresso bar.

I’ve never been to Crestone for the same reason I’ve never been to Aspen. But if they don’t serve up cappuccino in the Road Kill Café, then there’s not even one woman in Saguache County who claims to have been Sacajawea or Catherine the Great in a previous life.

Perhaps it’s stretching it to tie coffee-shops to the suburbanization of our region. But we never had one until we had the other. You couldn’t get a decent mug of java until you had to stand in line with land brokers dressed in faux buckskins to do so. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The Uniform Building Code or the French roast bean?

It’s one of those things that we’ll never know. But I do know this: It takes water to make coffee, and water — despite what some people think — is a limited resource in these parts. Sure, there’s the Arkansas River. But fully one third of the water in that stream below Granite is non-native, pumped under the Continental Divide via transmountain water-diversion projects and owned by downstream users.

And then there are all the wells –dozens of new ones every week. Nobody’s certain how much water is under the ground in this region. We do know that most wells are siphoning off cracks and fissures in metamorphic rock, rather than from a huge sandstone aquifer. We don’t know how many of these little underground streams there are. We don’t know if they are connected, where they come from, where they go, or at what angles they flow. Underground hydrology is multidimensional. We don’t know recharge rates of these subterranean streams — whether the water in these streams fell to Earth in 1927 or 1995. This year’s drought could be next decade’s, or even next century’s, Dust Bowl.

The only thing we can be sure of is that the water supply underground, just like the water supply in our rivers and reservoirs, is finite.


Of predetermined quantity.

When it’s gone, there will be no more. Kind of like silver and gold and other things on which Colorado’s cyclical boom-and-bust economy historically has been based.

And if we finally use up all this water, there’ll be no more coffee. Not even the thin brown stuff that used to pass for it.

Hal Walter, who lives near Westcliffe, would like to use coffee on a purely “recreational” basis, but his writing depends on its regular abuse.