Palmer Lake lives on, without the lake

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For years a beautiful scene, Palmer Lake has deteriorated into a muddy mess, inspiring a local group to take action.

For years a beautiful scene, Palmer Lake has deteriorated into a muddy mess, inspiring a local group to take action.

Palmer Lake is a lake no more.

The fact that Palmer Lake is now dry has affected some businesses there, they say. But other business owners report business has been good, despite the lack of water.

What used to be a reservoir teeming with fishermen in the summer and skaters in the winter is now a mud flat gone dry. Water had been evaporating from the lake for years.

A group calling itself Awake The Lake, or ATL, has formed to raise funds to bring water back to the lake.

“We’d like to find some way to get it restored,” said Jeff Hulsmann, the leader of ATL and the owner of O’Malley’s Pub in Palmer Lake. “We’re just embarking on building a plan — what we are actually going to do to replace and replenish the water.”

The town of Palmer Lake owns the lake bottom but has no legal water rights to the lake, said Town Clerk Tara Berreth.

“Legally, the town is in a holding pattern until we can figure something out — how we’re going to fix it,” Berreth said. “It takes money and we don’t have any money. “I wish it would come back, but we’ll see. We’ll see.”

How it happened

Historically, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad owned a water right that it diverted into the lake. The railroad used the water for its steam engines and for emergency cooling water for diesel engines, according to ATL. Some 20 years ago, work on the railway track bed “unintentionally changed the historic flow direction of the natural spring water entering the lake” to away from the lake, according to the ATL website.

Also part of the problem, according to the website, is that while annual precipitation is estimated at about 21.9 inches, annual evaporation is estimated at about 35 inches.

“Water rights are complex,” Hulsmann said. “Our contention is very simple: The entire history of Palmer Lake is that it has always been topped off by diverting surface water, until they put a stop to it.”

Palmer Lake business impact

The lake drying up has affected Speedtrap Bistro’s employees, said day manager Dan Foster.

“With the lake being dry, we didn’t have the business we were staffed for, so we had to cut back some staff hours,” Foster said. “We’ve not done it overabundantly … we’ve done abundantly.”

The business has changed hands, and the new owner has added food items to the menu.

“It’s affected our business, I don’t know how much,” said Jeannine Engel, 14-year owner of Rock House Ice Cream & More. “Everybody’s sad about the lake. It does have an impact. It’s just not a pretty sight to be around.”

Across Highway 105, Finders Keepers retail gift shop owner Peggy Rima reported her business is “great.”

“People know Palmer Lake. They love the restaurants and they still come,” Rima said. “We’ve got incredible hiking trails. We’ve got Spruce Mountain Open Space. We’ve got the Greenland Open Space. We have tons of bicyclists here every weekend.

“It’s still a wonderful paradise, and it hasn’t affected my business,” Rima said.

At American Legion Post 911, “we’re actually doing pretty well,” said manager Alicia Gatti, who owned a restaurant in the location for 13 years prior to the American Legion taking over. “I’ve had people come in and ask, ‘Where’d it go?’ ”

Tyler Ruona grew up in Palmer Lake. At Main Street Brokers, where the 24-year-old works, “I haven’t noticed a decline in business at all,” he said, and of the town, he added, “Palmer Lake is still Palmer Lake.”

Ruona ruminated over the past, when water reflected fireworks on the Fourth of July, when the fishing derby took place, and during Winterfest, when the fire department cooked chili and hot dogs while the town rented skates for free.

“It’s sad. There were traditions, and those traditions are gone,” Ruona said.

“Growing up in Palmer Lake, that was the thing to do — ride your bike to the lake, walk to the lake, go fishing.

“No one wants to play at a dead lake.”

Property values

Residential property values at four randomly chosen addresses of homes overlooking the dry lake-bed have declined, according to figures provided by the El Paso County Assessor’s office. Assessor Data Analyst Steve Fischer cautioned against attributing the decreasing numbers to a single factor, such as the lake going dry.

“It’s impossible to attribute a property’s value rise or decrease to one thing,” Fischer said.

The market value of a home on Oakdale Drive went from $398,691 in 2007 and 2008 to $430,856 in 2009 and 2010, then decreased to $378,916 for 2011 and 2012.

Two doors down on Oakdale, market value went from $268,771 in 2007 and 2008 to $290,273 for the following two years. It then slipped to $255,440 for 2011 and 2012.