When Jeff Hulsmann bought O’Malley’s Steak Pub in 1986, the longtime local bar was just across Highway 105 from a healthy Palmer Lake.
Now, the restaurant’s eastward-facing deck overlooks small patches of water scattered throughout an overgrown pasture — displaying few clues to its former life as a thriving body of water.
Hulsmann heads the town’s Awake Palmer Lake campaign, which will host its annual Taste of Palmer Lake food festival Saturday to raise money and awareness for the once-great, 100-acre-foot recreational lake.
On the eve of the event, he said the town is also nearing a solution to what many residents believe to be the community’s most urgent matter (according to a survey).
“That’s everyone’s top priority — getting the lake back,” he said. “We’re about to move out of the information gathering process and into the solution process. With a little luck, we’ll be able to pull it off.”
During Taste of Palmer Lake, 11 area venues will raise money for improvements to the lake and its surrounding parkland.
“Every dime that is made goes into the lake fund,” Hulsmann said. “It’s the best thing that Palmer Lake does, in my opinion.”
Among those participating are nine restaurants — Mozaic, O’Malley’s, the SpeedTrap, Rock House Ice Cream, Bella Panini, Parked Pierogi, La Rosa, The Villa and Palmer Lake BBQ and Country Market — as well as vino purveyor the Wine Seller, and Catering by Nikki, owned and operated by Mayor Nikki McDonald.
Tickets are $15-20 per person and include food and drink samples from each location, as well as live music from 1-4 p.m. Proceeds go to the Palmer Lake Restoration Fund, the nonprofit behind Awake Palmer Lake. The fund currently has around $40,000 in its coffers and has paid for a variety of park projects.
McDonald said she is hopeful Taste of Palmer Lake will garner between $6,000 and $8,000 (there are 400 tickets) for the fund.
“The town and the Awake [Palmer] Lake committee have worked together closely for one common goal, water in our lake,” she wrote in an email. “The Taste is our biggest fundraiser of the year, and has been very successful in the past.”
Darin Dawson, a seven-year resident and Awake Palmer Lake committee member, said the festival is also likely “the biggest event to raise awareness” for the issue.
Dawson, chief operations officer of Colorado Springs-based tech company BombBomb, donates his time and the company’s proprietary video-email services to promote the cause.
“I do what I can and I use BombBomb to get the word out and keep people informed,” Dawson said. “I’m a resident and I’m trying to do my part with what I’m good at.”
Lately, that has meant creating videos about the information-gathering efforts currently being undertaken at the site of the former lake.
“I went out there with my iPhone, shot some video and sent it out,” Dawson said about the drilling of monitoring wells earlier this year. “Palmer Lake is such a great spot and the community loves it, but I think we need to do a better job letting people in Colorado Springs know what’s up.”
Oh, the possibilities
Since Palmer Lake began to disappear more than a decade ago, residents have investigated a variety of solutions.
“We’re taking everything into consideration,” Hulsmann said. “If we could have the whole lake back and make it work, of course that would be our preference. But we probably need to alter the way we do things, because it’s not working out the way it is.”
Earlier this year, Colorado Springs-based JDS Hydro Consulting Inc. donated services to drill seven wells down to the bedrock below the lake to monitor the effects of rainfall, snowmelt and other water sources in an effort to better understand how best to correct the problem.
“The idea is that we gather all of this information and [JDS] comes up with a plan or a couple plans on how we move forward,” Hulsmann said.
A UCCS geology course taught by Geography and Environmental Studies Professor George Bolling also has made its first project of the semester an analysis of soil samples taken from the lake.
Hulsmann said there may be different remedies to the situation, including constructing a retaining wall to prevent seepage from the south side of the lake, lining the lake with bentonite clay (commonly used to prevent leaking) or creating a smaller, deeper and more manageable lake.
A new lake would likely be about three-quarters the current size and take on the original shape of Palmer Lake, before the railroad’s expansion of its south end.
“If we can duplicate that historical footprint, then that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” he said, adding that the lost portion of the lake may become a ballpark, wading or fishing pond, or be used for another purpose.
The website states another possibility may be to purchase water to offset evaporation each year (roughly three feet), although that same tactic was used in 2005 and failed due to inadequate follow-through.
“I have no doubt that it will be resolved,” McDonald said. “If next winter is as wet as last, that will be a wonderful thing for us and the lake.”
After JDS presents the town with a potential remedy, Palmer Lake will still need to deal with the sourcing of water, according to the mayor.
“When all of the testing is done … we will then hopefully be able to do what the engineers suggest,” she said. “Then provided we have access to excess water to put in the lake we will proceed as quickly as possible. Even though we would be buying the water from down stream it will still come from our water supply.”
What McDonald means is that the town currently uses the 147.5 acre-feet of water it is entitled to from the reservoirs each year; so without an additional allotment sanctioned by the court, Palmer Lake will need to purchase the excess from other water rights holders.
At the end of the day, the town’s solution will depend on how much it can afford.
Dawson said the committee has worked with Leadership Pikes Peak to propose that Bass Pro Shops sponsor and help restore the lake, but they have yet to take the bait.
Singin’ the railroad blues
The small town of Palmer Lake for years had used reservoir water to fill its namesake.
The two reservoirs and lake were once used by the railroad to fill and clean steam engines. Then in 1978, the railroad deeded all of those rights to the town — but there was a catch.
In 2001, after the town had used the pipeline to top off Palmer Lake for a generation, it was found that using the industrial water rights to fill a recreational lake was illegal.
And that’s when the lake began to wither and dry.
“Someone from the state said, ‘You’re not allowed to do that,’ and we said, ‘What do you mean? We’ve been doing this for 100 years,’ ” Hulsmann explained.
By that point, other water sources had also been diverted to make way for residential and commercial development, so the lake was left to survive only on what was offered from above and below.
“There is no actual source of water aside from what falls into the lake or comes from underground runoff,” he said. “So the lake dried up.”
The town went to water court to fight for the right to fill the lake, but because Palmer Lake hadn’t used its rights since being found illegal, the court found that the rights had been abandoned, according to Hulsmann.
After a recommendation by the state, the committee has returned to court with a request to alter the town’s water rights to allow for recreational use. The case is scheduled to be heard in February.
Hulsmann said that the committee is also close to reaching an agreement with Union Pacific Railroad to restore access to a stream that the company had diverted north, which could help combat evaporation in the meantime.
“It’s not enough to fill the lake, but it is enough to offset a large portion of the evaporation,” Hulsmann said. “That might have kept the lake at a reasonable level all this time.”