Almost a Family Business:
Water District Manager,
Bob de Haas
from the Pine Brook Press, Winter 2001
West of the 100th meridian (which runs through the western part of Kansas) precipitation drops to an average of 20 inches or less, and human presence is determined as much by water, or lack thereof, as anything else. The West is arid country interrupted by mountain ranges wringing scarce moisture out of eastbound clouds. Last summer’s drought showed how dependent we are on those clouds shedding some moisture in the right place - the drainage areas for our water supply. Water is important here.
On a winter morning I stood with Bob deHaas, Pine Brook Water District Manager, and his assistant Shawn Beauprez looking down at Four Mile Creek. It is a modest creek, flowing at a few hundred gallons per minute, and would be inconsequential in wetter lands. Here, it is the primary source of our water. Last summer it dried up completely and we were on water restrictions. Today, the flow is more than adequate to satisfy the needs of the district’s 380 homes and approximately 1300 residents.
Keeping clean water flowing reliably in our taps is Bob’s job and one he takes very seriously. After all, it is practically a family business!
Bob’s parents are Dutch and grew up in Indonesia. After World War II, they moved to Holland, Canada, upstate New York and finally to Pine Brook Hills in 1966. Bob was in the 6th grade. There were less than forty homes here, but there was a new water system. He got to know the system quite well because his mother, Trudy Lay, became responsible for its operation and his father served on the Board of Directors. In those days there were always problems. When water mains broke all water was lost and it would take days or weeks to recover. Today a break is fixed in 4-6 hours. Bob remembers his mother dropping everything to rush off to the many emergencies. As a teenager he had a jeep and would drive his mother to the emergency du jour. Once there was a break at the top of a hill out of reach of digging equipment. Bob and some friends dug up the main line by hand. The water system became as familiar as his own home.
But managing a water district was not what he wanted to do. As a child he rode horses everywhere among these hills. In high school he trained and broke horses. A veterinarian is what he wanted to be. So after Boulder High School, he enrolled in Animal Science at Colorado State University. However, it took just one semester to be convinced that while horses were wonderful, Animal Science was not for him.
Bob went west to Grand Junction and switched to something completely different--Police Science. At twenty one, he accepted a job with the Rifle, Colorado, police department. He took to police work, becoming a sergeant within two years.
In 1976, Rifle was, what Bob calls, in the police vernacular, an “active” town. The potential wealth from oil shale had created a boom town. He broke up hundreds of bar fights, took part in many drug raids, and kicked down doors just like on TV. His most harrowing experience came while responding to a domestic disturbance. An irate husband thought that police had no business interfering and waited in ambush with a 12 gauge shotgun. Bob was hit everywhere - the right leg had forty odd holes, there were shots in his face, hands and eyes. A bullet proof vest prevented more serious damage. Pieces of lead still in his body activate security screens at airports.
Other incidents had lesser consequences. During a high speed pursuit one night his partner wanted to abandon the chase. Bob suggested that they continue for a little while because he suspected that the car they were pursuing was low on gas. Sure enough, about ten minutes later, that car rolled to a stop, out of gas. They had the culprits and were feeling quite satisfied. But looking around they quickly realized that they did not have the slightest idea where they were. Completely lost, they spent the rest of the night out there until morning light allowed them to get their bearings.
By 1987 the oil shale boom fizzled and the economy of Rifle took a severe downturn. So Bob moved back to the Eastern Slope, intending to work as a police officer, when the job of PBH Water District Manager opened up. Now that was a job he knew how to do. He has been responsible for our water ever since. It is more peaceful here; nobody in PBH has ever shot a water district manager.
Bob lives here with his wife, Kathy, a hair stylist at Chez Salon in Boulder, and three daughters, Jade, Kristy and Leslie. He is teaching Jade to drive on the same roads where he rode horses many years ago – roads on which he cannot get lost! He has been active in the community and was the volunteer fire chief for many years. He is still the Captain for the PBH part of Boulder Mountain Fire Authority. Fireman and Policeman! He has lived many a boy’s dream.
Under Bob’s management our water district has grown from a system supplied by deep wells to a combination of surface water (70%) and wells (30%). It is almost two separate systems. Four Mile Creek services the areas above the Community Center/Fire Station on Linden, and the wells provide water below. The major difference in the water is the hardness; the well water is about twice as hard.
Riding along during the daily inspection and recording of storage and functional data, it is clear that the system has been vastly upgraded and improved during the last thirteen years. There is a membrane filtration plant, the second to go online in the state, that is extremely reliable and produces water greatly exceeding state and federal standards. The monitoring system is state of the art; problems are pinpointed and fixed without the consumer being aware that anything was wrong.
As we drove back from Four Mile Creek to the office on Linden, the conversation kept veering to the defining question about water in the West - availability. Bob thinks like a dry land farmer, worrying about rain in summer and snowpack in winter. He has become a weatherman, using internet data from two weather stations at each end of our drainage area to predict stream flows. He has to tackle legal issues, protecting our district’s water rights under arcane water laws. He has created a well managed modern system, but I sense he would consider his greatest accomplishment would be acquiring enough water sources to shield PBH from everything except a hundred year drought.
The office is bright and cheery, but it was only recently completed, as part of the Firehouse remodel. Where, I ask, was the water office prior to last March? Why, in Bob’s basement, where else? It had been there for the last thirteen years. I knew that Bob and Shawn are the two full-time employees. But there is also a part-time employee. It is Bob’s mother, Trudy. Definitely a family business! And a well run one at that.
The article above leaves off with the thought of how to have enough water resources to be able to handle droughts. So now I, Robert de Haas, your water manager, gives you the “Rest of the Story”.
2002 was a drought year, as a matter of fact it was the worst drought year we had ever seen. Which by the end of the year had been rated as a once in 300 hundred years type drought. The District lost its surface water supply for over 60 days straight, previously we had never lost that supply for more than 10 days at a time.
The District had to impose strict usage limitations and when the drought finally ended we were within a couple of weeks of running out of water. We realized that not only did we need to modify what kind of drought conditions we needed to be prepared for but also that this drought had brought about changes in how water law and water rights would be administered. Without going into lengthy detail suffice it to say the District could foresee that there could be many years where water might be present at our diversion point but we would not be able to take any of it.
I was sitting in our office thinking that I really didn’t want to have to deal with the unknowns of water supply each year and that we really needed to have a plan/supply that would not only deal with the drought type issues but also the changes in the water law.
The District had looked at many, many, options over the years including water conservation (our typical usage is lower than many entities currently are trying to get their customers down too), new water tanks, new wells, trucking in water when needed, buying an existing reservoir somewhere, and more. None of these options, based on the drought of 2002 and the predictions of more droughts due to either global warming or changing weather patterns would solve our problem.
It was then that I realized that the best option available to us was to build a reservoir right behind our office. I knew that the site had great geology to build on, it would be completely contained within our own District, could not be seen from anywhere outside of the District, and the creek that runs through our District is very seasonal and disappears once it gets to town and did not connect to any other creek, that’s how minor of a creek it is.
The Board reviewed the suggestion in the fall of 2002 and authorized expenditures to conduct an investigation to see if it would be feasible. The District proceeded slowly with the investigation so that if a major stumbling block was found we would not have spent funds needlessly.
No major stumbling blocks were found and soon we were holding community meetings to explain the concept of the project, the need for the project, and why none of the other options would address our problem. I guess we did a good job of answering the questions and showing what our investigations had found because in May of 2004 the District voters were asked to approve a bond issue to pay for the project. About 75% of the voters voted and they approved the project by a 3 to 1 margin.
The next step was to get permission from Boulder County to build the dam. The presentations to the Boulder County Commissioners was based on the same information used in the community meetings and were presented by me. We did not hire professionals to make our presentations to either the community or the County Commissioners. This decision was made based on we knew all the information so when questions came up we immediately knew the answer instead of having to say “we will get back to you on that”.
This proved to very effective as we obtained our permit from the County within 5 months of having filed the application.
The next step was to get a contractor and engineer. The District found that proceeding in the typical fashion of hiring an engineer, then going out to bid, and then, if the bids came in right going to construction left a lot of unknowns as to whether we would be able to afford the project. This was especially troubling as many of the engineers were estimating the cost as much higher than our budget, and we are talking about in millions more.
So in typical District fashion we turned the normal process upside down and decided to do the project as a design build project. This process kept the District involved in the process to help manage costs and helped make sure the project was designed to stay within budget.
I acted as the Districts representative throughout all of these processes and also as the District’s project manager during construction. This process was so effective that the project was completed within our budget and is performing better than all expectations, including my own. We also saved millions of dollars as another dam, that actually used a lot of our design concepts was built immediately after ours and cost almost twice as much. Our cost for the dam was approximately $4.5 million dollars.
The District now has one of the most reliable water supplies in the State of Colorado. The project was so unique in how we approached it that the United States Society on Dams picked our project as the best project for 2006, what an honor it was to accept that award!
So not only did we construct the project in a timely manner, only 3 ½ years from thought to completion which is unheard of for these type of projects, but it outperforms everyone’s expectations, and of course most importantly has ended my search for how to better secure our water supply.
Bob de Haas – Manager