A groundwater study initiated in 2012 of critical interest to northern Colorado farmers is nearing its conclusion, and the scientist spearheading the endeavor will soon make policy suggestions to Colorado lawmakers.
Many water providers and users who have something to gain or lose from any new policy in the state’s groundwater management find themselves as anxious for the 2014 legislative session as in years prior, or more so, they say.
Some believe the existing system works well, while others believe changes need to be made to get the maximum beneficial use out of groundwater and surface water to address the water shortages the region is expected to face in upcoming decades.
“I think everyone’s really eager,” said Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Sterling, after an aquifer management conference this week, hosted by the American Ground Water Trust.
Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute in Fort Collins, who’s spearheading the South Platte Groundwater Study, revealed some of his data at the conference, but didn’t discuss what policy suggestions he might make to state lawmakers.
He’s made similar presentations at other well-attended water meetings in recent weeks.
Following the groundwater conference this week, Waskom said in an interview he’s at a point where he knows what legislative suggestions he’ll make but is still using as much time as possible before Dec. 31 — his deadline to conclude the report — to analyze the data he’s been collecting since 2012, and do more fine-tuning.
There are many like Frank, who would like to see little or nothing changed to the existing system of how groundwater is managed in the state — a system that he and others say is doing what’s needed to protect senior water rights.
But others believe changes are needed.
While the study was initiated in 2012, the debate goes back farther.
For someone to legally pump water out of the ground in Colorado, most wells must have an approved augmentation plan — to make up for depletions to the rivers, since pumping draws water that would otherwise make its way into nearby rivers over time. Many surface water rights in Colorado date back to the 1800s, when the area was settled, and are often more senior than groundwater rights, because groundwater pumping didn’t begin until it was needed in the 1930s, to weather the Dust Bowl.
In 2006, the state increased augmentation requirements for groundwater pumping following years of drought, when some surface water users believed they weren’t getting adequate water because too much was being pumped out of the ground.
The rule changes brought the state into what Waskom and others refer to as the “era of full augmentation.”
But because of the demand and increased prices for water, some water providers and farmers say they haven’t been able to acquire the needed augmentation water to get all of their wells pumping.
About 8,000 wells across northeast Colorado were curtailed or shut down.
In recent years, though, there have been reports of high groundwater in the South Platte River Basin — particularly in the LaSalle, Gilcrest and Sterling areas — that has flooded basements and rotted crops out in the fields, while also causing other issues.
Many attributed the high groundwater problems to the changes in Colorado’s augmentation rules, believing the combination of more augmenting and fewer wells pumping was causing the aquifer to overflow.
A number of Weld County farmers with curtailed wells reached a boiling point during the 2012 drought, when their crops were struggling to survive, and at the same time they were sitting on top of a full aquifer, to which they had limited access. A number of local farmers and Weld County commissioners stressed to Gov. John Hickenlooper that all problems would be solved if farmers could pump their wells.
They asked Hickenlooper to make an emergency declaration that would allow them to pump their wells.
But many other water users — particularly surface users downstream — urged the governor not to allow it. They said it would prevent them from getting the surface water to which they were entitled.
The governor didn’t allow any emergency groundwater pumping for Weld farmers, saying that the state would likely face a barrage of lawsuits if he did so. The 2012 discussions led to the groundwater study. Now many are awaiting the report and follow-up discussions among lawmakers.
“I’m very optimistic ... cautiously optimistic ... that we’ll get some needed changes out of all of this,” said Glen Fritzler, a LaSalle-area farmer whose wells were impacted and whose basement flooded in recent years. “I’m anxious.” ❖