A long-awaited groundwater report suggests lawmakers give Colorado’s top engineer more say in future water functions, add staff to the Water Resources Division office in Greeley and further monitor areas where high groundwater caused extensive damage in recent years in Weld and Logan counties.
The groundwater research endeavor in the South Platte River Basin — referred to as the HB 1278 study, and spearheaded by Colorado Water Institute Director Reagan Waskom — was initiated in 2012 and has been of great interest to Colorado farmers and others.
Waskom’s report and his 2014 legislative suggestions had to be finished and delivered to state lawmakers by Dec. 31. He met the deadline, and his findings were posted on the Colorado Water Institute’s website on Monday.
Many water providers and users might have something to gain or lose from any new policy in the state’s groundwater management. Some believe the existing system works well, but others believe changes need to be made to get the maximum beneficial use out of groundwater and surface water, and to address the water shortages the region is expected to face in upcoming decades.
The debate goes back years and came to a head during the 2012 drought, when crops were struggling in fields but some farmers couldn’t pump their wells to provide relief, even though groundwater was at historically high levels in some spots — even seeping into basements, over-saturating fields and causing other issues in northeast Colorado.
Many impacted residents and others believed the high groundwater problems were caused by the state’s augmentation rules, which had become more stringent in 2006.
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 because groundwater pumping draws water that would otherwise make its way into nearby rivers over time.
When the state increased its requirements in 2006, some farmers couldn’t afford the augmentation water, and about 8,000 wells were either curtailed or shut down in Weld County and northeast Colorado.
In the summer of 2012, local farmers, along with Weld County commissioners, asked Gov. John Hickenlooper to make an emergency declaration that would allow them to temporarily pump some of those curtailed or shutdown wells — in hopes of bringing down the damaging high groundwater, and to also save their crops.
But many other water users — particularly surface users downstream from Greeley — urged the governor not to allow it. They said it would deplete senior surface water supplies to which they were entitled.
The governor didn’t allow any emergency groundwater pumping for local farmers, saying that the state would likely face a barrage of lawsuits if he did so.
However, those 2012 discussions led to lawmakers approving the groundwater study, to see if the state has rules in place that are getting the best use out of its water supplies.
Now, the study is complete.
In his recommendations, Waskom wrote that the state engineer — the head of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, a position currently held by Dick Wolfe — should be more involved and have more input in augmentation and recharge projects.
Waskom also wrote that “the state engineer should be directed by the General Assembly to promulgate new rules for the S. Platte to establish a framework for the voluntary movement of excess water supplies between augmentation plans ... ” and “promulgate new rules for the S. Platte to establish basin specific guidelines for the implementation of administrative curtailment orders ... that reduce waste and facilitate efficient management and distribution of available water supplies ...”
A number of farmers have called for the state engineer to have more authority and more of a say in water functions, rather than being dominated by Colorado’s Water Court system.
Additionally, Waskom also writes that:
• “Two pilot projects should be authorized and funded by the General Assembly to allow the state engineer to track and administer high groundwater zones for a specified period of time to lower the water table at Sterling and Gilcrest/LaSalle while testing alternative management approaches.”
• “Funding should be authorized to provide the Division 1 Engineer (Dave Nettles in Greeley) with two additional FTEs (full-time employees) and greater annual investment in technology upgrades. Additionally, Colorado DWR (Division of Water Resources) needs one additional FTE to focus on data and information services.”
• “The General Assembly should authorize the establishment of a pilot basin-wide management entity with a defined sunset date.”
• “The CWCB (Colorado Water Conservancy Board), CDA (Colorado Department of Agriculture) and DWR (Colorado Division of Water Resources) should work with the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) to implement the basin-wide groundwater monitoring network outlined in this report.”
• “The State should cooperate with the S. Platte Basin Roundtable and water organizations in the basin to fund and conduct a helicopter electromagnetic and magnetic survey to produce detailed hydrogeological maps of the S. Platte alluvial aquifer.” ❖