As waters rise, Gilcrest farmers, engineers search for solutions
June 11, 2015
Like many other agricultural fields in Weld County, Harry Strohauer's plots off of Weld County Road 42 have not been planted with corn this year.
Residue of past crops remain, but not much grows here — just a spattering of weeds that trickle off and eventually give way to bare ground.
While farmers in other parts of the county and state have been playing a waiting game with Mother Nature, holding off for sunny days to dry out fields before planting, Strohauer's water problems go beyond weather.
His fields sit atop an aquifer Strohauer and fellow Weld County farmer Glen Fritzler describe as an overflowing bathtub with a broken drain. The bathtub has been pouring over more and more since 2006, the farmers say.
They attribute the high levels of water in fields and basements to their restricted access to irrigation wells that previously pumped out of the aquifer.
Fritzler mentions this area could not sustain even an eighth of an inch more of rain, and as if one cue, drops begin to pour down last Friday afternoon during a tour for farmers and engineers from Golden-based firm Brown and Caldwell.
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They were gathered on this spring day to share ideas and assess damages.
The firm was tasked earlier in the year with carrying out a six-month study of high-risk areas, such as Gilcrest, to better inform a state technical committee on how the hydrology functions along the South Platte basin.
With frustration running high that farmers cannot pump from their wells here, a group known as the Groundwater Coalition, in which Strohauer and Fritzler participate, has invited firm hydrologist Kurt Zeiler and supervising engineer Matt Lindburg to assess the situation on the ground.
"We can't even get weeds to grow here," Strohauer told the group. "I thought weeds could grow anywhere."
While many farmers have faced difficulties with waterlogged fields this season, the moisture in the Gilcrest area is notable.
Not far from Strohauer's plot, pools of water surround an onion field managed by Hungenberg Produce. Along the edges of the field, boots quickly sink deep into the mud.
Along the field runs a drainage ditch where one can only assume water has been flowing out to help lower the water table. It is so overgrown with white flowers of hoary cress, an invasive species from western Asia and eastern Europe, that farmer Glenn Werning said he cannot see to the bottom in order verify that the ditch has been operating.
With the complement of cattails, the flora here, just beyond U.S. 85, hints the water levels are much too high, and heavy rains are not the sole culprit.
Trudy Peterson, Gilcrest's town administrator, said the town has already received its first report this year of flooding in a home basement. Previously, Peterson said reports had not come in until September.
She also noted the financial burden the situation has placed on the small Colorado community with lower than average household income. While the U.S. Census reports Weld County's average household income at $57,180 and Colorado's at $58,433, households in Gilcrest bring in more than a fifth less income at $45,625 a year.
Peterson said while the community has received state grant funding to help pay for more than a million dollars in infrastructure repairs due to groundwater, Gilcrest must also pay much of the cost out of its low tax base. The residents themselves pay one of the highest sewer fees in the state at $48 a month, Peterson said.
Downstream in the Sterling area, where high groundwater has also become increasingly problematic, residents have also begun reporting home damages.
Rick and Pam Hinojos, who live near the South Platte River in Snyder, sent out an open letter in late May reporting their first occurrence of basement flooding.
"We did not have flooding in our basement when the Platte River flooded in 1995 nor in 2013," the Hinojos said in the letter, shared with the Greeley Tribune.
"We have now been pumping water out of our basement for 17 days. We had to cut the drywall at least a foot. The flood ruined our carpeting. … Since the water is seeping up in the basement our flood insurance company said this type of claim in not covered."
The Hinojos attributed the home flooding to the flooding of nearby irrigation ponds, which they said had not occurred in previous years.
Voices from across the agricultural and water communities have been calling for more water storage in Colorado, to take advantage of wet seasons such as these, but with projects delayed several decades by slow federal permitting, storage cannot provide a quick solution.
"What's really bad is when we had the drought of 2012 and … all these people are farming and their crops are burning up, and our basements are still being flooded. We couldn't use the water that was right underneath us for our crops. There are so many management things," Fritzler said.
Fritzler attributes Gilcrest's water woes to management issues starting with the state's rigid water policy. Any solution to the problem must occur within the state's legal code, meaning augmentation and seniority requirements must be respected.
Fritzler expressed his frustration toward Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, which plays a significant water management role in the area and has been active in exploring options.
"I'm not trying to throw anyone under the bus: it's Central. Central will take this recharge (water that must be returned to the system) and a lot of that recharge is happening right here, but then they take and distribute those credits outside of this area. So they are filling this bathtub full of water and letting them drain it somewhere else," Fritzler said during the meeting with Brown and Caldwell.
He encouraged CCWCD to take the area's different soil types into greater consideration.
CCWCD executive director Randy Ray said the district has invested substantial amounts of funding and energy in addressing Gilcrest's high water table, but has also become frustrated with the lack of results.
After years of working on solutions, he said there are now board members voting against dedicating funding to the issue because to date, their efforts have not proven worthwhile.
A recent point of contention was a dewatering pump owned by Strohauer that had been approved to pump 24 hours a day in order to provide some relief and provide to data collection. The well was shut off after the first day due to miscommunication and questions over how the pumping would impact senior water holders.
While state legislation passed this year will allow pumping for data purposes to begin in July, farmers in the Groundwater Coalition are frustrated it will not be sufficient and that the proper work has not been done to address their situation.
Regarding the meeting with Brown and Caldwell, Ray said it is good the firm could observe the situation, but reminded them that their contract restricts them from making policy suggestions. The firm may collect information but it cannot make proposals.
"If they are doing their work properly, they should have let some of Glen's policy issues go in one ear and out the other," Ray said.
Supervising engineer Lindburg said the trip simply contributed to data and information collection.
"We're looking at the overall withdrawal of water from irrigation, water that is put back in the aquifer from recharge ponds, from surface water irrigation, from seepage from ditches, looking at resulting change of groundwater storage as a result of that," Lindburg said. "Basically (we're) getting a handle on all of the drivers that impact the regional water table."
Andy Moore, senior water resource specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the firm is expected to submit the next phase of its study this month.
"It's not going to be the end solution, but it can give some ideas of where we can go from here," Moore said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to idenitfy the correct type of agricultural ditch running along an onion field near Gilcrest.