Colorado House Ag Committee passes bill aimed at addressing South Platte’s high groundwater levels
For the first time, a bill aimed at addressing high groundwater issues in the South Platte River Basin received a favorable vote from state lawmakers Monday night, and those who have been dealing with thousands of dollars in lost crops and flooded fields and basements hope it’s just the first of many steps toward fixing the problem.
A proposed House bill that would authorize the state engineer to respond to damaging conditions caused by high groundwater levels in the South Platte River Basin was approved by the Colorado House of Representatives Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee on Monday with a 9-3 vote.
The bill – sponsored by Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins – would also authorize a study of the interaction between the South Platte alluvial aquifer and surface streams.
Monday’s decision came after about 41/2 hours of discussion.
The proposed measure will now be passed on to the Appropriations Committee.
Monday’s vote came just four days after a separate bill aimed at addressing high groundwater problems along the South Platte was killed when the Colorado Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee came to a 3-3 vote.
“We finally got something to go our way,” said LaSalle-area vegetable grower Harry Strohauer, who during the past four years has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in crops that have rotted in fields where water levels were too high. Additionally, the basement of his home, which is only about 3 feet below ground, flooded last year, and it took Strohauer two months to pump the water out of his house.
“Hopefully, this is just the first step in fixing this problem,” added Strohauer, who went to Denver to testify during Monday’s hearing.
Like Strohauer, many in the region are dealing with high groundwater issues on their property, stemming from what they and some water experts believe is caused by the state’s decision to curtail or completely shut down more than 8,000 groundwater wells all along the South Platte River in recent years.
Those decisions were made in the early 2000s, following a historic drought, when the state water courts determined the continued pumping of those wells would deplete water supplies downstream and cause harm to senior water-right holders who relied on surface water for irrigation and other purposes.
As part of those decisions, requirements for augmentation plans – a court-approved plan designed to replace water depletion – became more stringent for well owners, making it even more difficult and more expensive for well owners to get their wells pumping again.
And without those groundwater wells pumping recently – when water in the river basin has been abundant – some say the groundwater in those areas has had nowhere to go, except for seeping into basements, emerging through the ground to sit idle on farmland or flowing into Nebraska before Coloradans can make use of it.
Some experts who testified Monday said groundwater levels in the South Platte River Basin have recently been at all-time highs.
While the producers and residents experiencing issues with high groundwater levels want the wells to pump again, water rights owners downstream have expressed concerns about what the pumping would do to the availability of their surface water.
As they had last Thursday, those opposed to allowing the groundwater wells to pump returned to the Capitol to testify at Monday’s hearing.
But so, too, did those who want the wells back on.
“I think we had more people up here speaking today … telling our lawmakers how badly we need these wells back on,” said LaSalle-area rancher Chuck Sylvester, who testified Monday. “And I believe the quality of the testimony today was better. I think we learned a lot about what we needed to do after Thursday’s bill didn’t pass.”
The bill that was killed last week – sponsored by Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, and Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, – would have created a pilot program to allow some water rights holders to pump more water from wells where groundwater levels are historically high. Such a move would have allowed those wells to be studied, as well as pump water from the wells to potentially bring down the groundwater levels that are causing problems for many who work and live along the river.
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign SB 21-87, known as the Farm Workers Bill of Rights, though much of the content will be decided through the rulemaking process.