Gilcrest, Sterling look toward cohesive solution for groundwater relief | TheFencePost.com

Gilcrest, Sterling look toward cohesive solution for groundwater relief

Kayla Young | Editor

High groundwater levels in Gilcrest and Sterling, Colo., have caused problems for farmers in the area.

Members of a groundwater technical committee from the Gilcrest and Sterling areas, regions that have often butted heads on establishing cohesive water solutions, presented short- and long-term proposals to resolve rising water table issues at the Irrigationist Symposium at Loveland's Embassy Suites last week.

While high groundwater levels have varied in consistency and manageability in the two towns, both have reported flooding in homes and fields since 2006, when statewide policy changed to require well augmentation.

Concerns over respect of senior water rights along the basin have stalled a solution until now and prevented farmers, especially in the Gilcrest area, from simply pumping water out of their fields and putting it to beneficial use.

Thursday's presentation, however, hinted at progress and partnership in addressing a problem that threatens the sustainability of farmland and the value of family homes. While the committee cannot take policy positions, its input has been requested by the Colorado Legislature on determining appropriate solutions, particularly in guiding debate on House Bill 1178 for emergency well pumping.

“What we’re trying to do is come together and not fight at the Capitol, and all come to solutions we can agree to.”-Joe Frank, General manager for the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District

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Moving forward, the committee, representing the South Platte Basin Roundtable, hopes to put politics aside and find a solution that satisfies all water users, said Joe Frank, general manager for the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Sterling.

"What we're trying to do is come together and not fight at the Capitol, and all come to solutions we can agree to," Frank said, presenting with fellow technical committee member Randy Ray, executive director of Greeley-based Central Water Conservancy District.

For short-term relief in Gilcrest, the committee has proposed pumping a well east of the town, in addition to the observation of four to six monitoring wells in the area. The proposal aims to temporarily lower the water table and collect data on the effects of such pumping to guide long-term policy.

Pumping at 2 cubic feet per second, Ray said the water table could be lowered by a foot after one month and 2 feet after six months.

He shared maps from 2012 demonstrating areas in Gilcrest where the groundwater levels had risen to just 5 feet below the surface. Since then, he said the water table has consistently risen one to one-and-a-half feet a year.

The cost of this short-term solution has been estimated at $450,000 to $500,000.

Later, the committee hopes to add additional pumping wells north and west of Gilcrest. Around this time, in July 2015, the committee expects to receive an in-depth study to contribute to permanent policy solutions.

For the Sterling area, Frank said well pumping could be implemented as both a short- and long-term solution. For initial relief, $80,000 in funding has been requested for Sterling's de-watering. Frank pointed to the Pawnee Ridge Division as evidence that pumping could provide long-term relief. In 2011, two residents ran de-watering wells for six months to a year, bringing the water table down 2 feet. The division has not reported groundwater flooding since.

Frank pointed to a "backbone network" of monitoring wells that will help decision-makers better understand the hydrology of the two towns. While much of the network is already established, Frank said additional wells and funding would help.

Looking long-term, Frank and Ray said additional infrastructure will be needed to store supplies and ease gaps in agricultural augmentation requirements.

Ray said this gap sits at 250,000 to 300,000 acre-feet a year.

"The third priority is to look at infrastructure and storage on the South Platte, realizing there is an agriculture gap and realizing there are things we can work on, not just through the committee but basinwide, collectively, working on infrastructure and moving that forward," Frank said. ❖