Hickenlooper says he can’t let the groundwater wells pump in South Platte basin
Gov. John Hickenlooper has delivered the news Weld County farmers didn’t want to hear – the news they couldn’t afford to hear, they say.
During a meeting with Weld County commissioners Tuesday morning, Hickenlooper said he doesn’t have the authority to allow curtailed groundwater wells in Weld County to pump out of priority. Hickenlooper said that, according to the state’s attorney general, he lacks the power to override the prior-appropriations system that’s been in place in Colorado for more than 100 years.
“I lobbied as hard as I could,” Hickenlooper said to Weld County commissioners. “But this is a complex issue.”
Local farmers and officials had been urging Hickenlooper in recent weeks to issue an order allowing the wells to pump for 30 days this summer because irrigation ditches are running dry and millions of dollars in planted crops are expected to burn up soon. Those farmers say high groundwater levels also can cause flooded basements and crop losses.
The agricultural losses would trickle down to affect Weld County’s and the state’s economies, farmers and commissioners have warned.
“I appreciate the governor taking the time to consider this, but I am disappointed,” said Dave Eckhardt, a LaSalle-area farmer, who noted that, with the governor’s decision, he and his family will now begin picking and choosing which crops they’ll save, and which ones they’ll have to let go. Crop insurance, in many cases, covers only about 75 percent of farmers’ losses.
The Eckhardts had already left hundreds of their 3,500 acres unplanted because of the uncertainty of the water situation.
“Now you’re left asking yourself things like, ‘do we spray this field or this field for spider mites?’ ” Eckhardt continued. “If you don’t spray, the spider mites will get to the crop. But if you do spray and find out later you didn’t have enough water to grow that crop, those inputs were a waste of money.
“We’re all left with some tough, expensive decisions to make.”
Hickenlooper also told commissioners that he’ll push for his staff, Weld County farmers, municipalities and senior water rights owners to all work together to find solutions that can help prevent some of the expected agriculture losses. He said he’s hoping conservation efforts and additional water leasing from cities can help with Weld County farmers’ needs.
“I think the governor’s office is trying to find some way to get more water, but what they will find is that there isn’t any,” said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway. “There is only one place where we know there is water, and that is in the aquifer.”
In response to Hickenlooper’s suggestion of purchasing leased water from municipalities, Weld County Commissioner Doug Rademacher, who farms in the Platteville area, said he and many other farmers are already having difficulty finding cities willing to lease them water.
During the meeting, Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker provided information to Hickenlooper’s staff regarding a state statute giving the governor some discretion to provide aid to farmers. That statute addresses the administration and distribution of waters and, in the county’s opinion, allows the governor to temporarily allow the pumping of some wells in Weld County without violating water court decrees.
The governor’s staff said they would take a closer look at the statute.
Hickenlooper said if the state were to allow the groundwater wells in Weld County to pump out of priority this summer, that pumping would affect downstream flows in the South Platte River, and senior water rights owners downriver could bring lawsuits against the state.
Although many of the surface water rights owned in Weld County are senior to downstream users, the groundwater wells in Weld County – most of which were built before 1960 – are lower in priority than surface water rights downstream.
Thousands of groundwater wells in Weld County were curtailed following the historic drought of the early 2000s because the state determined – following expert testimony and millions of dollars spent on all sides – that the pumping of the groundwater depleted surface flows in the South Platte River.
As part of those decisions, augmentation plans for groundwater wells – a state-approved plan designed to make up for depletions to the river – became more stringent and more expensive, preventing many farmers from getting their wells to pump at full capacity again, or at all in some cases.
But some in Weld County still question whether the strict augmentation requirements are necessary, and also question the extent of the groundwater pumping’s impact on streamflows.
Rademacher said flows in the South Platte River are lower than they were in 2002, even though precipitation and snowpack levels are similar to that historic drought year. According to the state’s theory, Rademacher said, having the thousands of groundwater wells curtailed or shutdown should be helping streamflows, but it doesn’t appear to be helping.
While Weld County commissioners were disappointed in Hickenlooper’s decision to keep the wells turned off, they thanked him for signing into law, despite some opposition, a study that will further examine the high groundwater levels in the South Platte Basin.