Hundreds of northeastern Colorado wells still shut off; farmers, organizations pushing for changes

Eric Brown Greeley, Colo.
ERIC BELLAMY / ebellamy@greeleytribune.comHolding an ear of corn that did not grow to full size, Frank Eckhardt stands on 35 acres owned by his cousin James Ewing near La Salle. After his well was turned off, Ewing attempted to grow corn without irrigation and the crop failed.

Reminders of the need for change surround Glen Fritzler these days.

Whether the La Salle area farmer is stepping down into his basement, where about $50,000 in repairs have been done because of water damage during the past two years, or he’s stepping out into the fields where he’s had to plant less-profitable crops on some of his 350 acres of farmland, the fact that all six of his groundwater wells are only pumping at about 40 percent – and the fact that he can’t do anything about it – rarely escapes his mind.

Fritzler and many other farmers – from La Salle south to Fort Lupton and as far east as the Wiggins area in Morgan County – have dealt with groundwater issues in recent times, problems they say stem from a Supreme Court ruling that called for the Colorado Division of Water Resources to shut down 440 wells and curtail the pumping of about 1,000 others back in 2006.

That decision came following the historic drought of the early 2000s, when water in the South Platte River was scarce and senior water right holders – municipalities, such as Boulder, Centennial, Highlands Ranch and Sterling, and farmers down river – were concerned that their water supply in the river basin was being depleted by junior water right well owners, who were still pumping groundwater during those dry times.

The groundwater of the area’s Alluvium Aquifer flows into the South Platte River Basin.

While the Supreme Court ruling stayed true to the water rights pecking order established by the state back in 1969, that isn’t making the affected farmers feel any better about the situation.

The decision to shut off the wells was made following a time when water in the South Platte was scarce, but those wells have remained off recently – when precipitation has been above average and the river has been flowing at higher levels, farmers explain.

Because of the recent increase in rain and the amount of snowpack now flowing into the South Platte River Basin – and because those 440 wells remain shut off while others are not fully operating – the groundwater in those areas has nowhere to go, except for seeping into basements, or sitting in low-lying sections of farmland, or flowing into Nebraska before Coloradans can make use of it, they say.

“I’d like to send somebody a bill for all of this,” Fritzler said with a slight laugh, standing in his basement, which – after once being completely finished – remains a work in progress from the water damage done.

In addition to the $50,000 in damage done to his home, Fritzler estimated that planting 75 acres of wheat where he once planted corn – since wheat requires less water – costs him about $45,000 per year.

“I’m a small-scale farmer, so that definitely hurts,” said Fritzler, who’s well-known in the area for his produce stand and corn maze.

“I’m not sure who I can send the bill to for all of this … maybe all those objectors who got the judge to rule in their favor. They said this is their water. If that’s the case, I’d say they’re responsible for all of this.

“When I built this house, I was told I wouldn’t even need a sump pump here because of the location. Now look at this.”

The affected wells have remained shut off since 2006 because those wells either don’t have augmentation plans – a way of later adding water to the South Platte River to make up for the depletions caused by well pumping – or they don’t have the water supply to fulfill their augmentation plans.

When the wells were ordered to be shut off a few years ago, augmentation requirements also became more stringent – requiring well pumpers to have augmentation plans in place that could meet the needs of a drought year.

As noted by Randy Ray, executive director with the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District (CCWCD), many farmers can’t afford to have such a stringent plan in place.

“It definitely puts them in a tough spot,” he said.

The shutdown or curtailed wells lie within the augmentation subdistricts of the CCWCD.

Fritzler, like many farmers nearby, still has senior water rights he can depend on for water – such as owning shares in irrigation ditch companies – while his wells are shut down or not fully operating. But Ray noted that’s not the case for everyone, particularly farmers in the Wiggins area.

“There’s some people in pretty bad shape from all of this,” he said.

Because of the hardships endured by the farmers, ag producers in the area – as well as various farmers organizations, such as the Weld County and Colorado farm bureaus – are asking for legislative changes. They’re specifically asking that the Colorado Division of Water Resources – also referred to as the Office of the State Engineer – be given more flexibility in controlling those wells – certainly during times like these, when the South Platte River Basin is full and senior water right holders aren’t at risk of being deprived of their water.

Giving the state engineer’s office more flexibility was a topic of discussion at the Colorado Farm Bureau’s Mid-Summer Meeting in Greeley back in July, and the Weld County Farm Bureau recently listed it as one of its top issues to bring up at the Colorado Farm Bureau’s Annual Meeting in November. At the November meeting, the CFB will vote to adopt a set of policies, which will later be looked at by the CFB Board of Directors.

The CFB Board of Directors will eventually choose from those issues what they want to push regarding legislative changes.

Gege Ellzey, president of the Weld County Farm Bureau, noted that the local bureau has brought up various water issues to the Annual Meeting before, but the issue concerning the state engineer’s office will be the only one concerning water this year. She said the water issues brought up in previous years have been Weld County-specific, and the policy of giving the state engineer’s office more flexibility would be more of a statewide issue – and hopefully looked at more closely by the CFB.

But until changes are made – or until water levels recede – farmers in the area will continue dealing with the high water tables, they say. One of the farmers hoping for a change as soon as possible is Harry Strohauer, also a La Salle area farmer. Strohauer said about 100 of his 750 acres of potatoes were ruined this year because groundwater levels were too high, and as a result, the potatoes received too much water and rotted.

Also a new issue to Strohauer this year was the fact that, like Fritzler, his basement has water in it, despite the basement floor only being 3 feet below the ground. He said he’ll have to finish pumping water out of the basement before he knows the extent of the damage.

Strohauer noted that about 27 of his wells are out of commission on his 3,500 acres of farmland, with about nine other wells curtailed.

Then there’s Frank Eckhardt, another Weld County farmer who said about 20 percent of the 3,700 acres of ground his family farms is now dried up because of their inability to pump, as 12 are shut off completely and 10 others are curtailed.

“It would just be nice to see a little common sense used,” Eckhardt said, noting that he, too, is in favor of the state engineer’s office having more flexibility.


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