Northeast Colorado farmers’ groundwater bill struggling for support
April 13, 2014
A bill supported by a group of northeast Colorado farmers and the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley is struggling to find support in other circles.
House Bill 1332 — aimed at providing relief for areas of Weld County and elsewhere where groundwater wells have been curtailed and where high groundwater levels have caused damage — will have its first committee hearing Monday.
But already it's hitting roadblocks.
On Monday, the Colorado Water Congress voted 20-3 against supporting the bill, and the next day, members of the South Platte Basin Roundtable — a group of water officials and experts who meet regularly to discuss the region's water challenges — spoke out against the bill.
Rather than support the proposed legislation, the roundtable voted in favor of having further discussions about the high groundwater levels and curtailed wells, and, if reaching consensus on the issues down the road, adding such suggestions to the South Platte basin's long-term water plan and eventual statewide Colorado Water Plan, which are currently in the works.
"Any legislation right now is premature," said Boulder water attorney and roundtable member Mike Shimmin, noting that the Colorado Water Institute's study of groundwater in the basin was released just a little over three months ago, and further examination and discussion of that information, and other studies, is needed before changes are made.
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HB 1332 calls for de-watering measures in areas of high groundwater, funding more groundwater monitoring and studies, and potentially creating a "basin-wide management entity."
But the majority of South Platte Roundtable members on Tuesday said such measures, like the de-watering efforts, are more complex than they appear. They also said the state putting forth more dollars for more groundwater studies is unnecessary since the recent Colorado Water Institute's study is available for further examination, and the State Engineer's Office is in the midst of a separate groundwater study.
Furthermore, creating an entity for basin oversight would add "another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy," noted Harold Evans, South Platte Roundtable member, and chairman of the city of Greeley Water and Sewer Board.
It was another setback for the LaSalle and Gilcrest area farmers who, due to changes over the years in the state's administration of groundwater and other factors, had their groundwater wells curtailed or shutdown several years ago.
They've pushed for several other bills that address the issues, but have been voted down.
For someone to legally pump water out of the ground in Colorado, most wells must have an approved augmentation plan to make up for depletions to the aquifer. The pumping of that groundwater draws down flows in nearby rivers and streams — surface supplies owned and used by senior water rights holders.
But, because of the increasing competition and price for water, some in the ag community have struggled, and continue to struggle, to find affordable water in their area that they can use for augmentation.
In addition to losing the ability to pump their wells, many of those impacted believe the lack of well-pumping is what's caused the high groundwater levels that in recent years flooded basements and ruined crops in saturated fields near the LaSalle and Gilcrest, and also farther downstream near Sterling.
Others, though, believe the high groundwater levels were caused by a variety of factors, and the state's existing system for groundwater management is needed to protect senior surface water rights, some of which date back to the 1800s.
The debate goes back years and came to a head during the 2012 drought, when crops were struggling in fields but some farmers couldn't pump their wells to provide relief, even though groundwater was at historically high levels in some spots.
That summer, those local farmers, along with Weld County commissioners, asked Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to make an emergency declaration that would allow them to temporarily pump some of those curtailed or shutdown wells — in hopes of bringing down the damaging high groundwater, and to also save their crops.
But many other water users urged the governor not to allow it.
The governor didn't allow any emergency groundwater pumping for local farmers, saying the state would likely face a barrage of lawsuits if he did so.
However, those 2012 discussions led to lawmakers approving the recent Colorado Water Institute groundwater study in the basin — known as the House Bill 1278 Study.
It's the approval of that study that now gives hope to HB 1332 supporters.
"We'll keep plugging away," said Randy Ray, executive director for the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley, which, among other things, acquires and provides augmentation water to many of the impacted farmers. "We saw the same people speak out against that bill, and it still went through." ❖