One of two proposed bills aimed at helping high groundwater levels fails 1st test | TheFencePost.com

One of two proposed bills aimed at helping high groundwater levels fails 1st test

Eric Brown
Greeley, Colo.

Many farmers, ranchers and homeowners along the South Platte River – dealing with thousands of dollars in lost crops and flooded pastures, fields and basements – didn’t get what they were hoping for Thursday.

The first talks about a proposed bill aimed at addressing high groundwater problems in the South Platte River Basin concluded that night when the Colorado Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee voted 3-3, killing the measure.

The bill – 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 groundwater levels that, according to some experts, are at record highs and causing problems for many who work and live along the river.

Brophy – along with Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, and Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton – voted in favor of the bill Thursday night, after about four hours of discussion and testimony, while Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, voted it down.

Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, was excused from the vote.

While the producers and residents experiencing problems 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.

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A House bill concerning water wells and high groundwater issues in the South Platte Basin will be up for discussion Monday. That bill – sponsored by Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins – would authorize a study of the interaction between the South Platte alluvial aquifer and surface streams. It also would authorize the state engineer to respond – through a variety of actions – to damaging conditions caused by high groundwater levels in the South Platte Basin.

Some of those who’ve been affected by the high groundwater levels were disappointed with the vote.

“I’m just not sure what it’ll take to get people’s attention so something can be done about this,” said LaSalle-area vegetable grower Harry Strohauer, who during the past four years – as groundwater levels have increased – 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.

Like Strohauer, many in the region are dealing with 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 along the South Platte River in recent years.

Those decisions were made in the early 2000s, following a historic drought, when the state 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 expensive for well owners to get their wells pumping again.

And without the groundwater wells pumping recently – when water in the river basin has not been scarce – some say the groundwater in those areas has nowhere to go, except for seeping into basements, emerging through the ground to sit idle on farmland or flowing into Nebraska.