Rising groundwater in the past decade inundates more basements each year in northern Colorado
About this series
Colorado water is a precious commodity, fueling the growth of municipalities and feeding agriculture throughout the state. The South Platte River Basin, covering more than 22,000 square miles from Denver to Julesberg near the Nebraska border, is a case study in competition for water. This series looks at a variety of issues within the basin, with a focus on Weld County residents, landowners and farmers.
It starts with the ongoing problem of residential basement flooding, a problem that has been reported from Gilcrest to Sterling, and how Weld County residents are dealing with it.
» Part 2 — Landowners and farmers around Gilcrest deal with the aftermath of losing a battle against high-powered water rights holders and their attorneys, which curtailed the use of groundwater for crops and created a need for artificial recharging projects, contributing to ever-increasing groundwater problems in the Gilcrest area.
» Part 3 — The South Platte River Basin has been the site of generations of conflict over water, from the first wells drilled in the 1920s and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s depleting the river to a court battle win for senior water rights holders that some say put Gilcrest-area farmers in a veritable “debtors prison.” The sides are beginning to come together, with legislative action potentially promising a solution all parties can agree upon.
The PVC pipe snaking alongside Joanne Maes’ house gives a little shudder, then two gurgles and a splash.
Every 20 minutes, water shoots out onto a patch of grass in her backyard for 3 seconds.
A sump pump is her only recourse against the groundwater, which now seeps into her basement continuously.
Maes is one of at least dozens of residents drowning in groundwater.
The problem stretches well beyond Gilcrest — from Denver to Julesberg near the Nebraska border, according to water level measurements available in various studies — but this Weld County town of about 1,000 people is the worst example of the issue, one that started about a decade ago. It’s getting worse each year.
“It’s so frustrating,” Maes said. “I’ve lived in this home for 30 years.”
Maes is a former trustee for the town, and she has spent considerable time in the past several years working with residents to deal with the groundwater problems that now plague her property. A couple blocks east of her house, Lee Roemmich has spent more than $20,000 repairing water damage in his basement and installing two sump pumps.
A few blocks west of Maes is the home of Mary Ann Perino, a retired nurse who also spent more than $20,000. Maes said it was Perino’s life savings. Perino said in a 2015 video recorded by a neighbor it was her “funeral money.”
Maes first noticed water in her basement a little more than a month ago. It was coming in through the south wall from the front of her house. She’d never dealt with basement flooding before, as her yard slopes enough toward the street to the south to carry even the worst rains away.
Maes and her husband took turns using a wet/dry vacuum.
“It was seeping, seeping, seeping, so we vacuumed it up, vacuumed it up,” Maes said.
After 12 hours, they had to do something else. They installed a sump pump almost immediately and joined the growing list of residents who’ve found themselves on what some call the vicious circle.
They pump water out of their basements, onto their yards. That water seeps back underground, and they pump it out again.
They can’t pump it into the street: that’s against the town of Gilcrest’s rules. After all, Gilcrest is dealing with the groundwater problem, too, thanks to a series of state statutes and water court decrees that limited well pumping for farmers in the area.
The Lorenz Farm east of U.S. 85 was farmed for generations, and Oliver Lorenz has said the farm never dealt with groundwater issues before this past decade.
There’s a good reason for that: Starting in the 1920s, then growing in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, farmers installed wells. Wells pump out groundwater, and lower the water table.
The South Platte River Basin went from zero wells to roughly 8,200 in just a few decades, according to a 2012 Colorado State University study.
“A lot of people put wells in as insurance,” said John Stulp, the governor’s adviser on all things water. “When the river dried up in July or August and they needed water to finish a crop, they could pump water from under the surface.”
But that water underground is supposed to make its way to the river, which would carry it east to other farmers. Those downstream farmers who had secured water rights decades before the first well was dug felt cheated, even robbed.
“They see the wells as a straw sticking into their water bank account,” Stulp said.
By the late 1960s, it was well-established that well pumping affected river flows, and in 1969, legislation came along forcing well owners to get a decreed water right. So, if your well was drilled in 1945, that’s what your water right said. And you can’t pump that 1945 well unless the farmer downstream with an 1870 water right is happy, or until that 1910 reservoir is filled.
In order to pump, farmers had to get approval from the state engineer for what’s called an augmentation plan, meaning they had to replace a portion of what they pumped.
This actually worked until a series of new state statutes and court decrees eventually limited the amount thousands of wells could pump. Many circle Jan. 1, 2006, as the day that drowned Gilcrest.
Groundwater always rose and fell throughout the year. Studies going back to the 1920s, by W.E. Code, who some call the Godfather of Groundwater, proved that. And after 2006, the area continued to see the rise and fall. But the falls didn’t fall as far, and the rises got worse each year, typically topping out in September or October.
Even groundwater at 10 feet below the surface will flood basements. But now the levels are less than 5 feet in some places, including the Lorenz Farm and the Gilcrest sewage treatment plant. At less than 5 feet, groundwater flows in stormwater drains and in other low-lying areas, as it’s doing now around parts of Gilcrest.
A DROWNING TOWN
Along the east side of U.S. 85, Gilcrest maintains its sewage treatment plant. That’s the series of lined ponds where the town treats its waste before sending the water back to the South Platte River.
Several years ago, groundwater rose to meet those ponds, pushing up the linings and creating little bubble islands in the ponds. Residents called the bubbles whales, and the whales caused problems. The whales ruined the liners and made treatment far less efficient.
The town replaced the liners and added automated features to the plant, a total cost of $1.3 million, with $595,000 coming from the Department of Local Affairs. Gilcrest residents will pay off the rest for the next 20 years. Then, in August, it happened again. The groundwater levels came up quickly, to the highest levels ever recorded, pushing the liners back up.
“It’s as high as it’s ever been. It’s come as fast as it’s ever come, and it’s dissipating very slowly this year,” Gilcrest Town Manager Trudy Peterson said, adding she doesn’t think the new liners will need to be replaced.
Peterson would rather not get into why residents in her town are spending thousands of dollars dealing with flooded basements — or why $1.3 million has been poured into the Gilcrest treatment plant. The town still uses a series of clay pipes to bring sewage to the plant, and with those pipes sitting in groundwater, they’re susceptible to collapse. Some already have. But Peterson doesn’t want to blame anyone.
It’s a loaded question with a loaded answer, and it involves generations of fights over water rights throughout the South Platte Basin.
Peterson is just happy the town is getting help, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and the South Platte Basin Roundtable Groundwater Technical Committee. Some members of those organizations have come out against allowing more well pumping around Gilcrest, so it puts the town in a tricky spot.
Money from those groups has covered emergency dewatering east of U.S. 85, a dewatering study and the drilling of a dewatering well at the sewage treatment plant.
Dewatering involves pumping water out of the ground and getting it directly to the river. Workers have already begun drilling the well at the sewage treatment plant.
The plan now is to pump water out of the ground and stick it in an old, 6-inch pipeline that will take the water to the South Platte. The pipeline is probably too small, state officials agree, because it’s also used to drain stormwater and sewage effluent. So the state may provide even more money to replace the pipeline.
But the town needs more money if it’s going to address flooding in residents’ basements. A study by JVA, a civil engineering consulting firm, was released this past fall, and it showed a couple options involving adding more dewatering wells — one for $7 million and one for $11 million. Add in hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating costs for the wells each year, and Peterson said she has no idea how the town will pay for that. Gilcrest is able to salt away only $75,000-$80,000 toward capital expenditures each year.
With money on the line and residents to take care of, Peterson doesn’t want to risk getting into a political fight.
“We’re walking a little bit of a fine line because we have gotten a tremendous amount of help,” Peterson said. “But we shouldn’t have to be even dealing with this.”
A CONSTANT PROBLEM
Most everyone knows of Glenn Durant, who lives east of U.S. 85 and had to install 13 sump pumps in his basement. His pumps run constantly, but he can’t allow the sound of running pumps to become background noise. He must be on constant alert.
So, he listens for the pumps. If one goes down — and they have — he has to replace it.
In 2015, Durant was interviewed by Glenn Fritzler of Fritzler Farms as Fritzler built his case for intervention in Gilcrest. In the video, Durant, who has spent more than $50,000, said his brain is fried from the stress.
“I have to keep track of all the motors every single day, every single second,” Durant said in the video. “It hasn’t been easy on the mental welfare.”
Residents like Durant are afraid to leave their houses or go on vacations. Perino said in the 2015 Fritzler video she felt the same way.
Perino’s neat house sits tucked into a cul de sac a few blocks west of Maes’ house. Perino dealt with basement flooding in 2014. Thanks to the sump pump, things are normal now. But residents here don’t want the threat of groundwater flooding to be a part of normal life.
Most here say water court is out of the question. Taking on high-powered attorneys representing municipalities and other senior water rights holders is a difficult and costly task with no guarantees.
So they took a different route. The Colorado Farm Bureau and corn growers commissioned a groundwater study in 2010. That study was released in 2011, and helped push the state Legislature to act in 2012, commissioning a CSU study on the same subject. Weld Commissioner Sean Conway called the CSU study a turning point.
It showed rising groundwater since well pumping was limited in the early 2000s.
Before that, many people wouldn’t even acknowledge the problem, Conway said.
“There was a lot of pressure on the governor to veto the bill,” Conway said. “That was a seminal moment; it sent a message to everybody. Now, from what I’ve seen on the technical committee, rather than denying the problem exists, people are working to address it.”
Residents want more than studies. They want solutions.
So Fritzler loaded up politicians on a trailer and gave them tours around the area in 2014 and 2015. State representatives, county commissioners and more saw the damage firsthand, and things started to happen. A technical committee was formed by the South Platte Roundtable in 2014, and money showed up for dewatering and more studies.
For Gilcrest residents, a solution, any kind of solution, can’t come soon enough.
Maes is fired up. She’s motivated. But she’s also, in a way many residents have become, resigned.
“We’re going to get through it, but it just takes time and money,” she said.
From her backyard in Gilcrest, Maes said it’s a matter of turning a positive into a negative. It beats dwelling on it.
She points to the green circle of grass, soggy from the sump pump’s constant deposits.
“Maybe I’ll put a garden here in the spring,” she said.
— Tyler Silvy covers government for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.