Stricter regulation of well pumping for farmers in northern Colorado causes water shortages, crop loss and plenty of hard feelings
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 Julesburg near the Nebraska border, is a case study in competition for water. In this series, The series looks at a variety of issues within the basin, with a focus on Weld County residents, landowners and farmers.
In Part 1, we looked at the continual and growing problem of high groundwater around Gilcrest, and how that impacted homeowners, who were forced to install expensive sump pump systems to keep water out of their homes.
Up next — 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.
While Harry Strohauer lay unconscious in his hospital bed for four days, his doctor gave his wife an ultimatum. Strohauer had a reasonably good diet and farming hundreds of acres in Gilcrest kept him fit. His doctor, therefore, knew it could only be one thing that triggered his massive heart attack.
“The first thing that the doctor — after talking to my wife a little bit — said was ‘you cannot let him talk to anybody about water,’” Strohauer said.
Farmers need water. But Strohauer, like dozens of farmers along the South Platte River, has suffered from the effects of curtailed well pumping, the result of legislation, a Supreme Court case and battles with downstream surface water rights owners.
For Strohauer, the results of the court order forcing him to stop pumping were doubly devastating. Not only did it eventually dry out hundreds of acres of corn, it also raised the water table, causing his potatoes to rot. Residents suffered, as well, as their basements flooded, forcing them to install expensive sump pumps and make other repairs.
The timing of Strohauer’s heart attack couldn’t have been worse, coming right in the throes of his attempts to get a water augmentation plan approved. It was a massive fight, with other water rights holders opposing a plan that would have allowed Strohauer to pump his wells to water crops based on certain criteria. It could have saved his crops years later. It also would have relieved some stress.
He now remembers his wife quietly fielding phone calls while sneaking out of the room.
He knew she was talking about water.
Eventually, after his heart attack, Strohauer said they just let the augmentation plan go. He’s calmer about it now, even if he says things haven’t gotten much better.
The Dead Sea
Underneath Gilcrest lies an aquifer, and the water in that aquifer should slowly make its way north, underground, to the South Platte River.
When it didn’t, at least not at the rate some say it should have, downstream surface water rights holders weren’t too happy and blamed the newer wells in the area as the culprit.
Irrigation wells were first put into Colorado’s prior appropriation system following legislation in 1969. Prior appropriation is a fancy way of saying water rights, and water rights are organized by the date a farmer or ditch owner or reservoir owner or well owner first used the water. People who first diverted water have senior water rights as early as the 1850s.
So, when farmers across Gilcrest began digging wells in the early 1900s, they were infringing upon longstanding senior surface water rights downstream, because that well pumping affected downstream flows in the river.
Numerous studies have shown the negative effects of well pumping, and how it depletes river flows even years later. But for farmers around Gilcrest, the court solutions and augmentation decrees are out of balance with well owners’ perceived wrongdoings and even with Mother Nature.
Folks like Strohauer see it this way: Gilcrest-area farmers are drowning so those out east can drink.
Strohauer admits he’s not the most subtle person at times. But he’s frustrated.
About seven years ago, when he was growing potatoes on the old Lorenz Farm on the east side of U.S. 85 at Gilcrest, he called up John Stulp, the special adviser to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on water issues, and started screaming at him.
Stulp came up the next day.
“He put his hand down in the ridge, and we pulled out some nice, big russet potatoes,” Strohauer said. “We walked about 10 feet, and I had him put his hand down again, and it was full of slime from the rotten potatoes.”
The potatoes were sitting in high groundwater, the result of the court-ordered curtailed well pumping, as well as water court decrees and augmentation plans that force farmers here to replace nearly everything they pump out during times of high demand on the river — which is most of the time these days.
The impacts of less well pumping are many:
■ Less well pumping means less water for crops during crucial times, such as when Strohauer had to deal with weeds in a potato crop because he couldn’t pump enough water to treat the fields with weed killer early in the season.
■ High groundwater leaves mineral deposits, including salt, near the surface, rendering portions of fields useless and stunting crop growth.
The salty soil gives the impression the surface is covered in a light layer of snow.
“Isn’t the Dead Sea salty?” Strohauer said.
“And why do they call it that?” Strohauer asked. “Things don’t grow in salt.”
The last potato farmer
When a farmer gives a crop less water than it needs, it’s called “shorting.”
A farmer can short corn. He can short hay. The result is better than nothing but less than ideal: They don’t get as much yield on that particular plot.
“It’s not that way with potatoes; it’s all or nothing,” Strohauer said. “If you short potatoes at any given time, you’ve got zero. It’s not half a yield, it’s zero.”
At times during the summer, you can jump across the South Platte here. And those are times when farmers, at least in the past, would pump wells if they needed to.
It hasn’t been that easy since the turn of the century, and rather than risk not having enough water, some farmers have switched to less water-intensive crops, more salt-resistant crops or simply moved their crops out of the area altogether.
Strohauer moved more than half of his potato crop to New Mexico in the past several years. He’s got 1,400 acres right where Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico meet. He keeps about 400 acres of potatoes in Weld County, but most of that is in the Lost Creek area, which is considered non-tributary, meaning groundwater there doesn’t make its way back to the river. That means farmers can pump wells there without strict replacement rules.
That makes Strohauer the last potato farmer in Weld County, earning that title after a neighbor pulled out of the demanding crop a couple of years ago.
Other farmers have switched things up as well.
Glenn Fritzler, owner of the famed Fritzler Corn Maze, used to plant one-third of his land in onions, another third in carrots and the final third in corn. Apparently, carrot and onion mazes haven’t yet taken off.
But there’s a problem. Carrots and onions need a lot of water — about as much as corn. They’re also quite sensitive to salty soils, something exacerbated by high groundwater, which deposits salts near the surface once it recedes, and by less well pumping, because over-watering is one way of dealing with salty soils.
So Fritzler has changed crops. He’s now planting a quarter of his land in onions, a sixth in carrots and the rest in corn and winter wheat, which uses less water.
Winter wheat isn’t a money maker, certainly not when compared to produce, which, when healthy during a strong market is a farmer’s lottery, capable of paying off farm equipment and setting aside a nice chunk of dough.
“You’re probably breaking even at best; probably minimizing your losses,” Fritzler said of winter wheat. “It’s better than not growing anything.”
Wells run dry
Jan. 1, 2006.
At least half of the wells along the South Platte River Basin were either reduced or shut down. Thousands of wells, built to get farmers through dry years, couldn’t be operated without an augmentation decree from water court.
Such a decree requires farmers to replace portions of what they pump.
Even farmers who obtained such decrees saw the face of farming change overnight thanks not only to requirements that well pumpers replace portions of what they pump, but that they replace what they had pumped since 1976.
It’s called augmentation, and there are a variety of ways to do it.
One such way is called artificial recharge, and typically it involves digging a shallow pond, filling the bottom with rock or sand to make it more porous, and then filling that pond with water as often as possible.
Artificial recharge, essentially putting water back into the underground aquifer that well pumping has drained, pays dividends for farmers.
Almost every acre-foot of water poured into an artificial recharge pond can be claimed to allow well pumping in the future.
It’s why Randy Ray, executive director for Colorado Central Water Conservancy District, said farmers in the LaSalle-Gilcrest area are better off today than they were in 2006.
But it has come at a cost. Some farmers weren’t able to pump their wells for seven years, including the drought year of 2012, when hundreds of acres of corn dried up.
Strohauer doesn’t like to look upon his eastern neighbors with envy. But he does notice things. He has his pilot’s license, and when he was taking potato samples to Imperial, Neb., to get tested for pests in 2012, he noticed something.
“I would see everything east of us, and all of those circles of nice, green corn,” Strohauer said. “Then I would come home and see all of those thousand acres of corn we had let go.”
The key difference between the droughts of 2002 and 2012 was well pumping. In 2012, Gilcrest-area farmers, who weren’t pumping as much, were shoving a lot more water downstream via the underground aquifer. In the process, they were forced to dry out already-planted corn all while exacerbating the effects of high ground water. They had water. It was just in all the wrong places.
“There’s no doubt about it that those guys (out east) were in better shape in 2012 than in 2002, and there’s no doubt about it we were in horrible shape compared to 2002,” Strohauer said.
Winter is coming
For farmers, the formulas used to determine how long recharge water takes to get to the river and how many days they’re able to pump are a headache-inducing mess.
In 2010, when Strohauer’s field was full of rotting potatoes, Stulp recommended Strohauer put in a de-watering well. Essentially, he wanted Strohauer to dig a well, pump water out of that, put it in a pipeline or ditch and send it back to the river.
Strohauer threw up his hands, pointing to his existing irrigation well on the property, the one the courts shut down.
“I looked at John, and I said, ‘John, right there’s your de-watering well. It’s right there. Let us pump the stupid well, and we’ll let the surface water go down the river, and it doesn’t cost the state a single dime. It will cost us some power, and somebody receives some extra water down the river. How hard is that?’”
It’s quite hard, actually, because things are never simple when it comes to water.
If a farmer here sends that water downstream, that will affect the flow of the river, and believe it or not, even the senior water rights holders may not want that extra water all the time. For instance, those rights holders out east may not want extra water coming downstream in March because they don’t have the reservoir capacity to store it.
The formula, called the Glover formula, was first used in the 1950s, and it tells everyone how much that well pumping will affect the river and when. Nearly 70 years later, we’re still using the formula, and Ray, Strohauer, Fritzler and countless others don’t know why.
Bob Longenbaugh, who once worked in the state engineer’s office, and has spent decades studying groundwater, is one of those others.
Longenbaugh said the Glover formula overestimates the impacts of pumping on the aquifer, meaning farmers around Gilcrest are forced to push more water downstream than Mother Nature says.
Further, the formula makes too many assumptions, Longenbaugh said. Among the assumptions are no precipitation, the idea none of the water used to irrigate crops soaks into the soil to recharge the aquifer and an assumption the geology underground between any farm and the river is completely uniform.
Longenbaugh once lost his cool about the matter during a meeting in Stulp’s office.
At the meeting, an attorney representing folks downstream said they would oppose any change in water administration, especially if it did anything to change their income.
Longenbaugh walked out.
“I sat in my pickup for 45 minutes,” Longenbaugh said. “I was so damn mad I couldn’t drive home.”
Strohauer said it doesn’t have to be this way. He said the old system was working reasonably well, with irrigation and rainfall recharging the aquifer beneath his farmland.
Indeed, groundwater studies going back nearly 100 years show the aquifer around Gilcrest regularly rises and falls with each growing season, with no trend line to indicate a shrinking aquifer over time.
“The wells were put here for a purpose,” Strohauer said. “For the 1950s, the 1930s, 1977, 2002, 2012. For the dry years.”
Since his heart attack, Strohauer hasn’t let the issue affect his health the way it affects his crops. He has since climbed Longs Peak.
And though he may not be able to pump as much, he is pushing forward and adjusting.
That doesn’t solve the problem, but it has kept him out of the hospital. ❖
— Tyler Silvy covers government and politics for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.