8:54pm

Tue January 8, 2013
Environment

Meeting Raises Questions, Searches for Answers Along the South Platte

The future of the South Platte River was the topic of discussion at a Longmont meeting today. The Colorado State Legislature commissioned a study to understand water distribution problems in the basin.

Grace Hood reports for Morning Edition

Along the South Platte River, many farmers are struggling to get enough water to irrigate their crops. But other areas in Greeley and Sterling are being flooded by excessive underground aquifers connected to the same river.

Reagan Waskom is director of the Colorado Water Institute, which hosted the event. He framed the issue this way:

“Are these the only areas in the basin? Is this beginning of a trend toward higher groundwater levels? Are we at the end of something? Was it a blip in time?”

Waskom is working with dozens of scientists, and aggregating data from as far back as the 1890’s to find the answer.

It’s something that matters to farmers like Robert Sakata. Speaking in a facilitated dialogue, Sakata explained he used to own and use wells connected to the South Platte. In the ’70s, he and other junior water rights holders were required to replace the water they used.

“We just felt like it wasn’t economically viable for us as a vegetable farmer to do that,” he said. “Our returns are usually between .5 to 1 percent. That additional cost we just couldn’t justify. So we ended up unhooking the wells.”

Fortunately for Sakata, he also owned surface water rights he could use to irrigate his crops. But other farmers weren’t as lucky. The drought of 2002 and a subsequent state Supreme Court decision in 2006 resulted in thousands of wells being curtailed and about 400 being shut down completely.

“That’s almost the analogy that I see in the state right now is that to make sure we’re not injuring every person along the way, we have to have an oversupply along the whole system,” said Sakata.

Meantime, Joe Frank with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District spoke of another reality: some of his water rights owners aren’t getting all the water they’re entitled to.

“Going into this next year, if we continue this drought, we’re going to see severe curtailment,” he said. “So ultimately it comes down to water supply. We’re water short in this basin. We need to work together to develop that supply.”

Public testimony—reserved for the end of Tuesday’s meeting—ranged widely from suggestions to technical questions to this statement from Trevor Fritzler, son of a 3rd generation farmer.

“One day in my life I plan to take over my dad’s farm,” he said. “When he hands me the keys, and says here you go, I don’t want to be like ‘How do I keep the dust down, and how do I feed my kids and my family?’ I’m mostly concerned for that and having more generations take on after me.”

President of the Big Thompson Platte River Ditch Company Gene Kammerzell says other factors should be taken into account than just farmers. Like trees sucking up unmeasured amounts of water.

“So I think it’s unfair to be pointing the finger at wells and saying ‘This is why we don’t have enough water to go around.’ There are other factors that need to be included within the study to address those things that can be done to minimize the losses there,” he said.

The meeting raised a lot more questions than it answered for the more than 100 who attended. But Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said it was a good beginning.

“Everyone who spoke here today said the big problem was we aren’t taking advantage of our compacts to capture the necessary water that we’re going to need as a state over the next 50 years for agriculture, municipal use.”

Conway is referring to the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), which would build two water storage reservoirs in the region. In recent years it’s become a hotly contested project in the area. Despite the intractable nature of these water debates, the Colorado Water Institute’s Reagan Waskom said he’s determined to make the South Platte River study meaningful.

“The 100 plus people in this room are not going to let me turn this into an academic exercise even though I’m an academic,” he said. “So we have to find solutions.”

The Colorado Water institute will host two additional meetings on the topic Jan. 14 in Sterling, and Jan. 24 in Gilcrest.