CSU Study Brings Science To Solve South Platte River Problems
Colorado’s drought problems may have faded into recent memory. Heated debates over water have not. Along the South Platte, irrigation well owners are hoping a long-awaited study will help them gain more access to their water.
Many Northern Colorado wells were shutdown, or access to them was reduced, by a 2006 Colorado Supreme Court ruling. Other owners had to follow augmentation plans, spending thousands of dollars to replace water they’ve taken out of the South Platte River.
Prompting the study was the issue of high groundwater in some locations along the river. When some farmers weren’t allowed to pump, homeowners were starting to see flooding in their basements.
Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute spent more than a year holding stakeholder meetings and researching the 209-page report [.pdf] — much of it before last year’s flooding. The report found a connection between the lack of pumping and required augmentation plans. It also said the system helped to protect senior surface water rights from injury.
The study proposes reintroducing well pumping as a way to manage the issue in specific locations like Gilcrest and Sterling. Other CWI recommendations call for more data collection abilities for the Colorado Division of Water Resources and a basin wide entity focused on more flexible management of water rights.
At an early January meeting in Longmont, dozens of farmers, legislators and other stakeholders came to hear the results presented by the Colorado Water Institute. The meeting was also the inaugural meet-up for the newly formed Ground Water Coalition. The liveliest part came during the question and answer period.
Longtime farmer Bob Sakata poked at the augmentation policy requiring well owners to cover past depletion of surface water. He thinks the situation was improved by the September floodwater.
“We should not have to pay past depletion,” said Sakata to applause. “That is the biggest nonsense there is in the rule.”
Republican State Senator and gubernatorial hopeful Greg Brophy enthusiastically took on the issue of erasing all past well debt along the South Platte.
“I agree with you guys,” Brophy said, announcing plans to co-sponsor a bill with Democratic Rep. Randy Fisher to wipe out those past pumping depletions as of Sept. 12, 2013.
Scientists question just how much September’s floods filled up the South Platte’s aquifers.
Colorado Water Institute Director Reagan Waskom says that floodwater replenishment may be true for wells right next to the South Platte. But that’s not the case miles away from the river.
“The groundwater data outside of the river floodplain was not affected by the flood,” Waskom said.
Meantime, Colorado legislators will need to introduce other bills to implement the recommendations of the Colorado Water Institute.
Rep. Randy Fisher says study recommendations that require funding — like proposed pilot projects in Gilcrest and Sterling — will require follow up.
“I don’t think that’s something we can expect that the Division of Water Resources will do with existing resources,” Fisher said.
All of this adds up for a mixed bag for tree nursery owner Gene Kamerzell, whose well was severely curtailed by the 2006 Colorado Supreme Court decision.
“There are a number of very good things in the report,” Kamerzell said. “But then there are some other things in it that I find very troubling.”
In the last decade, Kamerzell says state management of water rights has become more political than scientific, and farmers are suffering.
“A lot of our friends have gone out of business,” Kamerzell said. “We have friends that have large operations that have relocated to New Mexico because the water policy in this state isn’t being managed right.”
Kamerzell hopes that the scientific report and the proposed legislation will help restore a different balance. Along with most things in Colorado water policy though, he knows it can take years — not days — to measure progress.