Colorado water wasted in out-flows

Oct 7, 2011

Colorado court-ordered well restrictions and shut-offs in 2006 have resurfaced, literally—flooding basements in northeastern Colorado; and figuratively—in water courts with lawsuits seeking a happy medium between all of the South Platte river stakeholders.

According to farmers and ranchers in northeastern Colorado, more water is being sent down the South Platte to Nebraska than is necessary, in large part because of the 2006 restrictions.

A study by Halepaska and Associates for the Weld County

Farm Bureau and Colorado Corn Growers found water flowing to Nebraska has significantly increased since 2006. As much as 600,000 acre-feet of water more than necessary under the South Platte River Compact flowed out of the state in 2010 because of the artificial recharge ordered by the state, the consultants said.

State Engineer Dick Wolfe countered that the report misinterprets how much water is “owed” to Nebraska, but agreed that there is room for better accounting of the out-flows.

In 2006, the state engineer reduced pumping on 4,000 of 9,000 irrigation wells in the South Platte River Basin, shutting 440 down completely.

The 2005 compact requires curtailment in Colorado if the flow at the state line is below 120 cubic feet per second (cfs) from April 1 to Oct. 15. The compact requires Colorado to meet deliveries that would have been available at the time of Nebraska’s claim, June 14, 1897.

“To represent that the collective volume of water in excess of 120 cfs that crosses the state line is a delivery of water that goes ‘beyond the compact requirement’ is a misunderstanding of the compact,” Wolfe said, in a letter responding to the report.

The state has nine compacts and two court decrees that regulate deliveries of water to other states, and they may be based on percentages, amounts of water or stream gauge readings, Wolfe said.

Wolfe also said other factors, including the Endangered Species Act settlement among Colorado,Wyoming and Nebraska, affect water deliveries.
Halepaska and Associates’ study found elevated groundwater levels and recommended better procedures for measuring the relationship between surface and underground water supplies.
“One conclusion is that by neglect, inadvertence or mistake, the state of Colorado is assisting the irrigation community of Nebraska, causing the economic dislocation of thousands of Colorado irrigators,” John Halepaska said.
Reports of flooded basements in the area have become common. Colorado’s historic drought in the early 2000s led to the 2005 court order, based on concerns in large municipalities, such as Denver, Boulder, Centennial and Highlands Ranch, that their water supply was being depleted by junior water rights.
The 2005 Supreme Court ruling followed the 1969 water rights ruling and to date, the wells are still shut off, despite above average precipitation in the area and a river that has filled its banks for the last few years. The recent rain fall increases, the wells remaining shut off, and a full aquifer has left the groundwater with no place to go, so it is filling basements and sitting in low-lying sections of farmland, or flowing into Nebraska before Colorado gets a chance to use it.
According to Randy Ray, executive director with the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District (CCWCD), many farmers can’t afford the new restrictions the court order added to get the new restricted augmentation plan they would need to restart pumping. The shutdown or curtailed wells lie within the augmentation subdistricts of CCWCD.
Ag groups in the area are asking for legislative changes, including flexibility in controlling the wells during times when the South Platte River Basin is full and senior water right holders are not at risk.
Gege Ellzey, president of the Weld County Farm Bureau, noted that the local bureau has brought up various water issues before, but the issue concerning the state engineer’s office will be the only one concerning water this year. She said the water issues brought up in previous years have been Weld County-specific, and the policy of giving the state engineer’s office more flexibility would be more of a statewide issue.
But until changes are made, farmers in the area will continue dealing with the high water tables. One of the farmers hoping for a change as soon as possible is Harry Strohauer of Weld County. Strohauer said in addition to a flooded basement, about 100 of his 750 acres of potatoes were ruined this year because groundwater levels were too high and, as a result, the potatoes received too much water and rotted.
On the opposite end of the water issue is Frank Eckhardt, another Weld County farmer who said about 20 percent of the 3,700 acres of ground his family farms is dried up because of 12 shut off wells and 10 curtailed wells.
“It would just be nice to see a little common sense used,” Eckhardt said.
Wolfe said the state is conducting studies in northeastern Colorado to refine measurements of how aquifers are recharged, as suggested by the consultants.
The state is also developing better management tools for managing water accounting.
On the issue of the interrelationship of groundwater and surface flows, Wolfe pointed out that the state Supreme Court has ruled that water courts have the authority to determine depletions from groundwater, and the state engineer’s role is to enforce the court orders. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor