Colorado governor denies emergency water request

Jun 22, 2012

John Stulp, water advisor for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, told farmers from Weld County that he doesn’t have the legal authority to issue an emergency order allowing them to pump water for 30 days onto their drought-parched fields.

Stulp shared a document from Hickenlooper that came from the Colorado Attorney General’s office, despite the fact that Hickenlooper was in Alaska. During a two-hour meeting, set up by Stulp to search for an alternative plan, Weld county farmer Glen Fritzler questioned whether or not Hickenlooper had even reviewed the information provided, hinting that his staff had made the decision and written the document.

Fritzler’s frustration stems from not only the disappointment in the governor not allowing the pumping, but also in the groundwaters filling basements and ruining leach fields in the South Platte River Basin area.

According to Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker, county commissioners and farmers in the area believe the governor has the authority to allow the pumping in a severe drought or emergency situation.

Hickenlooper said in a Tuesday afternoon statement, “Even if we could legally pump groundwater to use for irrigation and reduce water in basements, that water belongs to someone else downstream.”

A court decision has prohibited or limited hundreds of wells in the area from use for over six years. The farmers at the meeting were adamant that the information used to shut down the wells was faulty. And in the six years, the water table has risen, flooding basements of decades-old houses, a problem they did not have prior to the wells being curtailed.

Despite the flooded basements and dying crops, others contend that using the wells, even for a limited 30 days, would take water from others downstream. Joe Frank, general manager with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, said that Colorado has some of the best water laws in the western states.

“We depend on your return flows,” said

Jim Yahn, manager of North Sterling and Prewitt Reservoir. “I care about your farms. I care about your homes. I care about all of this. Do you think this is easy for me?” The state’s emergency drought fund was one option discussed during the meeting. The idea of requesting water from city municipalities was a possibility, but one that was doubtful. Randy Ray, executive director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, said, “We are on the phone constantly, talking with all the municipalities. We either don’t hear from them, or they don’t have any, or they say, ‘We’ve got a little bit of water for next month, can you take it?’ We’re not getting a long-term commitment. It’s not there.”

Water law dictates that the well water could only be used if it can be replaced so as not to deplete the overall supply, which is legally the property of the public.

“The well owners intended to be covered by the requested executive order do not have sufficient replacement water to replace the depletions required under the decree,” the Attorney General’s Office writes in the memo. “Thus, pursuant to the provisions of applicable court decrees, the well owners may not pump their wells.”

Earlier this month, the governor signed a “watered-down” bill, as Fritzler put it, that could someday provide some relief. But that relief is not expected to be even considered until after a study, which is slated to be finished sometime in 2013.

Sen. Scott Renfroe, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation originally had such a provision but that it was written out of the final bill.

Area farmers are looking for a happy medium or what Fritzler calls, “a little common sense.”

“I do not think anyone is asking to go back to pumping at will 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If the pendulum was on our side a portion, it is now swung all the way to the other side. With a little common sense, we need to bring it to the middle,” Fritzler said. —

Traci Eatherton,