(Reporting from the American Ground Water Trust Aquifer Management Conference in Denver, Nov. 28 - 29, 20120)
Ag workers detail effects of current groundwater management
A two-day gathering of water experts, farmers and providers this week discussed the need to improve ways of how groundwater is currently managed, which some have blamed for the loss of tens of millions of dollars in economic activity.
In a presentation Thursday during this week’s Colorado Aquifer Management Conference, a Morgan County farmer and businessman estimated the curtailment of groundwater pumping in the South Platte River Basin has now amounted to about $100 million in lost crop sales, with another $80 million lost in indirect economic activity during the past several years.
Moments later, a Weld County crop grower said he’s considering sending some of his operations to Texas because of how water, particularly groundwater, is managed in Colorado.
“I absolutely love Colorado ... but we’re ruining agriculture here,” LaSalle-area potato farmer Harry Strohauer said during his presentation. He noted that since the 1990s, potato acres and onion acres in northern Colorado have been cut in half or more, due in part to water issues. That afternoon, however,
Irrigation manager hopes to avoid causing ‘injury’
Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District — about 90 miles downriver from Greeley — explained that the state’s increased augmentation requirements of 2006, which led to the curtailment or shutdown of thousands groundwater wells, have helped downstream senior surface water users weath- er the storm of this year’s drought much better than the one a decade ago.
In some cases, the reservoirs and irrigation ditches in his area filled to levels twice as high or higher this year compared to levels in 2002, despite there being similar water and weather conditions.
Yahn and Strohauer said during their presentations they don’t want their water use to “cause injury” to other users on the river, particularly farmers and ranchers, but they also want the water to which they’re entitled.
Day one of the Colorado Aquifer Management Conference focused more on technical aspects of measuring groundwater and its relationship to surface flows, while day two provided more details of how water users, particularly farmers and ranchers, are being affected by rules and regulations currently in place.
Many who spoke during the conference believe there are ways of better manag- ing the state’s groundwater supplies — so that wells can pump more and down- stream water users can still get the water they need.
However, more data collection and more analysis will be needed to implement such changes.
Many, including Yahn, also expressed support of more water storage, water exchanges and cooperative projects as ways of “maximizing beneficial use” othe state’s surface water and groundwater.
Some of the projects in the state aimed at “optimum conjunctive use” were discussed Thursday, includ- ing the Aurora Prairie Wa- ter Project, the Super Ditch in the Arkansas River Basin and the Widefield Aquifer Management Project.
Speakers included Colo- rado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs; Dick Wolfe, state engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources; Colorado Commissioner of Agricul- ture John Salazar; and for- mer director of Nebraska Department of Natural Resources Anne Bleed.
Although the conference was set up to discuss the state’s water issues, much of the talks focused on the South Platte River Basin.
In 2006, following the historic droughts of the early 2000s, the state began requiring groundwater pumpers to fully augment their groundwater wells to make up for the depletions eventually caused to surface flows in rivers and streams — flows needed by surface water right owners down- stream. However, many farmers couldn’t afford the augmentation water or the water court costs needed to get their pumps fully operating, or at all for some wells.
As a result, about 43,000 acres of irrigated farmland were dried up, according to Don Jones, farmer and real estate broker from Fort Morgan.
Many farmers believe the augmentation require- ments are too stringent, and are hoping groundwa- ter studies — like the one approved during the state’s spring legislative session — can lead to changes.
Many also believe the reduction in pumping has caused high groundwater levels that have flooded basements and saturated farmground in the LaSalle and Gilcrest areas and oth- ers during recent years.