U.S. Water News Online
FORT MORGAN, Colo. -- Several hundred farm families hit
hard by the drought may see their water wells shut down as a
long-simmering water war erupts in northeastern Colorado.
If the shutdowns occur, millions of dollars in corn, alfalfa and
bean crops could be lost.
``After they've invested all that water, it would be ridiculous to
shut them off,'' said Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament.
``You will ruin those crops and that would be a total waste of the
At issue is whether the farmers are putting enough water into the
South Platte River to compensate for the water they pump from their
By law, farmers must replenish the river after levels drop as a
result of groundwater pumping. If they can't, they must stop pumping.
In wet years, the issue never surfaces because there's more than
This year, water is scarce, prices are high, and every entity with
an interest in the river has become protective of its supplies.
Cities are lining up against farmers, and in some cases, farmers
are lining up against their neighbors.
Recently, one powerful group of water users notified the state
engineer, whose staff is responsible for policing the wells and the
river, that it plans to sue the state to correct the problem.
Tim Buchanan, an Arvada water attorney who represents more than
half a dozen large eastern-plains irrigation and ditch companies,
said his clients may seek an injunction to stop the pumping, or seek
``These wells are being allowed to continue pumping while my
clients' fields are burning up. Their senior water rights are doing
them no good,'' Buchanan said.
Even if lawsuits don't shut down the wells, the state engineer may
have to shut them down anyway if water supplies continue to
``If they cannot replace their depletions, we will issue notices
to well owners that they have to shut off their wells,'' said Dick
Stenzel, the district engineer who supervises the South Platte River
Farmers who continue to pump after the state tells them to stop
face fines of $500 a day, Stenzel said.
Go. Bill Owens has approved an emergency bailout of $1 million to
help farmers pay for new supplies, at best a short-term fix.
In Colorado, water rights are assigned on a first-come,
Those who have the oldest water rights have the most senior rights
on the system and must receive their water first, even though they
may be lower on the river than those with more junior water rights.
Among Buchanan's clients are Fort Morgan Reservoir and Irrigation
Co., North Sterling Irrigation District, Harvey Ditch Co. and Liddle
A number of Front Range cities, including Boulder, Highlands
Ranch, Denver and Thornton, are worried about the way the wells have
Last week, as part of a water court case to determine how the
well-management programs will run in the future, they filed formal
protests against the state's management plans, saying the state
doesn't protect the river well enough.
``If we have to pass along some of our water to senior users lower
on the river, that's fine,'' said Veronica Sperling, an attorney who
represents Boulder and Highlands Ranch. ``But when there's a group of
people who are continuing to deplete the river flows by pumping,
that's not right. That's what we have a problem with.''
Robert Tuck, a Weld County cattle rancher, said the notion that
farmers are pumping without regard for the river's supplies or that
they are solely responsible for the river's distress, is wrong.
All the farmers have been working to maintain the river's water
supplies, he said.
``Not one of us thinks we can pump anything we want anytime we
want,'' Tuck said. ``We've all been very diligent.''
``We think we can make it through August,'' said Jack Odor. He
manages the Groundwater Appropriators of the South Platte, a
nonprofit group that oversees the well-replenishment program for
about 1,500 farmers and 3,000 wells in the South Platte River Basin.
``But if we don't have a really wet winter, I don't know how we can
make it next year.''
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