2014 Colorado legislation: Potential groundwater bills bring hope for some irrigators in the South Platte Basin

HB12-1278 study area via Colorado State University
HB12-1278 study area via Colorado State University

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

Talks of a proposed bill, one that’s expected to draw plenty of attention, highlighted the first meeting of the Ground Water Coalition on Friday. During the meeting, guest speakers Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, and gubernatorial candidate Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, each said they plan to push legislation that would allow South Platte River Basin groundwater users to stop making up for depletions to the aquifer that precede September’s flooding.

For someone to legally pump water out of the ground in Colorado, most wells must have an approved augmentation plan to make up for depletions to the aquifer. When Colorado’s augmentation requirements became more strict in the mid-2000s, many groundwater pumpers were not only required to fully augment for their depletions going forward, but also to make up for their estimated depletions to the aquifer going back years, or even decades. In some cases, the rules have farmers making up for depletions from as far back as the 1970s.

In their discussions Friday, Fischer, Brophy and others stressed that, with the many reports of high groundwater problems in recent years and the historic flooding in the South Platte Basin during September, the aquifer is believed to be plenty full, and groundwater pumpers — mostly farmers — only need to make up for their depletions from September 2013 and on.

The bill comes as yet another source of discussion — and likely friction — about how groundwater is used in the South Platte Basin. In general, some believe the existing rules and system work well, but others — many of whom have lost the ability to pump some of their groundwater wells — believe groundwater is being mismanaged and changes need to be made to get the maximum beneficial use out of groundwater and surface water and address the water shortages the region is expected to face in coming decades.

In 2012, the heated debate led to legislative approval of a groundwater study in the basin. That study was recently completed, and a report was delivered to lawmakers Dec. 31. Now, some lawmakers are looking to continue the discussions during the 2014 legislative session.

Talk Friday of Fischer and Brophy’s bill was music to the ears of many in attendance.

When the state increased its augmentation requirements in 2006, many farmers couldn’t afford all of the needed augmentation water, and thousands of wells were either curtailed or shut down across Weld County and northeast Colorado, and many remain so. Some have estimated that the curtailment and shutdown of the many groundwater wells has amounted to about a $50-100 million loss in agriculture’s economic impact.

Glen Fritzler — a LaSalle-area farmer and member of the new Ground Water Coalition, which was formed last month by other local farmers with the help of Weld County commissioners — said such a bill, if put into law, would help his agriculture operations, and that of others, tremendously.

The portion of water resources he’s been using to make up for his past depletions could be used for augmentation going forward. That would allow Fritzler to pump much more water from his curtailed wells without acquiring more augmentation resources.

“It’s certainly a good starting point,” said Fritzler, who, like several others in the LaSalle, Glicrest and Sterling areas, saw his basement flood and some of his fields become over-saturated from high groundwater in recent years. “There’s still a lot of things to be addressed.”

Many, like Fritzler, believe the high groundwater levels were caused by the state increasing its augmentation requirements in the mid-2000s. They’re now over-augmenting and over-filling the aquifer, they say.

But others disagree, saying the high groundwater levels were caused by a variety of factors — such as the historically wet years of 2010 and 2011 — and they believe the existing augmentation rules are needed to protect senior surface water rights. Over-pumping of groundwater — in addition to depleting the aquifer — also depletes surface flows, because it draws water that would otherwise make its way to rivers and streams over time.

All sides agree farmers years ago were pumping too much water out of the aquifer and not enough was being put back in the system. There just hasn’t been agreement on how much groundwater pumpers should be augmenting, among other issues.

The debate came to a head in 2012. That summer, Weld County farmers, along with Weld County commissioners, asked Gov. John Hickenlooper to make an emergency declaration that would allow them to temporarily pump some of their curtailed wells — in hopes of bringing down the damaging high groundwater, and to also save their crops during the ongoing drought. But objectors, and ultimately Hickenlooper, said no to the idea.

While those in attendance Friday were excited to hear of Fischer and Brophy’s proposed legislation, they’re also predicting the bill will see plenty of pushback. However, they also believe it’s just one of many things that need to be addressed when it comes to groundwater issues in the South Platte Basin.

One of the main objectives of the new Ground Water Coalition, organizers say, is to make sure groundwater is fully taken into account in the South Platte Basin and statewide long-term water plans.

“It’s a resource that’s an estimated 10 million acre feet underneath us, but we’re not including it in our long-term plans, and that’s unacceptable,” said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway. “That’s why we started this coalition … to make sure this resource is not only a part of the equation, but is used responsibly, and to its full potential.”

The latest ENSO discussion is hot off the presses from the Climate Prediction Center

Forecasts of sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies for the Niño 3.4 region, December 17, 2013 via the Climate Prediction Center
Forecasts of sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies for the Niño 3.4 region, December 17, 2013 via the Climate Prediction Center

Click here to read the latest diagnostic discussion from the CPC. Here’s an excerpt:

Synopsis: ENSO-neutral is expected to continue into the Northern Hemisphere summer 2014.

Snowpack news: ‘It’s good to be normal. After the last couple years, normal feels good’ — Diane Johnson #COdrought

From the Vail Daily (Randy Wyrick):

That puts the Colorado River Basin — that’s us — at 102 percent of normal and 141 percent of the past year’s Jan. 1 snowpack.

The moisture dried up a bit during the second half of December, especially in the south and southwest portions of the state, but the good start to the season still puts the entire state slightly above normal at 103 percent, said Phyllis Ann Phillips, state conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

“This is a great start to the 2014 water year,” Phillips said. “As we saw in 2012 and 2013, early seasons deficits are difficult to make up later in the season; so being right where we should be this time of year gives us a head start compared to the past couple of years.”[…]

Vail Mountain SNOTEL peaks around April 25 most years, said Diane Johnson, with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.

“It’s good to be normal. After the last couple years, normal feels good — almost double today from where we were a year ago — that’s positive!” Johnson said.

As of Wednesday, the snow-water equivalent at the Vail Mountain SNOTEL site is 8.4 inches. The 30-year median for this date is 8.9 inches, so we are 94 percent of normal, based on the 30-year median, Johnson said.

Also as of Wednesday, the snow-water equivalent was 191 percent of one year ago…

Right now, there’s not much difference in snowpack between the major basins in Colorado. They range from 111 percent of median in the Yampa, White and North Platte basins, to 99 percent of median in both the Rio Grande and South Platte basins.

That has led to decent streamflow forecasts for the spring and summer season. Streamflows in the Colorado, South Platte, Yampa, White and Arkansas River basins are currently expected to be in the 90 to 100 percent of normal range. In the Rio Grande, Gunnison and San Juan basins forecasts as of Jan. 1 are in the 80 to 100 percent of normal range.

“All in all, these early season conditions are favorable leading into the bulk of the snow accumulation season,” Phillips said. “If weather patterns persist and continue to provide moisture to our state this could be a good year for water supply and recreation in Colorado.”