2015 Colorado legislation: Sonnenberg to chair Senate Agriculture Natural Resources and Energy Committee

Colorado Capitol building
Colorado Capitol building

From the Sterling Journal Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

The Jan. 7 start of the 2015 Colorado General Assembly will bring in a class of ten new members to the 35-seat state Senate and 20 new representatives to the 65-seat House.

And while northeastern Colorado’s two legislators are part of that incoming class, neither is new to the Legislature.

Rep.-elect Jon Becker (R-Fort Morgan) gave up his House seat in 2012 after he and Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) wound up in the same district after House districts were redrawn in 2011. Becker is returning to the capitol for a second term under current law, but that’s a law he may challenge in the future.

During his first term in 2010-11, Becker sat on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, which annually produces the state budget. This time around, Becker will serve on two committees: House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources; and Appropriations, a nod to his experience on budget matters…

Heading over to the Senate, Sen.-elect Sonnenberg will continue his agenda for agriculture, as the Legislature’s only full-time farmer.

After the November election, Sonnenberg was immediately tapped to be part of the Senate’s leadership team by Senate President Bill Cadman (R-Colorado Springs), who named him chair of the Senate Agriculture Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Sonnenberg will serve on four other committees: he will co-chair the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee; and he will also serve on the Appropriations, Capital Development and Water Resources Review committees.

As a member of the water resources committee, which he also served on while in the House, Sonnenberg will sponsor several of the group’s six bills. Those bills include creating a grant program to fight invasive phreatophytes. A second bill directs the Colorado Water Conservation Board to administer two pilot programs in the Gilcrest/LaSalle/Sterling areas. Those programs would “evaluate alternative ways to lower the water table” in areas experiencing damaging high groundwater levels, according to a draft copy of the bill…

Among his 2015 bills is one to address the continuing concern over fracking. Sonnenberg said this bill would address the “takings” clause of the state constitution as it pertains to mineral rights. “If a community prohibits oil and gas production [including fracking], it has limited a property owner’s right to access” those mineral rights. Under his bill, the community would have to pay for that.

He also will carry a bill on a “sunset review” of pesticide applicators. Sunset reviews are bills that look at whether to continue certain state laws. Sonnenberg said he wants to make sure farmers can continue to utilize pesticides in agriculture and that the state not make it so challenging.

From the Craig Daily Press (Janelle O’Dea):

During Colorado’s 70th legislative session, transportation, funding for education and stunted economic growth in rural areas will be some of the most prominent issues discussed by Colorado’s General Assembly…

One of Northwest Colorado’s state representatives, Republican Rep. Bob Rankin, is already working on the state’s financial plans in his new position on the state’s Joint Budget Committee. The JBC has met since November 2014.

Rankin represents House District 57, encompassing Garfield, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties.

The state will spend $26.8 billion this year and Rankin said based on current projections, it’s an increase of about 11 percent compared to last year. He said the money is all spoken for and even more is being requested for various needs.

“We will still be way underfunded for K-12, higher education and transportation,” Rankin said…

State Senator of District 8 Randy Baumgardner said there’s another education bill that has not been introduced yet, but will direct money to schools instead of raising taxes and attempting to give the money to schools.

“That (raising taxes for education) hasn’t worked thus far and isn’t gong to work in the future,” Baumgardner said.

Senate District 8 encompasses Garfield, Rio Blanco, Moffat, Routt, Jackson, Grand and Summit counties.

Baumgardner also said as chair of the Transportation Legislation Review Committee, he’s going to make sure Colorado’s roads are taken care of. Previous legislation funds transportation repairs, and Baumgardner wants to assure that happens…

With Colorado’s House of Representatives controlled by Democrats and the Senate controlled by Republicans, Democratic Senate President Morgan Carroll hopes the 2015 legislative session ushers in a year of compromise between the parties.

Carroll, State Senator for District 29, has five bills of her own to introduce. District 29 encompasses Aurora and eastern Arapahoe County.

One of Carroll’s bills will focus on refinancing Coloradans’ student debt. Another will give human trafficking victims a defense to criminal charges to prostitution and allow them to purge their criminal record of prostitution if they were a victim of trafficking.

From The Greeley Tribune (Kayla Young):

With Colorado’s legislative session beginning Wednesday, farmers in the Gilcrest area are renewing their call for action on rising groundwater levels.

As the South Platte Basin aquifer continues to spill over into homes and productive cropland, members of Weld County’s Groundwater Coalition hope legislators will treat their situation with emergency measures.

While legislation met opposition in 2014, LaSalle farmer Glen Fritzler, a coalition organizer, said efforts to educate legislators could bring Weld farmers short- and long-term relief.

“What I’m concerned about is that it may not be the emergency type of legislation we need. … The farmers need to know by March 1 to plan accordingly to adjust their acres and what kind of crops to grow,” Fritzler said.

Although the urgency and reality of the Gilcrest area is known, the answers are not as easy to identify. For Groundwater Coalition members, the issue lies in curtailed well usage that has allowed aquifer levels to steadily rise over the past decade.

“Damaging high groundwater is caused because of the curtailment of pumping of irrigation wells. The curtailment of pumping of the irrigation wells is because augmentation requirements are too strict,” Fritzler said. “Stipulated decrees were agreed upon because municipalities had us against the ropes; we might lose everything if we went to trial.” [ed. emphasis mine]

John Stulp, the governor’s water policy adviser, said high groundwater cannot be attributed to one cause alone, however. Gilcrest’s low-lying position in the basin, as well as its clay soils, also leave the town at higher risk for water accumulation, he said.

“If you’re citing a place for a city, you might not choose the location of Gilcrest, knowing what we know today. It sits in a water-prone area where water doesn’t drain out very well,” he said, explaining that the town, as well as areas around Sterling naturally experience higher levels of groundwater.

Golden-based engineering firm Brown and Caldwell has been tasked with carrying out a six-month study of high-risk areas, such as Gilcrest, to better inform the technical committee that Stulp chairs on how the hydrology functions along the basin.

In the meantime, Stulp said farmers should not expect the immediate solution they are hoping for: “It depends on what kind of relief we’re talking about. Will they have ability to pump all water they want? Likely not.”

He expected legislation to pass through the state Legislature early in the year to establish a better monitoring system and pointed to the possibility of a dewatering system being discussed through the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District.

While dewatering wells have been proposed as a possible short-term option, Randy Ray, conservancy district executive director, said the cost of such a system would only place Gilcrest further into debt.

“In the Gilcrest area, you’re looking at $80,000 per well and operating costs of $20 per acre-foot pumped out of it. For 1,000 acre-feet, the cost would be $20,000,” he said. Gilcrest Mayor Jeff Nelson said the town recently took on a 20-year $1.09 million loan through the state revolving fund to repair the damages incurred to the sewer system, rebuilt in 2004, from high groundwater.

Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute, explained that while farms and farmers suffer in the Gilcrest area, Colorado water law is functioning as intended.

“The strict implementation of our water laws has resulted in rising groundwater levels, as it was intended to do. This reversed a long, downward trend of declining groundwater levels in the basin,” Waskom said.

While the rise in water levels can be considered positive overall, the impact has varied drastically along the South Platte Basin.

“Pumping has returned to within 10 percent of historical levels, with the exception of Water District 2 — the area along the main stem of the South Platte downstream of Denver to Greeley,” Waskom said. “Farmers along the Front Range have a harder time developing enough water to ensure full pumping allocations due to proximity to urban areas, which has kept water prices high.”

For downstream users in the Sterling area, strict policy enforcement has meant greater security in the area’s water rights, said Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District for Morgan, Washington, Logan, and Sedgwick counties.

“Senior water rights rely on those return flows and if a junior well intercepts that, it is injuring the stream and when you add a bunch of wells, they have large impacts on the stream,” Frank said.

Respect of senior water rights has been a leading reason farmers have not been able to simply turn their wells back on, explained Greeley Water and Sewer Board chairman Harold Evans, who opposed legislation in 2014 that would have provided temporary relief.

“It didn’t really provide the protection for senior water right holders that has historically been the case in Colorado,” Evans said. “One of the complicating issues is the pumping has a lag time depending on how far away you are from the river. … In the Gilcrest area, there is a lag time of five or six years. The purpose of a water court-approved augmentation plan is to show you won’t have an impact.”

LaSalle farmer Harry Strohauer, who manages Lorenz Farm, in addition to other properties, said that while the Groundwater Coalition recognizes the prior appropriation system, they have been set up for an impossible task.

“The analogy we use is, when you’re flat on your back with a knife to your throat, what are you going to do? None of us could afford to go on, while municipalities like Boulder, Highlands Ranch and the city of Greeley are fighting us with unlimited money, and we couldn’t do it,” Strohauer said

Strohauer has uprooted significant acreage from Weld County, including his signature fingerling potatoes, and moved them out of state because to uncertainty and damages suffered over groundwater levels.

Waskom said long-term damage to croplands could become more common.

“One concern I have that is not on the radar screen for most people is that water logging and poor drainage inevitably lead to salinization of croplands. This is a slow but sure process that will rob the productivity of the basin if not addressed,” Waskom said.

James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which drafted the Colorado Water Plan, said the state will be looking to find a groundwater solution in 2015 that satisfies users throughout the basin and protects the prior appropriation system.

“In 2015, we will need to tackle this. The Legislature I’m sure is going to be interested in looking at it, as well as us,” Eklund said. “I’ve tromped around in basements that have been flooded. It’s not a pretty scene. We know those people need relief now, and they don’t need it to be studied to death.”

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.

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