2015 Colorado legislation: Two groundwater bills, no solutions to high groundwater near Gilcrest yet

South Platte River alluvial aquifer
South Platte River alluvial aquifer

From the Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

Among the bills awaiting action (and funding) in the House are House Bill 15-1013 and HB 1178. The latter would take $500,000 over two years from general funds and put it into an “emergency dewatering grant account.” If the bill makes it to the governor’s desk and is signed, then the money, under the control of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), could be used to start emergency pumping of wells permitted for dewatering in the Gilcrest and LaSalle areas. Those areas are experiencing high groundwater that has damaged crops, flooded basements and streets.

Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, one of the bill’s sponsors, told this reporter she sought the legislation as a short-term fix to the groundwater problems for residents in her district. It is “the only short-term solution available for Gilcrest and surrounding areas,” she said this week.

Saine pointed out that her bill has the support of the South Platte Basin Roundtable.

But her bill is at odds with another that is intended to address the high groundwater problem in her district and in Sterling.

HB 1013 comes from the annual interim Water Resource Review Committee, of which Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, is a member. Sonnenberg is the Senate sponsor of HB 1013, along with Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton. In the House, HB 1013 is sponsored by Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. It passed the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee in late January.

Both bills arise from the 2013 CWCB report that recommended local solutions for high groundwater problems in Gilcrest/LaSalle and north from Sterling to Julesburg, rather than a one-size-fits-all plan.

HB 1013, also awaiting action from the House Appropriations Committee, would require the CWCB to conduct a study that would test alternative methods for lowering the water table along the South Platte near the Gilcrest/LaSalle and Sterling areas. The bill sets up application and approval criteria for the pilot projects, which would last four years. The bill also deals with related issues, such as augmentation plans and recharge structures (ponds or ditches).

HB 1013 sets up a lengthy process for the pilot projects, starting with a 45 days’ notice for proposed criteria and public comment. Another 75 days is allotted for comments on the pilot project applications. Once the CWCB approves the applications, another 35 days is available for appeals.

Should it become law, the bill wouldn’t go into effect until around Aug. 5. That contrasts with the timelines for HB 1178, which addresses the problem only in Gilcrest. Because HB 1178 has what’s known as a safety clause, if signed, it would go into effect immediately.

“Had 1013 addressed the immediate problem of flooding basements and potential health and safety issues, I would not have run 1178,” Saine said this week. Testimony given during the HB 1178’s March 2 hearing indicated that pumping could start as soon as April 15.

But the emergency dewatering plan wasn’t supported by the water resources review committee. During their Sept. 30, 2014, meeting, then-Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, commented that if action was not taken soon, those affected by the high groundwater problems would take legal action. “We owe it to the people of Colorado” to solve this problem with a smart approach, Brophy said. Dewatering wells take out the water “and dump it in the river, which I think is a waste of water. How can that be okay if it’s not okay to pull it out for beneficial use?”

Coram, during the January hearing on HB 1013, said dewatering was not the solution. HB 1013 is not the only solution, he said, “but it’s a start.”

HB 1013 has another important distinction: its cost. While HB 1178 seeks $500,000 in general funds, which come from income and sales tax, HB 1013 seeks less than $100,000 over two years for evaluation of the pilot projects. Sonnenberg told this reporter this week he is attempting to get those dollars from the CWCB construction fund rather than tapping into the general fund.

HB 1013 does not address the costs for implementing the plan that would come from the pilot projects.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.

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