2018 #COleg: Two bills come out of Water Resources Review Committee

HB12-1278 study area via Colorado State University

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

…when Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District Manager Joe Frank reviewed them for his board of directors at the board’s October meeting, there was much shaking of heads and rolling of eyes.

The first draft document, identified only as Bill 9, would attempt to address rising water tables in a couple of places on the South Platte River, and in at least one area that would mean allowing un-augmented irrigation pumping to lower the artificially high water table.

The draft legislation was triggered by a series of reports by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources on high water tables in the town of Gilcrest, south of Greeley on U.S. 85, and the Sterling area subdivision of Pawnee Ridge…

the Colorado Legislature’s Water Resources Review Committee was not. In September the WRRC drafted a bill, tentatively labeled Bill 9, that requires owners of “artificial recharge facilities” (ie. augmentation ponds) in District 2 of Water Division 1 to install monitoring wells; if their groundwater comes up within 10 feet of the surface, they have to stop augmenting, notify the state engineer’s office, and continue pumping until the water table goes down.

Water Division 1 is simply the South Platte River watershed; District 2 is an area directly north of Denver that includes Gilcrest.

Here on the lower reaches of the river, in District 64, there are two reasons that bill could cause a whole lot of trouble.

First, and most obviously, there isn’t sufficient data yet to make such a sweeping requirement of every irrigator in District 2. Bob Mari, a member of the LSPWCD, said during the board’s meeting on Tuesday that it’s a typical one-size-fits-all solution that doesn’t need to be applied so broadly.

“You’ve got just a few sections of land where there’s a high water problem, but (legislators) want a statewide law to address the problem in that one spot,” Mari said. There was almost unanimous head nodding around the table when Mari made his remarks.

The second problem, according to Frank, is that allowing un-augmented pumping is simply not legal and would almost certainly harm downstream water users.

“Don’t get me wrong, we are very sympathetic to the problem, and we know it has to be addressed,” Frank said. “But it has been proven in the past that any pumping that goes un-replaced does cause harm. Even legislation that allows (un-augmented pumping) goes against legally binding water decrees. Taking water out (of the river aquifer) and putting it on crops without replacing it and putting it on crops is taking water that would have ended up back in the stream. Since they’re upstream from us, that creates a domino effect that affects us.”

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, who chairs the WRRC, said the committee wanted to address the situation legislatively because, frankly, the $11 million solution just doesn’t make sense. He pointed out that the draft bill, which still needs some work, applies only in the district where the most severe problem exists. He said the committee believed the augmentation forgiveness shows promise, but needs some improvement.

“The idea was to try to figure out how to deal with high groundwater rather than pumping the water into the river from a dewatering well,” he said. “I don’t think it makes sense to dewater when they’re augmenting. Let’s consolidate the augmentation, move it closer to the river so we can control it better.”

Thus, the second document Frank shared with his board at that meeting, a bill draft tentatively called “Bill 10,” which directs the CWCB to engage “a qualified engineering consultant” to answer those questions and others. The bill tentatively directs that a report on the scope and goals of the study be delivered to the CWCB by Aug. 31, 2018, that a five-year pilot project be designed and begun by April 2019, and that the pilot project end by June 30, 2024.

Frank is hopeful that the study will identify ways other than un-augmented pumping, and he ticked off a list of ideas including improving surface drainage, cleaning out barrow ditches, finding new supplies for augmentation sources, tile drains in the area that move the water to the river, and moisture monitoring to avoid over-irrigating.

“Unfortunately, everyone points to that one solution, which is pumping un-augmented,” he said. “For us, that’s just not a solution.”

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