Underneath Gilcrest lies an aquifer, and the water in that aquifer should slowly make its way north, underground, to the South Platte River.
When it didn’t, at least not at the rate some say it should have, downstream surface water rights holders weren’t too happy and blamed the newer wells in this area as the culprit.
Irrigation wells were first put into Colorado’s prior appropriation system following legislation in 1969. Prior appropriation is a fancy way of saying water rights, and water rights are organized by the date a farmer or ditch owner or reservoir owner or well owner first used the water. People who first diverted water have senior water rights as early as the 1850s.
So, when farmers across Gilcrest began digging wells in the early 1900s, they were infringing upon longstanding senior surface water rights downstream, because that well pumping affected downstream flows in the river.
Numerous studies have shown the negative effects of well pumping, and how it depletes river flows even years later. But for farmers around Gilcrest, the court solutions and augmentation decrees are out of balance with well owners’ perceived wrongdoings and even with Mother Nature…
The impacts of less well pumping are many:
» Less well pumping means less water for crops during crucial times, such as when Strohauer had to deal with weeds in a potato crop because he couldn’t pump enough water to treat the fields with weed killer early in the season.
» High groundwater leaves mineral deposits, including salt, near the surface, rendering portions of fields useless and stunting crop growth…
Glenn Fritzler, owner of the famed Fritzler Corn Maze, used to plant one-third of his land in onions, another third in carrots and the final third in corn. Apparently, carrot and onion mazes haven’t yet taken off.
But there’s a problem. Carrots and onions need a lot of water – about as much as corn. They’re also quite sensitive to salty soils, something exacerbated by high groundwater, which deposits salts near the surface once they recede, and by less well pumping, because over-watering is one way of dealing with salty soils.
So Fritzler has changed crops. He’s now planting a quarter of his land in onions, a sixth in carrots and the rest in corn and winter wheat, which uses less water.
Winter wheat isn’t a money maker, certainly not when compared to produce, which, when healthy during a strong market is a farmer’s lottery, capable of paying off farm equipment and setting aside a nice chunk of dough.
“You’re probably breaking even at best; probably minimizing your losses,” Fritzler said of winter wheat. “It’s better than not growing anything.”
Jan. 1, 2006.
At least half of the wells along the South Platte River Basin were either reduced or shut down. Thousands of wells, built to get farmers through dry years, couldn’t be operated without an augmentation decree from water court.
Such a decree requires farmers to replace portions of what they pump.
Even farmers who obtained such decrees saw the face of farming change overnight thanks not only to requirements that well pumpers replace portions of what they pump, but that they replace what they had pumped since 1976.
It’s called augmentation, and there are a variety of ways to do it.
One such way is called artificial recharge, and typically it involves digging a shallow pond, filling the bottom with rock or sand to make it more porous, and then filling that pond with water as often as possible.
Artificial recharge, essentially putting water back into the underground aquifer well pumping has drained, pays dividends for farmers.
Almost every acre-foot of water poured into an artificial recharge pond can be claimed to allow well pumping in the future.
It’s why Randy Ray, executive director for Colorado Central Water Conservancy District, says farmers in the LaSalle-Gilcrest area are better off today than they were in 2006.
But it has come at a cost. Some farmers weren’t able to pump their wells for seven years, including the drought year of 2012, when farmers dried up hundreds of acres of corn.
Strohauer doesn’t like to look upon his eastern neighbors with envy. But he does notice things. He has his pilot’s license, and when he was taking potato samples to Imperial, Neb., to get tested for pests in 2012, he noticed something…
For farmers, the formulas used to determine how long recharge water takes to get to the river and how many days they’re able to pump are a headache-inducing mess.
In 2010, when Strohauer’s field was full of rotting potatoes, Stulp recommended Strohauer put in a de-watering well. Essentially, he wanted Strohauer to dig a well, pump water out of that, put it in a pipeline or ditch and send it back to the river.
Strohauer threw up his hands, pointing to his existing irrigation well on the property, the one the courts shut down…
“I looked at John, and I said, ‘John, right there’s your de-watering well. It’s right there. Let us pump the stupid well, and we’ll let the surface water go down the river, and it doesn’t cost the state a single dime. It will cost us some power, and somebody receives some extra water down the river. How hard is that?'”
It’s quite hard, actually, because things are never simple when it comes to water.
If a farmer here sends that water downstream, that will affect the flow of the river, and believe it or not, even the senior water rights holders may not want that extra water all the time. For instance, those rights holders out east may not want extra water coming downstream in March because they don’t have the reservoir capacity to store it.
The formula, called the Glover formula, was first used in the 1950s, and it tells everyone how much that well pumping will affect the river and when. Nearly 70 years later, we’re still using the formula, and Ray, Strohauer, Fritzler and countless others don’t know why.
Bob Longenbaugh, who once worked in the state engineer’s office, and has spent decades studying groundwater, is one of those others.
Longenbaugh said the Glover formula overestimates the impacts of pumping on the aquifer, meaning farmers around Gilcrest are forced to push more water downstream than Mother Nature says.
Further, the formula makes too many assumptions, Longenbaugh said. Among the assumptions are no precipitation, the idea none of the water used to irrigate crops soaks into the soil to recharge the aquifer and an assumption the geology underground between any farm and the river is completely uniform.