by Jack Minor —
The Weld County Commissioners today unanimously declared a disaster emergency for the county because of an historic drought and called on the governor to issue an order permitting area farmers to turn on wells that were ordered shut down by the courts in order to save their crops.
The resolution states, “WHEREAS, in 2012, two events have combined to cause an emergency situation for farmers in the South Platte River Basin in Weld County: 1) below average snowfall since January and below average precipitation this Spring, and 2) the restriction by the Colorado State Engineer of pumping from irrigation wells that are subject to court approved augmentation plans or substitute water supply plans that have been approved by the State Engineer under current statutory authority (referred to herein as the “Restrictions”),” as the foundation for the action.
The declaration asks Governor John Hickenlooper to order the pumping of restricted irrigation wells for 30 days to provide relief from emergency conditions.
“We have only a short window of time available to try to avert an agricultural disaster here in Weld County,” said Weld County Chairman Sean Conway. “The best guess is we have between one to two weeks to get the wells turned on in order to save this year’s crop.”
At the public hearing Monday, commissioners heard from a pair of experts on the severity of the issue. Bob Longendebaugh, a professor at Colorado State University who has studied the South Platte River Valley for over 50 years, noted that in all previous droughts wells were used to supplement water shortages.
Longendebaugh recommended that the governor relax augmentation requirements during this drought to prevent the loss of millions of dollars in crops.
John Meininger, an attorney who has been representing many of the farmers on this issue pro-bono said while the courts have ordered the wells turned off, there is a solution available. “The governor has the authority to order the wells turned on based on his authority to declare the imminent possibility of a disaster whether natural or man-made and this certainly qualifies,” he said.
Meininger also spoke at a meeting with local farmers at Glen Fritzler’s farm, home of the well-known Fritzler Corn Maze on Thursday. “The groundwater issue is man-made because of the wells being shut down. This is a very real disaster today and the government has a responsibility to protect people in times like this.”
At the public hearing several farmers testified about the urgency of the situation, noting that any order permitting the wells to be used needed to be flexible.
Harry Strohauer, a farmer who produces potatoes, onions, corn, wheat and hay said that over the past few years, his highest cost was to combat ground water issues. “The basement is only three feet underground and it flooded. Last year the water table around my house was the highest ever,” he said. “In the past few years the costliest thing that affected me was the rising water table and now this year it is a lack of water. This will be the first year we have had a drought of this magnitude and not had the wells to rely on.”
He stressed that while some crops could go a couple of days without water, others were more sensitive. Strohauer has some acreage in organic crops and explained that if he cannot deliver to his producers this year, they will find somebody else and he will lose access to those markets.
When asked how much time he had before a decision had to be made in regard to the well, he stressed it was a matter of a few days. “If we do not get some more rain in Denver similar to what happened last week, I will be out of water at the end of this week.” After that time he will have to decide which crops to let go.
Fritzler testified that the same conditions causing the forest fires in the state were the same ones causing the emergency in the county. “We are like the tsunami warning system. You may not hear it coming, but we farmers are sounding the warning to you,” he said. “The good news is this disaster which is both natural and man-made with the turning off of the wells can be avoided and it won’t cost the taxpayers one dime. All we have to do is flip a switch.”
Last Thursday, a group of over 100 farmers showed up at Fritzler’s farm to discuss and attempt to find a way to get access to badly needed water. Those present signed a form with many indicating if the wells were not turned on they would not be able to pay taxes next year.
This year’s snowpack is only 2 percent of average, tying a record low set during another historic drought in 2002.
Over the decades, wells were built to supplement low water usage during times such as this. However, several years ago the courts ordered the wells shut down because farmers were not “augmenting” or replacing the water they removed from the ground. The reasoning is that any groundwater removed is water that will eventually flow into the South Platte River Basin at some point in the future and by using this water, they are depriving senior water right holders of their portion of water from the river.
Fritzler disputed the contention that allowing area farmers to turn on the wells would deprive senior water holders.
“Our groundwater is at historically high levels to where it is flooding basements, septic systems are overflowing and crops are rotting because of standing groundwater, but the river is still at historic lows,” he said. “The reason the river is low is because of the snowpack, not from farmers pumping the groundwater to save their crops.”
Several farmers testified at that meeting that if the state did not give them the ability to pump within a matter of days they would be in danger of losing entire fields.
Gene Kammerzell, who operates a large nursery, said that he doesn’t have enough water to keep it alive. “Without turning on the wells, I have an $8.34 million dollar crop in jeopardy unless we get substantial rainfall in the next 10 days.”
He went on to point out that the volume of groundwater in the aquifer they were seeking to pump from consisted of 10.5 million acre feet. “We have five Lake McConaughys under our feet and because of the political morass and the mismanagement it has been removed from our ability to tap it,” Kammerzell said.
He was not the only farmer facing these concerns. Third generation farmer, Dave Patroco said he was on the brink of losing thousands of acres for various agricultural products including corn, hay, livestock and other crops. “If presidents can issue disaster declarations for places like New Orleans and other places where there are floods that need assistance, there is no reason they cannot do the same for us.”
“We are only asking for around 90 days to be able to use the water during this drought,” he said.
Dave Ligwig, testified as to how the groundwater issue has cost him because of basement flooding. In 2007, he finished his basement and the following year floodwaters came in. After discovering it was coming from groundwater he laid down some pumps to fix the problem.
“I didn’t get a dime from the insurance company because the policy did not cover groundwater issues. The federal government floodwater program did not help either because it was from groundwater.”
It came back again in 2010 and 2011. I have spent $55,000 to fix this problem. I have 13 pumps running day and night to keep the water out of my basement. It is now trying to come through solid concrete.”
“This whole event has brought me to the edge of sanity because of the thousands of hours of sleep lost over having to check the pumps. If this is somebody’s water, I would like to know whose it is so I can send them the bill.”
Fritzler, “Area farmers will have to be making decisions in the next few days to decide which fields we will be forced to abandon. This is why we need action now.”
Jim Yahn, an eastern farmer who represents Colorado farmers near the Nebraska border indicated that if the disaster declaration is issued, he will probably challenge it in court. Yahn’s fear is that by letting Weld farmers use the groundwater this summer it could impact their ability to have their reservoirs refilled from the South Platte River this winter.
“When you pump, there’s an effect,” Yahn said. “It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow, but there will be an effect.”
Commissioner Doug Rademacher disputed the contention that farmers were not being efficient users of their water, “Water from the South Platte is used an average of seven times before it leaves the state. It provides an economic return of 10 to 1 making it one of the most efficient rivers in the nation.”
Kirkmeyer said Yahn would not be able to succeed as the governor’s disaster order to turn on the wells for 30 days would override any court order on the matter. He could subsequently extend the order on a month by month basis to help the farmers get through this season.
However, there appear to be troubling signs that the state may not be so quick to provide relief until it is too late.
John Stulp, the governor’s water policy adviser told Channel 7-KMGH Denver, the only television station present at the meeting that he was skeptical that what was happening amounted to a disaster declaration at this time.
Stulp said the threshold for a disaster threshold is a 30 percent crop loss in a designated area and no one has lost any crops yet.
The farmers said the reason no crops have been lost is they are not ready to give up yet and they will be using the water as long as they can, hoping the governor will take action before the loss.
“We want to close the barn doors before the horses get out,” Conway said.
Recent legislation was recently passed ordering a study of the groundwater issue, but it is not expected to be completed until next year. Bob Sakuta, a senior farmer from Brighton said turning the wells on for 90 days would actually help with the study, because they could monitor the usage and see how it affects river flow.
Wayne Stewart, a local farmer from Eaton said he wanted to send a clear message to government officials that they were not looking for a handout. “No one here is asking for money from the government. All we are asking is for the right to turn on our wells and we will use our own hard-earned money to pump the water.”
Weld County is the top agricultural county in the Colorado producing approximately $1.5 billion in value of agricultural products sold according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture.
“The next step the Commissioners will take,” said Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer, “is to arrange a meeting with Governor Hickenlooper before the end of the week and discuss in person the need for immediate action.”