by Jack Minor –
Governor John Hickenlooper is expected to announce his decision today at 1 p.m. on whether to allow Weld County farmers to turn on wells and allow them to pump a miniscule amount of water from the Alluvium Aquifer in order to save their crops and avoid an economic disaster.
Weld County Commissioners are holding a meeting with the governor on the issue this morning. It is unclear whether Hickenlooper will inform them of his decision at that time or wait until the afternoon meeting.
Following the county’s disaster declaration last week, commissioners and area farmers have been working feverishly with the governor’s office to obtain a quick decision on the issue. Many area farmers say they only have enough available ditch water for a few more days at most and that they have already had to make decisions regarding which crops to keep and which to let fail.
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 few days.”
He points 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.”The amount we are asking to pump from it amounts to a drop in the bucket.”
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.
A group of farmers including Glen Fritzler, Dennis Hoshiko, Harry Strouhauer and Dave Eckhardt along with Sean Conway, chair of the Weld County Commissioners met with the governor’s staff on Friday for two hours.
During that meeting they proposed that they be allowed to pump 75,000 acre feet over the next 30 days. The amount requested is less than three-quarters of one percent of the water available in the aquifer.
Despite asking for such a minute amount of water, senior water holders have indicated if the governor orders the wells turned on they may challenge it in court.
Jim Yahn, manger of the North Sterling Irrigation District said because of the record drought they may not be able to fill a pair of reservoirs downstream and could face water shortages. He has urged the governor’s water advisor John Stulp to leave the wells shut down or curtailed. He has also indicated that legal action is a possibility if area farmers are able to turn their wells on.
While the city of Greeley has not formally taken an issue on the wells, they have said they are not concerned about the pumping affecting water supplies in the city.
City Manager, Roy Otto said, “I do not believe that the well pumping will affect any of our water rights.”
If the wells are not turned on it will have a ripple effect far beyond simply having crops dry up. Several feedlot owners have said if the wells are not turned on and the crops are destroyed they could be forced to move their operations further east where a more readily and inexpensive source of roughage is available.
The Gazette attempted to contact Leprino Foods, asking them what effect this could have on their Greeley production plant. The company has said that one of the reasons for choosing Greeley as the location for the new plant was a ready access to dairy products.
The company had not responded by the time of publication of this article.
While it is easy to think the issue is merely about Weld County farmers wanting to preserve their crops at the expense of everybody else, that is not the case. They have acknowledged they will not be able to save all of their crops, and they are not asking to do so. Instead they are asking for everyone to share in the sacrifice during this trying time during the drought.
Dennis Hoshiko pointed out that he has no problem sacrificing for the greater good. Last week a local newscast featured a helicopter removing water from Horsetooth Reservoir to fight the High Park fire.
“They were taking water that I as a senior water rights holder am entitled to. Now, I have no problem with them taking it because it is needed to preserve human life and property, but the same thing should apply to us.”
During Friday’s meeting the farmers pointed out that by allowing the forest service to use the water the governor’s office actually proved their point that Hickenlooper does in fact have the right to order the wells turned on. “If he can divert water for that emergency, than he has that same authority to let us turn on wells on,” Hoshiko said.
All of those present at Friday’s meeting stated emphatically that they were not opposed to their water being used to fight the fire, but were simply asking for the same consideration regarding their request to save their crops.