by Jack Minor –
Governor John Hickenlooper has responded to the concerns of Weld County farmers who face the potential of losing millions of dollars in crops by saying they are essentially on their own.
During a meeting this morning with Weld County commissioners the governor told them to work together with other farmers, municipalities and senior water rights owners to figure out something to resolve the issue.
Hickenlooper said that staffers from Attorney General John Suthers’ office told him he did not have the authority to bypass the courts and the prior-appropriation system in the state. Suthers is out of the state attending a conference in Alaska.
Some area farmers are currently out of water and turning the wells on was their last hope to salvage their crops this year. The governor’s decision essentially means these farmers now stand to lose everything.
The wells were curtailed in 2006 after the state determined using the wells caused surface flows on the South Platte River to be depleted, thus depriving senior water users of their allotment of water.
However, while the wells have been shut down or curtailed for several years, this year’s surface flow is at an all-time low, which should not be happening if the wells were the cause of the problem.
Following the threat of lawsuits by senior water holders who fear not having enough water to refill their reservoirs down river, Hickenlooper said if he were to allow the farmers to turn on their wells the state could face lawsuits from cities and farmers that have purchased senior water rights down river.
Underneath the farmers feet is enough water to fill an inland sea, but they are not being permitted to access it, while the water levels are rising so high it is now threatening to ruin the very fields they are looking to pump by saturating it with a high salt content.
Basements are also being flooded and the county now faces the problem of possible groundwater contamination from leech fields that are failing.
While the decision is shocking, the governor’s office from the beginning has suggested they were not sympathetic to the concerns of the farmers in Weld County.
At a meeting a couple of weeks ago at Glen Fritzler’s farm John Stulp the governor’s water advisor told a local television station that the situation does not amount to a disaster because the crops have not yet burned up and it will not be considered to be a disaster until at least 30 percent of the crops have been destroyed.
“The Board of County Commissioners appreciates the time the Governor and his staff spent on reviewing and studying this request,” said Commissioner Chairman Sean Conway. “However, we do not agree with the opinions stated in the Attorney General’s Office memorandum. The Commissioners were never looking to overturn prior appropriation doctrine or overturn water law but rather to find a solution to what we believe will be an agricultural and economic disaster not just for Weld County, not just for northern Colorado, but for the entire state.”
Interestingly, while the governor is unwilling to override the prior-appropriation system to help farmers grow food, he apparently has no problem doing so for wealthy homeowners. Firefighters have been feverishly fighting a fire in the High Park area in northern Colorado which contains homes valued at several hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Firefighters have recently been taking water from available reservoirs that is already allotted to these same senior water right holders. The governor has so far not made any attempt to restrict their “out of priority” use of the water.
Weld farmers have thus far been content to sacrifice their allotment to help fight the fire but with the governor’s decision to deny them water for their emergency, they are now considering a lawsuit against the state for using their water.