by Jack Minor –
Following a refusal by the state attorney general to review a decision by a member of his office over allowing area farmers to use wells to prevent a possible economic disaster, the county commissioners are now asking senior water right holders for assistance.
After the county commissioners issued a disaster declaration for the county, governor John Hickenlooper told them that based on the advice of a staffer in Attorney General John Suthers office, he did not have the authority to allow farmers to pump using local wells and that the state could face potential lawsuits if he did. Suthers was away at a conference in Alaska at the time.
Colorado Secretary of Agriculture John Salazar, brother of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar essentially said the same thing. His office told the Gazette that if the attorney general’s office could find a way to turn the wells on legally he would support it.
The commissioners subsequently sent a letter to Suthers asking him to personally review the decision. “We feel that for a decision of this magnitude that has the potential to gravely affect us here in Weld County the least the attorney general can do is look at it himself,” commissioner chairman Sean Conway said.
After 10 days with no response, despite every day being critical, Suthers office finally responded this week telling the commissioners he would not bother considering the request to provide a formal opinion on the issue.
The farmers and the county have been asking for permission to use the wells for only 30 days, which would use less than half of one percent of the water in the aquifer. The wells have been shut off since 2006 over concerns by senior water rights holders that excessive pumping caused decreased river flows. However, the river flow is currently at very low levels and groundwater is at such a high level that basements are being flooded and septic systems are beginning to fail.
In announcing his refusal to allow farmers to use the wells, Hickenlooper instead told locals to find a way to solve the problem. One solution would be to obtain water from local municipalities who as senior right holders have often had excess capacity.
However, this year cities have said they have no water to spare.
While many government officials appear to be moving slowly, the issue on the ground here in Weld County is urgent and needs swift action.
Dennis Hoshiko, an 1861 water rights holder said that he has despite his senior rights status he has been forced to abandon 65 percent of his planted crops this year.
However, his plight is not as bad as that of Harry Strohauer, one of his neighbors who has been farming for over 36 years. Strohauer owns 1,700 acres but in anticipation of water shortages he planted only 1,300. What he did not count on was the government refusing him access to needed water that is right under his feet.
Strohauer now is looking at salvaging only about 160 acres. “I have pulled all of my corn out of production and now I am attempting to salvage my potato and onion crops.” Strohauer has spent years making inroads to markets for his onions and specialty potatoes. “If I lose these markets this year, I will never get them back.”
Additionally, he has had to pay his corn customers a penalty fee for not being able to deliver the crop.
The upcoming economic disaster goes far beyond the farmers and now threatens livestock producers as well.
Leprino foods, one of the country’s largest cheese manufacturers is currently building a plant in Greeley, and has entered into contracts with local dairies.
“I have had to tell the local dairy producers they cannot rely on me for their feed,” Hoshiko said. “They have contracted to provide a certain amount of milk to Laprino and if they can’t fulfill it with their own cattle they will have to get it from a third party to keep from violating their contract. These producers are barely surviving as it is and that will break them. They are terrified at what will happen if this issue isn’t resolved.”
With the government apparently turning a deaf ear to their pleas for water, the commissioners have now sent a letter to senior water right holders asking them for assistance. The letter was sent to 28 different entities representing some 159 senior water rights holders along the South Platte River.
The letter acknowledges the prior appropriations system, however it proposes an agreement from senior surface rights owners to subordinate their water rights to any depletion this summer.
Strohauer said those opposed to allowing them to pump are being short sighted. “If we were allowed to pump, the water we would use would actually increase water flow. Pumping would help everybody, including those downstream.”