Lawmakers agree to extend time for Front Range farmers to find water
DENVER – Amid warnings of catastrophic drought damage to northern Colorado agriculture, lawmakers agreed Wednesday to give North Platte Valley well owners more time to replace the water they take from other water rights owners and avoid being forced to shut down.The extension would help well owners in a bitter battle over scarce water supplies that has pitted farmer against farmer and rancher against rancher. The fight has grown more desperate as the state’s five-year drought puts even more strain on the water supply that feeds both wells and rivers.”If wells are curtailed, I can tell you this industry will die. You will have lost a billion-dollar industry that cannot be revived,” said Bob Sakata, president of Sakata Farms in Brighton.Sakata told the House Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources Committee unless an extension is granted, turf growers, dairy farmers, sugar beet farmers, poultry and cattle ranchers could suffer irreparable damage.Sakata said farmers and ranchers who depend on wells to irrigate their fields haven’t had enough time to get their required plans through the water courts by this year’s deadline, set by lawmakers.Tim Buchanan, spokesman for the Harmony Ditch Co., which operates an irrigation ditch system, opposed the extension. He said reservoirs have gone dry because some well owners have not replaced water they pumped – water that belonged to others who had more senior water rights.The committee approved a measure (House Bill 1185) that will allow temporary changes to water rights for five years. The measure, which passed 7-4, now goes to the full House for debate.The Legislature has been trying to mediate the battle between well operators and owners of rights to surface water from streams, reservoirs and irrigation ditches.Before 2002, the state engineer’s office was responsible for reviewing well owners’ plans to replace groundwater they pumped.The state Supreme Court ruled that year the office had overstepped its authority. That prompted the state Division of Water Resources to order most of the well operators in the South Platte River basin to shut down.The Legislature then passed a law allowing the state engineer to approve well owners’ plans through 2005, as long as they had filed a proposed permanent plan in state water court.Some well owners were allowed to resume last spring while their cases made their way through water court.Rep. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, said farmers and ranchers are no longer counting on nature to get the state out of its drought, one of the worst in recorded history.”We don’t know if we’re out of it, frankly,” said Brophy, himself a farmer.
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