Lawmakers ask for water compromise
LA SALLE – Standing beside a dry ditch and arid fields, state officials asked municipalities on Wednesday to share water with about 200 farmers who could lose 30,000 acres of crops after the state shut down their wells.Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament said an agreement that would help the farmers has been tied up in court by three cities – Boulder, Centennial and Sterling – and by an irrigation ditch company and a mining company in Leadville.That’s keeping hundreds of farmers in Weld, Morgan and Adams counties from using their wells, he said.”We don’t need 30 days in court,” Ament told reporters and a group of angry farmers.The Central Colorado Water Conservancy District said it struck a deal to get about 10,000 acre-feet of water from the Windy Gap reservoir, but a lawsuit filed by Front Range communities and other water users is preventing farmers from getting a drop of that water.An acre-foot of water is enough water to supply one or two families for a year.Hundreds of wells in the South Platte River Basin were shut down when the state engineer issued a forecast anticipating lower-than-average flows in the river.The wells draw water that would otherwise flow into the river. When river levels are low, the wells must be turned off to ensure that water users with higher-priority rights get their share.Kim Lawrence, an attorney representing the farmers whose wells were shut down, said the groups objecting to the deal could allow water to flow this week if they would talk to the judge who issued a court order shutting the wells down last week.”This is about kicking someone when they’re down. They’re hoping these people go under,” Lawrence said.Tim Buchanan, an attorney for the Harmony Ditch Co. in Logan County, said he can’t agree to the deal because he hasn’t seen the proposal.He said well owners have hurt farmers downstream for decades by taking too much water. He said it takes eight to 10 years for that water to seep back into the South Platte River, and Harmony Ditch is getting only a fifth of the water to which it is entitled this year.”We’re taking a huge hit on the amount of water we’re entitled to and it’s hurting our crops. What they’re saying is for us to let them run another year without replacing their depletion. We can’t keep doing this,” Buchanan said.Ament said the deal will help farmers only this year, but it might give them enough time to buy the water they need in the future.Tom Cech, executive director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, said cities bought up water rights so they would have the supplies they need to grow. He said most of them won’t need the water for decades, and that would give farmers time to find other jobs and other uses for their land.”Front Range cities are acquiring water for the next 20 to 50 years. They won’t need those supplies for at least the next decade,” he said.Aurora Utility Director Peter Binney said his community struck a deal with farmers to provide 13,000 acre-feet of water, enough to cover the farmers’ obligations for April and May.”This is a resource that can be put to beneficial use,” he said.Farm owner Frank Eckhardt said his onions are sprouting and he needs the water now. He planted his crops before the state water engineer discovered snow was melting faster than expected and shut down the wells. He said the potential harvest is dwindling.”Everybody is cutting back on the yield,” he said as he watched dust blow across his fields.Cech said the water deal is evaporating while attorneys argue because the water scheduled to be delivered to the Front Range continues to flow downstream. He said the farmers are losing 350 acre-feet a day, and it will no longer be available by June 15.”We need the objectors to step up and solve this problem. That’s the only way we’re going to solve this problem and save the crops and save the farms,” Cech said.
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