Owens declares water emergency for plains farmers
DENVER ” With crops expected to die in as little as seven days, Gov. Bill Owens on Wednesday declared a state of disaster emergency for eastern plains farmers whose wells were shut down because of a lack of water.
Weld County declared a countywide emergency earlier in the day, but Owens spokesman Dan Hopkins said the declaration will also apply to other counties along the South Platte River, including Adams and Morgan counties.
Those counties will allow the state to tap up to $1 million from the Agriculture Emergency Drought Response Fund to help the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District find water. He said the money will be available in about 45 days.
“This isn’t a loan,” he said.
Hopkins said the state is also applying for federal disaster loans, which farmers would have to repay.
Tom Cech, executive director of the water conservancy district, said the 400 farmers affected so far appreciate the grant, but the farmers need help now.
“Their crop will be dead in seven days,” Cech said.
Crops grown along the river include wheat, corn, sugar beets, and melons.
Weld County commissioners said some farmers had already planted when the state engineer issued a forecast anticipating lower-than-average flows in the South Platte, leading to the shutdown of some wells.
“The result is that production from the affected farms will be negligible, inputs already invested will be lost and many farm owners and operators will be unable to meet existing obligations, with significant numbers of bankruptcies and foreclosures being anticipated,” the county commissioners said in their resolution.
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.
Hopkins said the issue became more complicated on Wednesday when a water court intervened and issued an order that the wells remain shut down.
Phil Mortensen, who runs a 200-acre farm outside Brush, said the region is in crisis and he’s not sure how much a declaration of emergency will help. He said farmers need water, not loans.
“I don’t know what the federal government can do,” said Mortensen.
Mortensen said the real problem is a state law that requires farmers to predict three years in advance how much water they will return to the river.
“You can’t predict what will happen three years from now. That’s a ridiculous request,” he said.
David Getches, a University of Colorado law school dean and an expert on water rights, said farmers had plenty of warning their wells would be shut down after state lawmakers passed a law allowing them to keep their wells running, as long as they could put it back. He said the state can’t ignore the constitution, which guarantees water to the people who have the oldest claims.
“The governor really can’t do much, beyond call attention to the problem,” Getches said.
Sen. Greg Brophy, a Republican corn farmer from Wray, said the state needs to do something about the issue.
“It’s frustrating that the West’s most precious resource continues to be controlled by lawyers instead of engineers. This is a make-or-break issue for a number of farmers in Adams, Morgan and Weld counties. They might have to literally sell the farm over this,” Brophy said.
Getches said lawmakers need to think outside the box and consider more permanent solutions, such as changing the law to allow money from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to be used to take water out of storage as well as put water into storage.
He said one of the former members of his water conservancy district is now limited to planting 15 percent of his crop, and water that once cost $20 an acre-foot ” enough water to supply one to two families for a year ” now costs $350.
“That’s a death sentence,” Getches said.
Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., said she’s asked President Bush to declare a disaster for the counties.
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