South Platte Basin: ‘Everyone understands the need for a solution…Hopefully this study can help give them that’ — Reagan Waskom

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From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

At the very slight chance he had forgotten, water providers, users and experts reminded Reagan Waskom on Tuesday of the challenges he faces in studying groundwater in the South Platte River basin and having a full report to Colorado lawmakers by the end of this year. But Waskom also left the meeting at the Southwest Weld County Service Center “encouraged,” he said, as attendees on different sides of the contentious water issue provided suggestions and expressed a desire to work together going forward. The Colorado State University professor and engineer — who’s overseeing the CSU Colorado Water Institute’s ongoing study of groundwater and its interaction with surface flows — hosted the first public meeting on the study since it was initiated, when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 1278 into law this past spring.

Much of the push for the groundwater study came from Weld County farmers who own curtailed or shutdown groundwater wells, along with area residents who’ve had flooded basements in recent years because of high groundwater levels. Some of them believe the state’s well augmentation requirements are too stringent. They say the combination of making farmers fully make up for their groundwater­pumping depletions, and the costly expense of doing so — preventing farmers from being able to pump some of their wells — has caused the aquifer to overflow in recent years.

Others, though, believe different factors, such as historically wet years in 2010 and 2011, have contributed to the rising groundwater levels and say the stringent augmentation requirements are needed to make sure surface flows are available for senior water users downstream.

Waskom now has the task of studying the South Platte basin’s groundwater to better find out what’s going on, and then giving a full report to state legislators before they convene for their 2014 session. While the study has been under way for months, Waskom did not discuss any of the Colorado Water Institute’s findings Tuesday, but said he plans to do so in the future, possibly within the next couple or few months.
Because Waskom and his staff have limited time and money to conduct the extensive endeavor, Waskom said he wants plenty of input from the public as he goes forward.

He received input aplenty Tuesday. The nearly 100 in attendance discussed the complexities of groundwater and surface flows. Geology, hydrology, climate and many other natural factors influence how groundwater pumping eventually affects streamflows, they all agreed.

Additionally, though, cities have been conserving more water in recent years and have plans to conserve more, which affects return flows to the river; farmers are shifting to more efficient irrigation systems, which continually changes how much water is percolating through the soil and into the aquifer; the rapid growth of non­native vegetation along the streams and rivers is affecting how much groundwater is getting to the river. Attendees stressed to Waskom that those complicated factors and many others, along with the effects of groundwater­pumping for irrigation, all need to be worked into the study.

But many also said, regardless of the study’s outcome, all water providers and users can work together better to get the more “beneficial use” from both groundwater and surface flows. There were suggestions of forming more water cooperatives, and building small­scale storage projects — instead of large­scale endeavors that cost more and take longer to permit — to store more water and also make it easier to exchange water with one another.

“Everyone understands the need for a solution,” Waskom said. “Hopefully this study can help give them that.”[...]

More meetings ahead

The public is invited to attend one of the two remaining meetings about the ongoing groundwater study in the South Platte Basin. The meetings are free and open to the public. They will be held from 6­8:30 p.m. on Monday at the Hays Student Center Ballroom at Northeast Junior College, 100 College Ave., in Sterling; and from 6­8:30 p.m. on Jan. 24 at Valley High School, 1001 Birch St., in Gilcrest.

For more information about the meetings or the study, visit www.cwi.colostate.edu/southplatte/index.html.

More South Platte River Basin coverage here and here.

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