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Colorado farmers are facing disaster
WELD COUNTY - Glenn Fritzler's family has been farming their 320 acres for 57 years. It is productive land that has helped them build their family. To succeed here, it took hard work, good soil and one thing they can't do without: water.
"Water to us is actually more valuable than gold," Fritzler said.
In recent years, that has not been a problem. Heavy snows and rains allowed Fritzler and other farmers in Weld County to irrigate their fields with surface water from the South Platte River. This year is different.
Because of the dry winter and spring the South Platte River is not flowing at a level to allow farmers, like Fritzler, to continue to use it as an irrigation source. Unless conditions change Fritzler will not receive any more above surface water for their crops.
"We have no surface water," Fritzler said. "We have an abundance of groundwater, but we do not have the permission to use it."
Fritzler and other farmers in Weld County want to use their wells to pump groundwater from the aquifers beneath their farms. They are being prevented from doing that by a 2006 Colorado Water Court ruling. In that ruling, the court said farmers, like Fritzler, are only allowed to pump a limited amount of groundwater. If farmers exceed their allotment of groundwater, they are charged $3,000 a day for each pump used.
When the surface water ran out, Fritzler started pumping his allotment of groundwater. It will last for one week. The current drought conditions are expected to extend well beyond that one week supply.
"I looked at it this morning," he said. "It is anywhere from 97 to 105 the next five days. Then the next five days after that are in the mid 90s with almost no chance of rain."
What frustrates Fritzler is the groundwater level on his farm. While he doesn't have enough water for his fields, he has standing water in the basement of his home. He has installed drains and pumps to prevent his basement from flooding.
Weld County Commissioners formally requested Governor John Hickenlooper to declare a statewide disaster emergency affecting Weld County. They are asking him to let farmers pump groundwater for a period of thirty days to get them through the drought. During that period of time, the pumps would be metered and the impact of the pumping on the groundwater levels and groundwater return flows to the South Platte River would be monitored.
In a statement released to 9News, Governor Hickenloopers said:
"Even if we could legally pump groundwater to use for irrigation and reduce water in basements, that water belongs to someone else downstream. We all are committed to the same laws, and in this case the water law is clear. Senior water rights take priority over junior water rights. It's tough to see so many crops in the ground desperate for water. That's why we are continuing to work with Weld County and others to find other possible solutions and to continue to promote conservation."
For Glenn Fritzler the situation is simple. In another week his supply of groundwater will be done. If a resolution can't be reached, some of his crops will be done soon too.