By Jack Minor
GREELEY, Colo. – Farmers in Colorado are watching their fields dry up amid one of the worst droughts in the state’s history.
But just a few feet beneath them, the water is so plentiful it’s flooding basements and causing septic systems to overflow.
Yet the government will not permit farmers to pump the water to save their crops.
With a lower-than-normal snowpack, farmers in northeastern Colorado who rely on the South Platte River are facing severe water shortages in which they are not able to even water some of their crops.
Dennis Hoshiko, a fourth-generation onion farmer with 2,500 acres, said he has let around 15 percent of his land sit fallow this season because of a lack of water.
“We have entire sections where the seeds were planted a month ago in dry earth, and they have not sprouted yet because they have not been watered.”
While it may seem to be a case of battling Mother Nature, the problem could be solved if government officials would simply flip a switch.
Many of the farmers have wells that draw groundwater for use in situations like this. But in 2006, the Colorado Supreme Court ordered 440 wells shut down and curtailed the pumping of another 1,000.
Under long-established Colorado water doctrine, water is distributed under the principle of first in use, first in right whereby prior users have senior rights to junior users. The decision to shut down the wells came about during a historic drought in the early 2000s that caused water in the South Platte River to become scarce.
Senior right holders such as the cities of Boulder, Centennial, Highlands Ranch and Sterling, which had experienced phenomenal growth in the 1990s, became concerned their water supply in the river basin was being depleted by junior water-right well owners who were pumping water from the Alluvium Aquifer, which flows into the South Platte River Basin.
Following the shutdowns, the volume of water discharged into the artificial recharge systems in the South Platte Basin has increased, reaching more than 350,000 acre-feet in 2009. The increase in ground water has now come to the point where local basements are being flooded, causing damage to the homes.
Doug Leafgren, president of Northern Colorado Geotech, which conducts soil and percolation testing, said his organization has noticed higher groundwater levels during their subsurface investigations in the county over the past four or five years.
Glen Fritzler, a farmer who operates the nationally known Fritzler Corn Maze that has been featured on the “Today” show, said he has spent more than $50,000 in home repairs because of flooding over the past few years.
While the flooding is a concern, Fritzler said the rising groundwater levels are causing area septic systems to fail, forcing human waste to rise to the surface.
Leafgren said septic systems require four feet of soil above a “limiting zone” to work effectively.
“If an older system previously maintained four feet of suitable soil, but groundwater has since decreased this zone, there is potential for contamination of the groundwater system with human waste,” he said. “It could also be possible that higher groundwater would cause the waste to come to the ground surface.”
Despite the rising ground-water levels, officials still refuse to let the farmers turn on their wells, and that means many farmers will be out of water in the next few weeks.
“If we are not allowed to turn our wells on, our crops will dry up and we will lose everything,” Fritzler said. “What is so maddening is that we have the water we need right under our feet, and it is so plentiful it is flooding our basements. We cannot use it.”
Recognizing the severity of the situation, the state legislature recently passed a bill commissioning a study, but it is not required to be completed until June 1, 2013. There is no provision in the legislation requiring officials to permit farmers to turn the wells on before then.
State Sen. Scott Renfroe, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation originally had those provisions, but it was stripped from the final legislation.
“It was not stripped by Democrats, because in Colorado water knows no party lines,” he said. “The opposition came from those who have senior water rights which are generally the big cities such as Denver and Boulder.”
Renfroe said he agrees the wells need to be turned on now. However, he said the study is at least a step in the right direction.
“We have farmers who are hurting from both a lack of water and rising water table,” he said. “Some have said the salt content is so high their soil only has two years of productive use left.”
Renfroe added: “This study should have been done five years ago when the wells were first turned off. I know it’s a baby step, but it’s a huge accomplishment when you consider the environment at the capital. There are many people who want to maintain the status quo. I understand the concerns of senior water holders, and this legislation has a lot of protections for them, but we need to find a way to benefit everybody.”
Fritzler said while he is glad the study will be conducted, he and other farmers cannot wait until next year.
“I have enough irrigation water from the South Platte for perhaps two to three more weeks. The only way we could go beyond that would be for Denver to get significant rainfall every three to five days and that isn’t going to happen.”
Hoshiko said he is in better shape than many farmers, because he has been able to purchase senior water rights but noted that many farmers are not as fortunate.
“Last night I saw a 14-year-old boy shoveling ditches and getting ready to do flood irrigation after the sun went down, and right beside him is a well that is capable of producing 1,200 gallons a minute, but they can’t touch it,” Hoshiko said. “The crops are sitting in dry dirt because we are in one of the worst droughts in Colorado history and we can’t use the water that is right under our feet.”
He said what is frustrating is that droughts like the current one are precisely the reason the wells were drilled.
“Our predecessors built these wells years ago to get us through droughts like this. If they were alive today they would slap us silly for how we are wasting this resource.”