Water war hits sod farmers

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A water war is brewing in El Paso County’s eastern plains, and the business owners in the middle agree on one thing: The battle could last a long time.

Declining water levels in the Upper Black Squirrel Basin, an alluvial aquifer that sits atop the Denver Basin, indicate that ground water depletion is exceeding the amount of renewable recharge from precipitation, according to a report filed by TZA Water Engineers Inc. on behalf of Schubert Ranches Inc., owners of Schubert Sod Farms. Schubert Sod Farms has requested, through Boulder-based Vranesh and Raisch, that the Upper Black Squirrel Basin Ground Water Management District “curtail pumping from certain upstream, junior wells.” The request calls for the closing of 21 wells – individual house wells are exempt.

Colorado law allows holders of senior (first come, first serve) water and well rights to call in specified junior wells and discontinue the pumping from those wells. George Schubert said he has no choice but to use his legal right to call in the wells; otherwise, his business could be in jeopardy because of the dwindling water source. “The ground water basin is like a big bowl – nothing runs in or runs out – it’s not a tributary and it’s not stream oriented,” he said.

Water engineers from TZA reported that the Schuberts implemented conservation measures in the late 1960s and 1970s to use the water supplies more effectively. They changed from flood irrigation to solid-set sprinkler systems, then switched to pivots and used low-pressure nozzles for the pivots and the sprinkler systems. The Schuberts also drilled wells into another aquifer to supplement the water supply. Despite the adjustments, the Schuberts, according to the TZA report, “will go out of business if something is not done to reduce the mining of water from the alluvial aquifer that continues to cause their water levels and well yields to decline.”

The Schuberts’ right of priority has a few neighboring sod farmers wondering how their businesses will be affected.

Wayne Booker has owned a sod farm in Calhan for 38 years. Although he agrees that the basin’s water has been over allocated because of development, he does not believe the Schuberts will be successful in their bid to reign over the water rights. “I have senior well rights, too, and I’ll have to call in other junior wells if Schubert is allowed to do this,” Booker said.

Craig Giesbrecht owns Green Belt Turf Farm, which is a mile east of Ellicott. In the 31 years he and his family have been in the business, Giesbrecht said he has never seen anything like this. “This could take years to resolve,” he said. “It’s so preliminary right now and there is a lot speculation, but no one really understands the process because it’s never been done out here.”

The sod-farm industry is competitive, which could be a bit of the motive for calling in the wells, Giesbrecht said. “Sod farmers have faced insurmountable challenges because of the drought. And now many of us are looking at huge bills because we have to hire water engineers and attorneys to defend our wells. Besides, the term ‘senior well rights’ is relative – most or all of these wells were drilled during a two-to-three year period, and we’re talking a few months separating them (senior wells and junior wells). There isn’t a striking difference.”

Kathy Hare is a 25-year resident of Falcon and a board member of the Upper Black Squirrel Groundwater Management District Board, an organization formed in 1968 by the Colorado Groundwater Commission to watch over and conserve the water supplies within the Upper Black Squirrel Basin.

Hare said the basin’s aquifers have been a good source of shallow water to farmers and homesteaders in eastern El Paso County. However, ranchers and water districts, such as the Cherokee Metropolitan Water District, which sells water to the Woodman Hills residential development in Falcon, are pumping water from the alluvial aquifer at greater rate than it is recharged, Hare said. According to a 1999 study conducted by Leaf Engineering, “The useful life of the Upper Black Squirrel alluvium is, at best, another 34 years.” The report indicated, Hare said, that the proposed increased use of the alluvial aquifers could “dramatically decrease the useful life.”

On June 3, the Upper Black Squirrel Groundwater Management District Board will be the first to hear the Schuberts’ request. Hare said the issue might have to be decided by the Colorado Supreme Court. One thing for sure: In the next few months, water engineers will be deciphering and investigating water levels and lots of folks will be paying close attention to their findings. “This could be a wake up call to all of us,” Hare said. “And if Schubert wins his case, it’s proof positive that we have water problems.”

Schubert agreed that the situation is unique. “Nothing like this has ever been done in the state,” he said, “but there are too many straws in the glass of Coke, and I have to save my business.”

- Editorial@csbj.com