Trickle-Down Economics

Out on the plains, water is Colorado's most liquid asset.

Household wells were also affected by the 1969 act. The legislature recognized that there often was no other source of water for some homeowners who couldn't get water from a central source and had to rely on small household wells; now each of these homes was allowed a single well so long as the water was used only for indoor purposes. These wells were made exempt from administration and presumed to not cause injury to the stream systems. Subdivision developers, however, were not allowed this well-per-household exemption without also agreeing to the replacement requirement.

Meanwhile, well users were coming together to study alternatives for replacing water -- and to pool their money so they could buy water to cover what they owed. The primary well-user associations on the South Platte were the Central Colorado Conservancy District and the Goundwater Users of the South Platte, or GASP, which represented more than 3,000 well users from Denver to the state border.

Because determining how much water might need to be replaced each year was incredibly complex, the state engineer allowed the well users to come up with interim replacement plans for their division engineers' okay on a yearly basis, until such time as they could take their augmentation plans to water court for final approval.

Ted Oster wants to keep his water for his farm.David Hunt thinks the economics aren't good for agriculture right now.Division engineer Dick Stenzel oversees water in the South Platte River drainage.Steve Treadway sees farmers and environmentalists working together.
William Taylor
Ted Oster wants to keep his water for his farm.David Hunt thinks the economics aren't good for agriculture right now.Division engineer Dick Stenzel oversees water in the South Platte River drainage.Steve Treadway sees farmers and environmentalists working together.

In the decades since, the issue of well augmentation has inspired sporadic, but heated, debate. During wet years, when senior water rights holders have enough water for their crops and couldn't use the excess even if it were available, no one cares whether the well users are following their augmentation plans. During a drought like this past year, however, surface water users suspect that the associations aren't compensating them fully for the injury done to their shares of the river. Increasing their suspicions is the fact that interim augmentation plans are kept confidential between the well users and the division engineers. Tempers flare, accusations fly, lawsuits are threatened.

Caught in the middle along the South Platte drainage is division engineer Dick Stenzel. Of the seven division engineers, he may have the toughest job. Nowhere has the need for water courts been more evident than on his river, the most over-appropriated waterway in the most populated -- and fastest-growing -- part of the state. Since the 1870s, more water has been claimed than is available in this drainage.

Water runs downhill in Colorado, users joke, but uphill to money. Still, water law is no joke: It's the biggest area of civil practice in the state, and it's booming. Gone are the days when a couple of country lawyers could sit down over a cup of coffee and work out the differences between a pair of feuding farmers. As development explodes, those country lawyers are having to learn fast how to protect their clients from the big-money interests with high-priced, high-powered Denver attorneys.

Like all chapters in Colorado's water history, the current situation fascinates Stenzel, who plans to write a book about it all someday. He came to Colorado in 1976 from Nebraska, where he'd worked for the Corps of Engineers on flood-protection plans. There the problem was too much water all at once. This past growing season, he's had to deal with too little over a long period of time.

"It's been a hectic year," he says, with classic understatment. Like a firefighter putting out stubborn brush fires, he's been running up and down the river, meeting with water users, listening to complaints, rendering decisions -- some of them not at all popular -- and generally trying to keep the peace while supporting the river commissioners who work for him.

With the end of the growing season, the pace has slowed somewhat -- but even that is deceiving. Normally at this time of year, there are few demands on the river's water until November, when reservoirs would begin making their calls on the water needed to replace what was used at the end of the summer. This year, however, the reservoirs were called on early because of the drought, and most are now drained almost dry. So they're demanding their "refill" rights according to their status on the priority lists. Some are so far down on the list, however, that they won't get much, if anything. Then they will also demand their usual "first fill" in November.

Anything that happens to the water at one point along the South Platte will have a trickle-down effect somewhere further along the line. In this case, slaking the thirst of the reservoirs could hurt efforts by some well users to meet their augmentation plans.

These well users have been taking water from the river after the growing season and before the "first fill" calls in November, or during periods when excess river flows exist, and directing it away from the river so that it can soak into the ground. Using SDF lines, well users can determine where best to "recharge" the groundwater so that it gets back to the river at the time when the senior rights owners will want it, thus fulfilling their replacement obligations. But if they can't take the water now because reservoirs are asserting their rights, their plan falls apart.

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