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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

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Water Education Colorado

Colorado Ground Water Commission Governs Wells on the Plains

Almost a quarter million groundwater wells in Colorado fall under a different set of rules than other wells or water rights for streams and rivers.

These wells are regulated by the Colorado Ground Water Commission, a 12-member panel created by the state legislature in 1957 to help address groundwater usage and water level declines in the Ogallala aquifer, underlying the state's eastern plains.

At that time, state law said that all groundwater should be regulated like surface water, according to the prior appropriation system of ‘first in time, first in right.’ But as scientists and water users understood more about the hydrology of water stored in underground rock formations, they realized perhaps not all groundwater was connected to rivers, and that not all should be regulated the same way.

This commission went on to establish ‘designated groundwater basins,’ specifying regions in eastern Colorado where the principal reliable source of water supply is groundwater not hydraulically connected to surface water.

The eight designated groundwater basins, spread from the Wyoming to New Mexico state lines are Lost Creek, Kiowa-Bijou, Upper Big Sandy, Upper Black Squirrel Creek, Upper Crow Creek, Northern High Plains, Camp Creek and Southern High Plains.

Regulating Groundwater on the High Plains
The commission, which functions with help from the Division of Water Resources, has the state engineer as its executive director. It relies on local groundwater management districts to consult with the commission on groundwater use in the designated basins. Currently 13 such districts exist in Colorado.

Inside the designated basins, the commission and districts have authority to issue large-capacity well permits, issue changes in water rights and replacement wells, and create rules and policies to govern groundwater use.

The commission holds hearings on disputes and views evidence in a courtroom-like environment, with attorneys usually speaking on behalf of clients. If parties disagree with the commission's decisions, they appeal to the district court located in the county where the well is located.

Rules adopted by the legislature in 1971 require the governor to appoint nine of the commissioners, who are confirmed by the state senate. Six of the commissioners must represent agriculture in the basins, with no more than two from the same basin serving concurrently. State law also requires that one agricultural representative be from the Rio Grande basin and two members represent municipal or industrial water users. One commissioner must reside on the West Slope.

In addition, three ex-officio members sit on the commission: the state engineer, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources and the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Of those, only the Department of Natural Resources executive director can vote.

Commissioners serve four-year terms and many are appointed for at least two terms, says Marta Ahrens, the commission's public information officer. Ahrens, who also has been the commission's secretary for 13 years, says public interest in serving on the commission varies across the state. More applications usually come from areas where groundwater is a primary source of water.

Commissioners who represent agriculture:

—Max Smith, Southern High Plains;
—Grant Bledsoe, Northern High Plains;
—Dennis Coryell, Northern High Plains;
—Doug Shriver, Rio Grande Basin;
—Earnest Mikita, Upper Big Sandy;
—Robert Loose, Kiowa-Bijou; and
—Corey Huwa, Lost Creek.
Commissioners who represent municipal and industrial water users:
—Frank Jaeger, Front Range; and
—Larry Clever, West Slope.
State law mandates that the commission must conduct public meetings at least four times per year. Attendance and public participation at the commission meetings depends on the agenda items. Regular meetings attract 30 to 40 participants, and controversial issues can draw even more attendees, Ahrens says.

Groundwater Categories
Groundwater in Colorado is regulated depending on its location and relationship to surface streams. Four main categories are recognized by state law:
Tributary groundwater—Groundwater hydraulically connected to a surface stream that can influence the amount or direction of flow of water in that stream. It is regulated by the prior appropriation system, like other surface water rights.
Non-tributary groundwater—Groundwater which in 100 years will not deplete the flow of a natural stream at an annual rate greater than 1/10th of 1 percent of the annual depletion from the well.
Designated basin groundwater—Groundwater that under natural conditions would not be used to recharge or supplement continuously flowing surface streams. It is specific to deep groundwater underlying the eight designated basins created by the Colorado Ground Water Commission, on the eastern plains.
Not non-tributary groundwater—Denver Basin groundwater, not in a designated basin, that is connected with surface streams or the deeper Denver Basin aquifers where they outcrop. If pumped, these withdrawals would deplete the flow of a natural stream at an annual rate greater than 1/10th of 1 percent, the annual rate of withdrawal.

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