High-capacity water wells vs birds

High-capacity irrigation wells are not your great-grandparents’ Chicago Aermotor windmills. This one continues to pump water for livestock on the Lummis Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Mar. 8, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “High capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, wildlife”

Too many high capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, other wildlife and people

By Barb Gorges

            The relationship between groundwater and surface water is important to birds and other wildlife—and people.

            Some surface water is merely runoff from rain and snow that hasn’t yet soaked in and recharged the groundwater. Other surface water, like wetlands, is the result of high groundwater levels. Springs along a creek also depend on an adequate amount of groundwater.

            Groundwater and surface water along streams and in wetlands grow vegetation wildlife depends on for shelter and food. Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species require these wetter areas.

            Precipitation can vary from year to year, but on average, it recharges the groundwater–the aquifer. Aquifers are geologically complicated, but mostly water flows through permeable layers much the same way surface water drains. In Laramie County both surface and groundwater flow somewhat west to east.

            If someone puts in a well and starts pumping, it will lower the water table—the top of the groundwater—for some distance from the well. If the water is for domestic use, it is filtered through a septic system and mostly returned to the groundwater. However, if it is used for irrigating lawns and gardens, much of it evaporates and is lost. If too many wells are sipping from the same aquifer, the water table drops, and people are forced to drill deeper wells.

            Another side effect of the water table dropping is wetlands and streams dry up, affecting wildlife.

            Wyoming has complex water laws for allocating surface water. The first person to homestead on a creek got the senior water rights. In a drought year, he might be the only one allowed to remove water from the creek.

            Groundwater rights are not as clear-cut, as far as I can tell. More than 25 or 30 years ago I remember being in eastern Laramie County putting on an Audubon presentation for the Young Farmers club. It was on the negative effects of human population growth. The farmers were already complaining then about the growing number of developments and the wells causing the water table to drop.

            In 2015, the Laramie County Control Area Order was established in eastern Laramie County to keep an eye on the situation.

            Before that, 2010-14, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, under the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, spent taxpayer funds to buy out 24 irrigation wells at $200,000 each within this same area, saving 1 billion gallons annually. The farmers could grow dryland wheat instead.

            And now, in the same area, the Lerwick family is asking for a permit to drill eight high-capacity wells for maximum production of 1.5 billion gallons per year for agricultural purposes. We assume it’s for irrigation and that irrigation water will not be recharging the aquifer much. I don’t get it. Permitting new high capacity wells after paying to retire others in the same area makes no sense at all.

            Neighboring farmers and ranchers are alarmed. Professional hydrologists can predict how it will negatively impact their water supplies. Creeks and wetlands, the few we have out here, will dry up and the neighbor’s wells will have to be re-drilled.

            Beginning March 4 and for 30 days, the state engineer is asking for comments about the effectiveness of the 2015 Laramie County Control Area Order which guides groundwater development in the area of the proposed wells. Call 307-777-6150 to find out exactly how to comment.

March 18, the state engineer will hold a hearing regarding the Lerwick permits and will hear from the affected neighboring farmers and ranchers, 17 of them.

            Is it fair for someone to get a new well permit that will cause all his neighbors the expense of drilling deeper? Instead, can a community, through governmental agencies, come to an agreement that an area is no longer suitable for irrigated agriculture?

The Ogallala Aquifer, of which this High Plains Aquifer is part, extends under parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. For several generations, farmers have been mining it. We can call it mining because more water is extracted than returned. It is not a sustainable situation for anyone.    

            Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society is speaking up for the birds and other wildlife, but it’s doubtful wildlife will be considered much in the calculation of acre-feet and gallons per minute and other details of water rights. We already know that in the last 50 years grassland birds have lost the most population of any North American habitat type. Unsustainable mining of water in Laramie County, should the new high-capacity wells be permitted, won’t help.

Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species can be found in Wyoming’s riparian areas like this one on the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

2 thoughts on “High-capacity water wells vs birds

    • We can show up for the hearing on the permits March 18 at 10:15 a.m. at LCCC, Health Services Building (the short red/brown brick building on the north side), Room 111. I’m not sure we can say anything or leave comments, but the neighbors opposing the wells will appreciate the support.

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