Water board votes against big wells in troubled Ogallala Aquifer

The state engineer should not authorize eight high-capacity groundwater wells in the diminishing High Plains Aquifer east of Cheyenne, a Laramie County board recommended with a 4-1 vote Tuesday.

The Laramie County Control Area Advisory Board recommendation addressed an application by Ty Lerwick, Keith Lerwick and Rod and Jill Lerwick. Seventeen neighboring individuals, families, ranch partnerships and companies contested the proposals, saying the wells would pump up to 1.5 billion gallons a year and diminish flows in nearby springs, creeks and rivers where they hold irrigation and other rights.

Four of the five elected board members agreed they could not determine that there was enough water available for the new wells, citing expert testimony that they would likely affect nearby springs on which ranchers depend. A finding of no harm is required for the board to support such a project. 

The issue now rests on the desk of State Engineer Greg Lanning, who is expected to consider the recommendation along with testimony given during  a day-long hearing held earlier this summer.

Many consider Lanning’s pending decision to be precedent-setting in a semi-arid landscape where life, growth and prosperity are closely linked to water supplies. His decision could open, or close, the door to other wells being drilled in the aquifer, also known as the Ogallala Aquifer, which the state has regulated closely since 1981.

Water is scarce for Cheyenne itself, which restricts lawn watering and diverts flows from the west side of the Continental Divide to help supply the city. Development of gas wells in the region also has created demand for fracking water. Over the last decade, Laramie County tied with Teton County as the fastest growing county in Wyoming — a state in which population increase was otherwise largely moribund.

Because of heavy use of groundwater in the area and signs of a diminishing aquifer, the state engineer in 1981 established the control area across the eastern two-thirds of Laramie County. His order requires extra scrutiny of, and allows greater public involvement in, proposals to develop high-capacity wells, those that pump more than 25 gallons a minute.

The engineer modified the order in 2015, relaxing some restrictions but still requiring potential well developers to meet several standards before a water right is granted.

At the hearing, held in June, members of the Lerwick family said they hadn’t intended to alienate neighbors and that they were unfairly accused of seeking the water for eventual sale to fracking companies and well drillers. 

Applicant Ty Lerwick also sits on the advisory board. He voted Tuesday against the recommendations that the engineer not grant the requests by him and members of his family.

The advisory board had to find, among other things, that there was water to appropriate. Members in the majority said they could not make that finding.

“The majority believed there was no available water for appropriation in that area for high-capacity wells,” board chairman Brady Petsch said after the vote. “They’re a good family,” he said of the Lerwicks. “They did nothing wrong. They were well within their rights to apply for those wells.”

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