Rod Lerwick, front left, sits with Ty Lerwick and Keith Lerwick, back, during a contested hearing over their applications to drill eight high-capacity irrigation wells in Laramie County. The Lerwicks aren’t convinced that claims their development will harm ground- and surface-water sources on their neighbors’ properties are true, they said. (Joel Funk/WyoFile)

State Engineer Brandon Gebhart has decided not to hear additional oral arguments in a fight over pumping large volumes of groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer under the Laramie County Control Area.

Opponents of a Laramie County family’s plans to drill and pump from eight high-capacity wells wanted to argue their case in front of Gebhart, who took his post in February. Members of the Lerwick family, who seek permits for the agricultural wells, opposed a new hearing. A consortium of neighboring ranchers and farmers are fighting the permit requests.

Those neighbors believed Gebhart’s late entry into the yearslong conflict merited a new round of oral arguments to help him get up to speed with the voluminous case record.

Who said what

Gebhart signed an order rejecting the hearing request April 13 after “having carefully considered” motions, responses and replies on the oral argument issue.

“The administrative record in this matter is voluminous and includes many records from this office,” Gebhart wrote, including “the transcripts from three days of hearings … significant briefing [and] capable legal advocacy…” He told WyoFile earlier this month he wants to make sure he understands the issue completely and gives the high-priority case the attention it deserves. He has no timeline or schedule, he wrote in an email.

In his order declining to hear oral arguments, Gebhart also acknowledged what one attorney said is some 5,000 pages of documents. He is “mindful of the significant time and expense the parties have already invested in this matter,” Gebhart’s order reads.

Why it matters

The state engineer created a control area in 1981 to protect diminishing levels of the High Plains or Ogallala Aquifer, allowing public scrutiny and protest of hew high-capacity water wells. A decision on whether to permit the proposed wells — which would be drilled within the control area — could be precedent-setting, some believe.

Allowing new extractions from the water table could diminish flows in springs and creeks and from existing wells in the area. That could threaten long-held water rights, well opponents have said.

History

Hydrogeologist George Moser, who worked with the State Engineer’s groundwater division, in November recommended conditional approval of the permits. Among the conditions in his 101-page report and proposed order are that the Lerwicks not pump up more than could be beneficially used for irrigation.The Lerwicks applied for the well permits in 2019 and defended their request in a three-day contested case hearing in Cheyenne last year. An advisory board recommended against the permits, a non-binding recommendation Moser did not follow as he forwarded the issue to Gebhart, the ultimate decider.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. In Canada, Ogallala watched to anticipate implementation of NAWAPA. And US invasion? Definitely climate refugees.

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  2. To what does “pump up more than could be beneficially used for irrigation” refer? Is there a use other than irrigation proposed for the water being pumped?