Parties in a fight over pumping large volumes of groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer under the Laramie County Control Area are jockeying over whether they can debate their cases in front of the new state engineer.
Opponents of a Laramie County family’s plans to drill and pump from eight high-capacity wells want to argue their case orally in front of Brandon Gebhart, whom Gov. Mark Gordon appointed in February. Members of the Lerwick family, who seek permits for the wells, oppose the request.
Why it matters
The state engineer created the control area in 1981 to protect diminishing levels of the High Plains or Ogallala Aquifer, allowing public scrutiny and protest of new high-capacity water wells. A decision 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, threatening long-held water rights, well opponents have said.
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, but the hearing examiner, hydrogeologist George Moser who worked with the State Engineer’s groundwater division, recommended conditional approval of the permits.
Among the conditions in Moser’s 101-page report and proposed order are that the Lerwicks not draw more than could be beneficially used for irrigation.
Since Moser’s November recommendation, Gov. Gordon appointed Gebhart as the new state engineer, and the issue rests on Gebhart’s desk. Among the decisions he must make are whether to allow debate anew and, ultimately, whether to accept Moser’s recommendation.
Who said what
“The use of water proposed by the Lerwick applications would not be detrimental to the public interest, provided that the permits are properly conditioned,” Moser recommended. The Lerwicks’ neighbors believe Gebhart should listen to the case himself.
“There has been no opportunity for any State Engineer to engage with the parties to this case,” wrote Reba Epler, an attorney representing some of the neighbors. “The Lerwicks did not demonstrate whatsoever that these conditions would be adequate to protect the public interest,” she told WyoFile.
The Lerwicks contend in written statements that the issue has been “fully presented” and that the neighbors “inappropriately seek to introduce new arguments, fact and outside political debate into this completed proceeding.”
Gebhart told WyoFile he has no timeline for decisions. “I’ve had a lot to learn in this new role and still do,” he said in an email. “I want to make sure I understand all facets of [the] statute[s] and the case itself. This case is a priority for me, but I want to give it the attention it deserves.”