Water flows into the Horse Creek Basin from springs like this one on the ranch owned by Tim and Bernadette Rutledge, who fear high-capacity wells nearby might diminish flows. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

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.

History

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.”

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. Why not 1 or 2 wells– Eight sounds excessive in an aquifer that is already undergoing groundwater mining.

  2. wow. if the aquifer has been declining for over 40 years then it needs protecting! Why do these people think they need more water? What are they growing? How many acres are they irrigating? Industrial farming is drawing down these regional aquifers and it has to stop!

  3. I need to drill a well for my homestead. I have livestock to care for and I don’t want to drill a well if I’m just going to have to move because there is no longer any water. Why should one family benefit from the water and the rest of us go without? I cannot fathom what they need all that water for. Does he not realize he has neighbors that need water for their homes and families?
    I am a homeless, thirsty veteran. We live in a 5th wheel and have to tote water in for us and the livestock as it is. There will be no sense on ever trying to get a water well if the Lerwicks are allowed to take it all for themselves and leave the rest of us without.

  4. It has been my experience that drilling high capacity well either for irrigation or for use as fracking fluids has done harm to the surrounding area and in some cases even to the individuals who initially drilled the high capacity wells. There are increasing area in western Nebraska and in Texas the Ogallala Aquifer has not been able to keep up recharge with proper recharge forcing users of the aquifer to either drill deeper as some cost or abandon their investment in their irrigation devices and some in extreme cases just give-up farming altogether. It has also led to increases in both solids such as calcium carbonates and nitrate contamination levels rising as the water is replaced by over fertilized ground water that at levels above 150 parts per million of nitrates become unpotable for either the very young or very old as the nitrates tends to lockout out oxygen transportation from the blood cells. This can lead to a number of various health problems for both and usually the effected people must find other sources of water to remain health. In then town of Lebanon and Danbury Nebraska the towns had neither the resources or the ability to redrill domestic wells or get extremely expensive filtering equipment to render the water safe. They in stead were forced to obtain bottled water from a source and distribute the water to the towns people a a daily basis. This still left many outside the town limits at risk. From the reports of the people living in the area already it is clear that at best their water resources appear to be dependent on then snow pack and other up stream amounts of moisture that is available maintain even a minimal flow constantly throughout the year. We have suffered some level of inadequate moisture since I have returned from Texas and see no longterm change in this situation. I honestly believe even for the Lerwick’s the drilling of 8 high capacity wells will be expensive and self defeating!

  5. BACK TO BASICS: The existing ground water right holders have SENIOR water rights – the Lerwicks are applying for new ground water rights which are JUNIOR to all of the existing rights. With the long history of declining water levels in the Ogalala aquifer and court cases ruling against the State engineers for over appropriating ground water withdrawals – it should be a no brainer to deny the Lerwicks application for 8 high capacity wells. The senior water right holders should be protected against additional appropriations of significant consequences. An application by the Lerwicks for 1 or possibly 2 high capacity new ground water wells probably would have gone through without opposition – but 8 – thats just too much to ask for considering all of the withdrawals already permitted.

    1. I agree with Mr. Campbell’s comment. At the hearing, the preponderance of evidence showed that (1) the ground water is conected to the surface water and approving these permits will affect streams in the Horse Creek drainage, (2) no matter how much water was poured on the ground in question, the soil was not suitable for agriculture, (3) some of the ground proposed to be irrigated by these wells has since been sold off and is no longer the Lerwick’s property, (4) the 2015 control order indicated that 117 acre feet was available to be appropriated, but the Lerwick’s applications proposed to appropriate about 40 times this amount, and (5) the landowner’s with senior water rites should take preference to the new water rites sought by the applicants. The Ground Water Advisory Committee made the right recommendation to deny these permits.

  6. Humans are committed to their own extinction. They will go down determined to plunder and seek dominion over every natural resource–and species–the planet has to offer, right to the bitter end (and electromobiles aint a gonna save ’em..). They are the worst evolutionary product ever to come into being, and their loss will not be mourned, assuming any other species of monkey still exists that is capable of mourning.

  7. These wells will drop the water table fast. Once it is gone it is gone. Look what is happening in Nebraska. It is dropping and it changes the natural balance all way to the surface. It just sucks the sub soil moisture right on down. Trees are dieing in Nebraska due to no water for trees to draw on. Root zone is bone dry. All to grow corn to convert to fuel.