Dalle Rutledge, a fifth-generation rancher, talks about her future at Donahue Spring on her family’s ranch where the family fears proposed nearby high-capacity wells would interfere with their water rights. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

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 days-long hearing held earlier this summer.

Why it matters

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.

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)

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.

History

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.

Who said what?

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.

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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.”

 

This article was corrected to say the hearing that preceded the advisory board vote lasted several days.

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. George: You’re right – the picture of Dalle is extraordinary!!! I hope she keeps a nice framed blowup for herself. Lee

  2. Chuck: I believe the Laramie County Control board is just an advisory board so the final decision rests with the State Engineer. He probably isn’t bound by the boards recommendation but if he rules otherwise his decision could be over ruled in court. The State Engineer’s have lost almost all legal challenges when they ignored the affect on other water rights holders – Smith River case in Montana, Mono Lake in California, ______ formation in Texas ruled by Federal Court in Dallas and the revocation of about 3000 high capacity ground water well permits on the eastern plain of Colorado ( Ogallala formation ). The State Engineers had a long history of rubber stamping all applications for ground water permits but that has changed with the recent growth and losses in court. The Wyoming State Engineer would be making a big mistake if he ruled contrary to the LCCB’s decision. I like this process, it gives the State Engineer input and the necessary support to deny the 8 permit applications – he needs guidance from the locals. Lee

  3. As an aside, if ranching doesn’t work out, modeling might. I don’t know if it was luck with lighting, or if Angus’ skills composed that image but that is a nice shot of Dalle. …Maybe Angus (there is a ranching name) should change careers, too.

  4. There needs to be a moratorium on residential lots having access to wells. We are an agricultural state and need to protect our water supply and storage. Continuing to allow development without considering water availability is dangerous and irresponsible.

  5. Mr. Witten: When I read the article for a second time I picked up the conflict of interest matter also. Mr. Lerwick definitely should have recused himself from all discussions and voting. Can you imagine a situation where the Lerwick’s sue the board and Mr. Lerwick is on the board. Time to resign – its too cozy of an relationship and definitely doesn’t pass the smell test. I agree with you. Lee

  6. The fact that a family member was allowed to sit on the board and not be recused is interesting. The good ol’ boy nepotism network in Wyoming is nothing new but this just once again highlights how people use such boards as a means to try and enrich themselves.

  7. THE GROUND WATER RIGHTS OF OLDER WELL ESTABLISHED FARMS AND RANCHES HAVE BEEN THREATENED FOR SOME TIME NOW:

    A former Laramie County Planner related to me many years ago the number of 40 acre residential subdivision lots being proposed in the rural parts of the county and it was in the tens of thousands of acres removed from ag production for rural lots. They subdividers claimed the 35 acre exclusion from State subdivision statutes which made it easy to do – the subdivider only had to provide access and easements. The buyer was responsible for a septic tank and drilling a ground water well into the Ogallala. Some very nice rural residential lots were created outside of Cheyenne and they are quite popular.

    The problem of course was the multitude of new Ogallala domestic wells which were drilled deeper than the wells owned by the senior ground water rights owners. As a result of this outward migration of people from Cheyenne, the Ogallala was already stressed when the Lerwick’s applied for eight high capacity irrigation wells in Laramie County. The result of course was that the senior water right owners have been impacted by both rural subdividing and new high capacity irrigation wells. Eventually, something had to give. Its been too much development for the older ground water right owners to tolerate – the double threat has increasingly become an existential threat to the Ogallala and their livelihood.

    The answer of course is regulatory oversight of ground water withdraws including the creation of the Laramie County Control Board. Their work must continue based on continuous monitoring of the ground water level of the Ogallala. The ground water rights of the senior water right holders must be protected.

  8. Common sense prevails!! Congrats to the Laramie County Control Board for making the right decision. The Ogallala has been in decline throughout its range and is a finite resource with minimal recharge. As the article points out, this is a precedent setting case for Wyoming – Colorado had already reached the point where high capacity irrigation wells were limited. This decision shouldn’t affect applications for new domestic and livestock wells – 25 gpm and less. High capacity irrigation wells can approach 1000 gpm. This decision should really help the State Engineer make the right decision. The Laramie County Control Board’s decision probably was documented by a solid “Finding of Facts and Conclusion of Law” just in case the matter goes to court which is looking unlikely with this decision. A fragile resource which needs protections.

    1. As you have spoken with experience Lee, I’d like to ask you a question.

      What is the process now? With the boards decisive decision, does the state engineer have to follow their recommendation? Or can he still go against the boards recommendation? Is it a thing where precedent rules, or is the engineer legally obligated to follow their ruling?

      Cheers