North Colorado: 51st State Raises 'Problematic' Water Issues

A Noble Energy drill rig in Weld County on Thursday, July 29, 2010. The new exploration and extraction of oil has slightly in
A Noble Energy drill rig in Weld County on Thursday, July 29, 2010. The new exploration and extraction of oil has slightly increased business in the area. Diego James Robles, The Denver Post (Photo By Diego J. Robles/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Weld County commissioners want to create a new state to allow northeast Colorado's robust agriculture and oil and gas industries to thrive under regulations of their own design -- rules different than those created through the influence of the state's urban lawmakers.

But they also say serious discussions have yet to take place as to how Colorado and the nation's 51st state --� the proposed North Colorado, made up of Colorado's six northeast counties -- would share water, the resource needed most by farmers, ranchers and petroleum companies, and virtually everyone.

"It's early in the process, and we're not to a point yet where we're discussing those issues, but it could be an interesting dilemma," said Doug Rademacher, a member of the Board of Weld County Commissioners, which announced this month its desire to join the other northeastern Colorado counties in forming a new state.

Commissioners have said a collective mass of issues have cumulated during the past several years that isolate rural Colorado from the rest of the state and put those counties at a disadvantage.

They've specifically made reference to state regulations affecting agriculture and oil and gas.

Those two industries, though, depend heavily on water, and water users in the six potentially seceding counties use the resource under a water court system in Colorado -- a state they would no longer be a part of, if North Colorado came to fruition.

"A water right is the livelihood of many, many people in northeast Colorado ... and if you put the security of that right at risk at all -- as starting a brand new state might do -- that could be enough to convince people they don't want to go forward with this (new state)," said James Witwer, a water attorney in Denver, who represents various municipalities and agricultural water users in northeast Colorado. "It would be problematic and risky."

Eight major U.S. rivers flow from Colorado's mountains and into surrounding states and, because of that, Colorado has agreements in place with its neighbors -- compacts that require certain amounts of water to flow across state lines.

Such an agreement would have to be made between Colorado and North Colorado.

Although it would be the 42nd-largest state in the U.S., North Colorado's water demands could likely be substantial for its size.

In oil and gas production, every completed horizontal well requires about 2.8 million gallons of water, and every vertical well uses about 400,000 gallons, according to numbers from the Colorado Energy Water Consortium at Colorado State University.

More than 75 percent of Colorado's oil and gas activity takes place in Weld County.

Agriculture uses about 85 percent of Colorado's water, and four of the top five ag-producing counties in the state, in terms of dollar value, are among those interested in creating North Colorado.

Weld County alone accounts for 25 percent of the state's ag industry.

"To say that it would be a 'big task' would be an understatement," Witwer said of creating a water compact that both Colorado and North Colorado could agree on, adding that the legalities of doing so would likely take several years to sort out.

While agriculture uses the majority of the state's water, farmers and ranchers don't own all of the water they use.

For years, when there was limited money to be made in ag, growing cities along the northern Front Range bought water rights from farming and ranching families that were getting out of the business.

In 1957, when the Colorado-Big Thompson Project first went into operation, 85 percent of the water in the project was owned by agricultural users, according to numbers from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud, which oversees operations of the C-BT Project.

But today, only 34 percent of the water in the C-BT -- the largest water-supply project in northern Colorado -- is owned by agricultural users.

Now a lot of producers, while owning some of their water, depend on renting water from cities, some of which -- like Fort Collins, Loveland and Longmont -- wouldn't be included in the new state.

Transferring rental water across state lines from Colorado to North Colorado could make things more complicated for farmers than they are now, experts say.

Water is only going to become more precious to northeast Coloradans in the future, and water issues are only expected to become more complex.

According to the 2010 Statewide Water Initiative Study, the South Platte River basin in northeast Colorado could lose as much as 190,000 acres of irrigated farmland by 2050 due to water shortages.

Weld County commissioners say Morgan, Logan, Sedgwick, Phillips, Washington, Yuma and Kit Carson counties have all expressed interest in the idea of forming their own state.

They said the entire Weld County board is in agreement about the initiative, which they said has been suggested by numerous Weld County residents.

Commissioners said they plan to hold several public meetings to gather input from the community on whether creating the new state is a good idea before crafting a ballot initiative by Aug. 1.

Under guidelines in the U.S. Constitution, North Colorado would have to get the consent of the Colorado General Assembly and the U.S. Congress to move forward with forming its own state.

But many, including John Stulp, Gov. John Hickenlooper's adviser on water, say they hope talks of North Colorado don't go forward much more, since creating the new state would require getting over a number of "very complex" hurdles -- including the water issues.

"When it comes to water, nothing is simple," Stulp said. "This certainly wouldn't be simple. Rather than going this route, we'd like to see everyone work together to sort out what's needed."

This certainly wouldn't be simple. Rather than going this route, we'd like to see everyone work together to sort out what's needed.

-- John Stulp, governor's adviser on water ___

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