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Advisory Board Votes Against Permit For High Capacity Water Wells

A spring flowing out from under a patch of trees and out across the wide open prairie.
Peter Arnold
Reba Epler
Board members said they voted against the wells because they were concerned it would drain springs like this one on the Horse Creek drainage.

Five members of a Wyoming state engineer's advisory board recommended denying eight permits to drill high-capacity water wells in Laramie County.

The case has driven a wedge between neighbors since 2019. Ranchers in the area joined together to stop the Lerwick family from getting permission to pump over 4,600 acre-feet of water, enough for a city of 10,000. The concern was they wouldn't use it for agriculture but would eventually sell it for fracking or to the city of Cheyenne.

Board member Cody Smith admitted he's concerned about the amount of development moving into southeastern Wyoming when drought is so severe there.

"I mean, how much can the aquifer take?" he asked at the meeting. "That's my question. And I can tell you that the flows in Horse Creek this summer were the lowest I've ever seen. It's lower now than it was in the droughts of the early 2000s."

Smith added that the Wyoming Legislature might need to consider adopting new rules to make sure water approved for development is compensated for by reducing draws in the same amount elsewhere.

But at the board meeting, Ty Lerwick said his family has been unfairly portrayed in the fight.

"There's been inferences of applicants having some nefarious plan that they're going to sell water and enrich ourselves," Lerwick said. "But all that is water under the bridge, really."

Ultimately, board members decided there was too much danger that drawing down the aquifer in southeast Wyoming would cause creeks to dry up, injuring other water users and the environment.

Attorney Reba Epler represented the ranchers opposed to the permits. She said the advisory board's decision will set an important precedent going forward.

"That's a massive sea change in the attitude at the state engineer's office, because the attitude since the 2015 order [that allowed permit applications like these to go forward] was that the aquifer is there for everyone to appropriate. But this, this is a change," Epler said. "This is a change by a board, an elected board, that says the state engineer has appropriated too many water rights, and they need to pull back now and start considering not granting any more water rights and only basically move water rights around."

The advisory board's recommendation now goes to the state engineer's office for his approval.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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