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Bill amendment would put burden on groundwater drillers to prove it wouldn’t hurt neighbors

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Pete Arnold
Little Horse Spring is one of the creeks in southeast Wyoming that ranchers are concerned will go dry if the application for eight new high capacity well is approved by the state engineer.

A bill has passed out of committee that would require applicants interested in drilling water wells to prove the wells wouldn’t deplete their neighbors’ streams and wells. Right now, the neighbors have to prove it would hurt them.

Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart testified that he’s against the amendment because he’s worried his office would be inundated with invalid objections.

“These contestant cases aren't easy, they aren't cheap, and they take a lot of our staff time,” said Gebhart.

“We don't think that that's true,” said Reba Epler, an attorney who represents ranchers in an ongoing dispute over an application to drill eight high-capacity water wells east of Cheyenne. “Because the applicant is the one who has to produce all this evidence, the state doesn't have to do anything. If you think about industrial siting or anything, the applicant has to produce evidence. It’s just common sense.”

Epler said if this amendment had been in place, it might have saved those ranchers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Cheyenne Representative John Ecklund is the bill’s sponsor. He said, in the case of the eight high-capacity wells, the injury would be substantial.

“Our part of the High Plains Aquifer has no stream running through it and no significant way to recharge it. Water tables are diminishing. Some of those older wells or senior rights holders are going to have to re-drill and expand their well, drill it in deeper. This clarification will help those senior rights holders.”

Ecklund said re-drilling could cost $30,000-40,000 per well. He said he’s already seen how depleting the aquifer will affect ranchers from the wells currently in place.

“Every domestic well that I have has had to be redrilled and it happened after irrigation started in the 60s and by the 80s, I was redrilling them all. It has to do with this amazing ocean of freshwater we've got underneath us. Our predecessors hit water and stopped right there. The saturation in those aquifers has diminished as well,” Eklund said.

The bill has passed through committee and now moves to the Senate for its consideration.

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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