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Official recommends green light for high capacity water well applications despite a previous red light

Alan Kirkbride on the bank of Horse Creek, one of the ranchers worried that proposed wells into the groundwater could drain this creek.
Melodie Edwards
Wyoming Public Radio
Alan Kirkbride on the bank of Horse Creek, one of the ranchers worried that proposed wells into the groundwater could drain this creek.

Applications to drill eight high capacity water wells in Laramie County continue to move forward, even though last fall, a control area advisory board recommended they be rejected. Since then, the case's hearing examiner submitted an 85-page proposed order to the state engineer recommending the water wells be approved.

Neighboring ranchers have been arguing for two years that drilling wells could dry up creeks and neighboring wells, especially during a time of severe drought and declining groundwater. The wells would give the Lerwick family the ability to water their crops with up to 4,600 acre feet of water, enough to supply a town of 10,000 people.

Attorney Reba Epler represents the ranchers in fighting the Lerwick family's applications to drill and said she's concerned about the tone of the proposed order.

"It's almost as if [the hearing examiner] took the place of arguing for the Lerwicks. That's how it felt to us is that he was not balanced in his rationale for his arguments to grant the wells. So it's a great concern to us," said Epler.

In response, Epler has submitted a request to argue the case before the newly-appointed state engineer Brandon Gebhart.

"Oral argument to the hearing examiner before his proposal for decision was issued does not begin to take the place of argument to the ultimate decision maker, who is the state engineer, who was not even in office at the time of the hearing," said Epler. "And so it seems reckless that the state engineer would adopt a hearing examiner's order without hearing from all the parties involved."

In response, the Lerwick family requested to deny the motion, saying their neighbors have already had their fair day in court. They also state that they're concerned because their neighbors "blatantly argue for a new hearing and/or additional oral argument" and that "there's no further need for argument except to inappropriately attempt to retry the matters already submitted…."

Epler disagreed, saying no new evidence would be submitted. The state engineer's office declined to comment.

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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