"I Know What Will Be Lost": Ranchers Dispute Best Use Of Groundwater
Driving east out of Cheyenne, a lot of people probably think there's nothing but cornfields and oil wells. But if you climb in an ATV with rancher Alan Kirkbride, he'll show you a secret world where his ancestors have raised cattle since the late 1800s.
We climb out on the bank of Horse Creek where thick willows grow under high white cliffs. Kirkbride says little creeks like this seep up from groundwater that's essential for growing grass for his herd. He says climate change has made disputes over even small water sources like this a rougher sport.
"We talk about people fighting over water, that they've been doing it for 100 years? Well, we see the future is very possibly continual difficulties between different users," Kirkbride says. "It's in our future, I guess."
Fighting is on Kirkbride's mind because one of his neighbors has petitioned to drill eight high-capacity water wells that would drain 1.6 billion gallons of water a year out from under this landscape, enough to supply a city of 10,000.
Recent science shows that when you lower the level of the groundwater, creeks like this one dry up.
Kirkbride says not only would that threaten his herd, he might have to cough up big bucks to drill deeper wells to get to the water table. He says, it'd be one thing if his neighbors intended to use all that water for agriculture, the way they say they will.
"Oh, I think it's an obvious opportunity to do better with the water to sell them to an oil company, or even to a municipality. In both cases, [it's] far more lucrative," he says.
Four members of the Lerwick family are looking to drill the wells and have been trying to obtain permits for over a year now. Their application says they want to use all this water for crops, but they could change that use for other purposes later. Kirkbride says, if the state engineer approves these permits, it could cause southeast Wyoming to go arid, like it has other places that rely on the massive Ogallala Aquifer, the granddaddy of all aquifers in the U.S.
"I would like to point out, these are some of the oldest surface water rights in the state of Wyoming, some of the oldest ranches, some of the most magnificent places you have ever seen, that stand to be lost. It makes me almost cry, because I've seen them and I've been on them and I know what will be lost."
"Look what's happened on the south Plains. From southwest Texas, all the way up, it's been the same story. The water table goes down, creeks go dry," Kirkbride says. "So taking a hint from the south and central Plains, why, obviously, it's gonna happen here."
That wouldn't be good for anyone. Not for ranchers who need water for their stock, not for the rest of us who need it to drink. But oil companies and the city of Cheyenne are both very thirsty, and the temptation to sell the water to them would be fierce. Growing corn or barley isn't likely to make the Lerwicks much money, but selling the water to a city or to the minerals industry would definitely make them a pretty penny.
The Lerwicks, though, insist they just want to farm.
In a courtroom in the basement of the Capitol in Cheyenne, their lawyer, Wiliam Hiser argues there's no reason they shouldn't get these wells.
"We believe that there is no question that there is water available for our appropriation in this aquifer. And I think the empirical evidence will show that that's available."
Because the water is available, Hiser argues, Wyoming water law says it can be used as long as it benefits Wyoming people. But when Ty Lerwick, one of the four family members in the case, is pressed in court on whether he would transfer the use of the water from irrigation to oil and gas development, he says, "possibly, but not likely."
That word "possibly" is terrifying to some of their neighbors, like attorney Reba Epler who represents the Lerwick's neighbors who are fighting the permits. She grew up on a ranch in the area herself. Her opening statement in the basement of the Capitol makes it clear what's at stake.
"I would like to point out, these are some of the oldest surface water rights in the state of Wyoming, some of the oldest ranches, some of the most magnificent places you have ever seen, that stand to be lost. It makes me almost cry, because I've seen them and I've been on them and I know what will be lost," says Epler.
She says Wyoming water law may need to be updated as droughts worsen and water just becomes more and more valuable. Epler says it should be treated like surface water and no one should be allowed to divert it if it would injure another water user.
"One of the most fundamental things you must remember in water law is that you cannot harm another appropriator in surface water. You can't move your diversion to another location, if you're going to harm somebody. And in groundwater, I would assert that the same rule applies."
If the Lerwicks succeed in drilling these wells and give it to oil and gas companies, it could benefit some ranchers in the area. Colt Breugmann is one of them. He sits out on his porch under a big cottonwood on his ranch.
"My brother and I have about 9,000 acres of minerals that are unleased in Laramie County, and the greatest wells that have ever been drilled in the United States are right across the fence from us," he says. "But those wells in that play can't be produced because there's not enough fresh water up there right now. And so it happens to be near the Lerwicks. So if I was to keep my mouth shut, which is probably what I should have done, then if that water was used, it would benefit me. But it still doesn't mean it's right."
You read that right. Breugmann is adamantly opposed to the idea of using freshwater for fracking. But he's afraid that a few years after the Lerwicks get these wells, that's exactly what will happen.
"Groundwater needs to be left alone in the state of Wyoming," he says. "It needs to be off-limits, and I'm coming to you as an oilfield insider. I want the aquifer to be left alone for my children and my grandchildren. It can only be replenished by God."
Instead, Breugmann says, Wyoming lawmakers should require oil and gas companies to only use recycled water, fracking water that's been cleaned up. He says in recent years that technology has grown by leaps and bounds.
"We produce enough water in the state of Wyoming from drilling practices to frack every single well with that produced water. And that produced water can be cleaned."
Breugmann says it's only a matter of time before water becomes way more valuable than oil.
The State Engineer's Office is currently reviewing the case and is expected to release its decision in the coming weeks.