Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter has signed legislation he says will help farmers along the South Platte River.
One bill excuses farmers from having to replace water their wells drew before 1974 from an aquifer that supplies the river. That's when farmers were warned by the state they would have to replace water that drew down the aquifer.
Another bill allows the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District to lease rights to unused water so farmers along the South Platte could use them. That would likely only happen in wet years.
Ritter said Thursday that water is a complicated issue "that pits neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend and sometimes towns and municipalities against farmers," and he said both bills offer new options for farmers.
The legislation came too late for a handful of farmers who auctioned off their equipment last month in Wiggins. State water decisions had shut down or severely curtailed pumping at 4,000 area wells, said Doug Sinor, a water court attorney.
Duane Pope, a farmer from Greeley, said he'd have to pay $960,000 a year to use his well on his 300-acre farm and couldn't afford it.
Ritter said farmers at the auction knew the bills he signed Thursday would become law and that he believes a host of factors contributed to their decisions to stop farming.
The farmers' plight traces back to the late 1800s, when reservoir and ditch companies bought senior rights to the Platte. Some 30 years later, farmers drilled their first wells in the South Platte River Valley.
Water in Colorado is first come, first served. State law requires well users to have a supply of replacement water ready before they start pumping from the river to ensure there's enough for the senior rights holders.
For years, the state water engineer worked out deals with farmers, allowing them to pump their wells without replacing water required by the law. There was enough to go around, and senior rights holders were satisfied.
But trouble cropped up during drought years earlier this decade. In 2003, the state Supreme Court ordered the engineer to force individual farmers to adhere to the law to satisfy the needs of senior rights holders.