DENVER - Most coalbed methane wells in Southwest Colorado do not deplete area rivers, a state regulator has decreed.
But ranchers say the decision gives away water to gas companies at the expense of senior water rights owners.
State Engineer Dick Wolfe finished new rules for area coalbed methane wells Dec. 30. They allow most of the wells in
San Juan Basin to be treated as nontributary, meaning the water in the coal seams does not connect with surface
There's a lot at stake. If they can turn Colorado water law on its head like this and get away with it, I don't know
how anybody can feel like their water rights are safe," said Jim Fitzgerald, who successfully sued the state in 2005
for not protecting his water rights from coalbed methane drilling. Fitzgerald's wife, Mary, and Bill and Elizabeth
Vance of Archuleta County also were plaintiffs.
Their case went to the state Supreme Court, which said coalbed methane wells need to get a water permit from the state
engineer. What's more, gas companies might be required to create augmentation plans to replace the water they use.
Augmentation plans need court approval. The system is supposed to make sure nearby senior water rights owners don't
lose their water.
The Supreme Court case scared water regulators - who feared a blizzard of paperwork - and gas companies - who did not
want large new costs for drilling wells.
Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling last April, the Legislature directed Wolfe's office to set rules about which
wells don't need augmentation plans.
The rulemaking is ongoing, but the portion that covers coalbed methane wells in Southwest Colorado was finalized
Gas companies are mostly pleased, although they still are examining the rule.
We're ready to have some certainty with the tributary/
nontributary lines," said Christi Zeller of the La Plata Energy Council.
During the rulemaking, area gas companies collaborated to create a map of nontributary water. Wolfe adopted that map as
official state policy. The change takes effect at the end of January, but Fitzgerald and other land-owners plan to
appeal to water courts.
Wolfe defended his decision to use the gas companies' model of underground water. It used good science based on
complete and robust data," Wolfe wrote in his justification for the rules.
Zeller, too, defended the way companies drew the map.
If we were in doubt, we erred in the interest of the other water rights holders," she said.
The underground interaction of natural gas and water has been controversial for years. Drillers remove water from coal
seams to let the natural gas flow up the well. Sometimes, the water is so deep it doesn't affect surface streams. But
in areas where the coal is close to the surface, coalbed water can mingle with the water that feeds rivers and
The Fitzgeralds' ranch is fed by springs that originate in the HD Mountains. While their ranch is in the tributary"
zone that requires drillers to replace the water they use, the HDs are in the exempt zone - along with the water that
feeds the Fitzgeralds' springs.
They're our livelihood right now, along with the runoff we get from the HD Mountains. If those springs disappear one
day, our place would be worthless," Fitzgerald said.
Local officials also are concerned.
Durango City Manager Ron LeBlanc sent Wolfe a letter last month to say he thought the rules could hurt the city's water
rights on the Animas and Florida rivers.
We believe the results of such rulemaking may not be manifested for decades to come, and that the effect of the
dewatering of aquifers in the area of our water rights will have a detrimental and irreversible effect on the city's
pubic water supply," LeBlanc wrote.
Foresters are worried about springs in the HD Mountains.
San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles sent Wolfe a letter asking for a delay until federal land officials
could do detailed studies on springs in the land they manage. Wolfe didn't grant the delay, but the Forest Service does
not plan to appeal, Stiles said.
Wolfe said he took seriously the concerns from foresters, city officials and others.
I don't want people to think that we were totally dismissive of these individuals' concerns," he said.
In general, Wolfe's map puts wells in the southern parts of La Plata and Archuleta counties into the nontributary zone,exempting them from strict regulations. Most of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation is in the nontributary zone.
Wolfe's office will start another round of the rulemaking next week to deal with conventional, noncoalbed gas wells in
The rules do not address how gas companies dispose of coalbed methane water once they pump it out of the ground.
Even with the nontributary exemption, gas companies still will have to file well permits for more than 4,000 Southwest
Colorado wells. And the tributary wells will need court-approved plans to replace the water they use.
Those plans will go back to Judge Gregory Lyman, the Durango water judge whose ruling started the whole affair, Zeller
He's going to get a whole bunch of paperwork," she said.