There will be more water for northeast Colorado farmers next growing season because of flood waters being captured in the region’s reservoirs, but also headaches that could outweigh the benefits, some farmers and water experts say.
As assessments continued this past week, a number of representatives from irrigation ditches, reservoir companies and other water providers were reporting more and more damage along their systems — ditches, dykes, gravel pits, canals, head gates and other diversion structures that need repairs, or even rebuilt.
The irrigating season is over for farmers, who are now concentrated on harvesting their crops as soon as their fields dry.
The bigger concern, they say, is the ability to deliver water to their fields next year.
“In some spots of the river ... where we have structures on the banks to divert water ... the river is now moved — it’s not there anymore,” said Bill Bailey, the owner of P Diamond Irrigation, an irrigation supply company in Kersey, Colo., who sits on the board for the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Co., also known as FRICO. “How do you begin to deal with things like that?”
Farmers and water experts say the silver lining in the flood — in addition to storing some of the overflow, and the needed moisture in the soil — is the timing.
Had the destruction to the irrigation ditches occurred in the middle of the growing season, water wouldn’t have been deliverable to many fields, and crops could have failed under the hot summer sun, they say.
Ditch companies at least have the winter months now to try and get the repairs done, before farmers start planting a new round of crops next spring.
“We still have a lot of assessing to do, but it could be upwards of about $1 million in repairs that we need to do,” said Randy Ray, executive director with the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley, Colo., an entity with subdistricts that provide water augmentation and decree administration for over 1,100 irrigation wells in Weld, Morgan and Adams counties, covering 56,900 acres. “Not only is it a lot of work, but then you have to start asking yourself, ‘How do we pay for it?’”
Representatives of ditch and reservoir companies said they often don’t have insurance that covers damages to their infrastructure, and some will look to take advantage of federal or state grants and low-interest loans to help with the repairs.
As it stands, many crop growers — even ones with fields in standing water — believe much of their crops this year could be salvageable, as long as it warms up soon and stays dry, so they can get everything harvested before the killing frosts of fall set in.
There are concerns, though, about the many roads impacted by the floods — 122 bridges were wiped out in Weld County, Colo., alone, and about 650 miles of lanes destroyed — that are expected to make transportation of harvested crops, livestock and other ag products longer, more complicated and expensive.
Destruction aside, farmers — among the agricultural industry that uses about 85 percent of Colorado’s water — said any abundance of water for next year’s crops would certainly be welcome.
During last year’s drought, farmers, as well as cities, relied heavily on water stored in reservoirs to get through the growing season, and this year, those supplies were limited. In most years, many of Colorado’s farmers lease extra water from neighboring cities to maximize production, but this year, cities — concerned about re-filling their depleted reservoirs — leased far less water than normal to farmers, forcing some crop growers to plant less acres, or plant crops that require less water.
Before the flood, the three-reservoir Greeley-Loveland Irrigation System — which, in addition to providing cities with some of their water, provides water for about 14,000 farm acres between Greeley and Loveland — was only about 30 percent full, according to Ron Brinkman, general manager of the system.
That’s about the same as it was at this time a year ago, during the 2012 drought, Brinkman noted.
But diverting flood waters this past week had helped the system get back up to about 50 percent full by Friday, Brinkman said, and water was still flowing into the system, pushing it closer to its historic levels of being about 60 percent full going into winter.
At the rate that water was still coming in Friday, Brinkman said the system could actually be more than 60 percent full before winter rolls around.
Brian Werner — spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud, which oversees operations of the region’s largest water-supply project, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project — said their water levels “unfortunately” were basically unchanged.
He explained that most of the system’s 12 reservoirs in the mountains and foothills — many of which are on the West Slope — didn’t receive a lot of rain.
And, for places like Lake Estes, where there was a lot of rain, there wasn’t enough capacity to store and divert all of that water into other reservoirs, like Horsetooth Reservoir and Carter Lake. Most of it just flowed down into the Big Thompson River Canyon and downstream, Werner said.
Meanwhile, operators of other ditch companies — including FRICO, which delivers water to about 65,000 acres of farmground, along with municipalities, between Boulder and Kersey — are filling their reservoirs.
Jim Yahn — manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District in Sterling, Colo., a two-reservoir system that provides water to 41,000 acres of farmground and supplemental water to 31,000 acres — said his reservoirs and most others on the plains of northeast Colorado were empty, prior to the flooding.
Yahn — chair for the South Platte Basin Roundtable, which is a group of experts that discusses water issues within the basin — said the inlet canal to one of his reservoirs was damaged in four spots, and that would have to be fixed before it could take in water, maybe taking another week.
The other reservoir, he said, would be ready to take in water toward the end of last week.
Water providers said they couldn’t fill their reservoirs during the peak of the flooding, because the massive debris flowing with the flood water could clog their intake systems.
But now it’s full steam ahead for those who have working systems to take in water.
The historically high water levels in recent days have caused a “free river” — meaning ditch companies and other water providers in Colorado for now can divert water off the river, regardless of how senior or how junior their water rights are.
Dave Nettles, division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources office in Greeley, said, going back the last 10 years, a “free river” at this time of the year is fairly unusual.
Still, some concerns remain for next year, with major repairs needed in order to deliver that water to the fields. ❖