Adding to the many other challenges already in place, the damage caused by September’s floods could make water administration along northeast Colorado’s rivers more difficult in the upcoming months, state water experts said this month.
Gauges that measure river flows are critical in decision-making for officials who administer the water used by cities, farmers and others.
But more than half of those 47 gauges on the rivers that flooded this fall have been damaged or destroyed, according to Dick Wolfe, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
The expense of repairing or replacing the 25 damaged gauges will cost about $500,000, Wolfe said, and it could be several months before all of that work can be done.
And once the new or fixed gauges are in place, more time will be needed to test them. The data collected by those gauges factor in the historical river flow figures at those locations, and — because of the destructive water surge in September — the river in many locations has changed in depth or width, Wolfe explained, meaning flows could likely be different in some way compared with what they were before the flood.
The concern was also brought up by Dave Nettles, division engineer at Water Division No. 1 in Greeley, Colo., during his presentation this month at the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Fall Water Users Meeting.
Water in Colorado is used based on a system of senior and junior water rights. When river flows are low and a senior water user isn’t getting the water to which they’re entitled, that user can put a “call” on the river, which, if approved by water officials, means everyone who has water rights junior to that user has to stop drawing water off the river.
The monitoring gauges up and down the state’s rivers — and their accuracy — are critical in making those “calls.”
Wolfe said the gauges are also important in providing warnings of high river flows or potential flooding, and the historical data collected by the gauges serves many other purposes, he added.
“They’re extremely critical in how we function, so we have to get them up and running,” he said.
Wolfe noted that the state put in place seven temporary gauges following the flood to help the state monitor current and winter operations along the river.
But he said more progress has to be made by the spring, when snowmelt from the mountains will be running down and into reservoirs and irrigation ditches, and water demands from farmers and cities will increase for the growing season.
Wolfe said he’s confident many of the impacted gauges will be up and running by that time.
“How many? We’re just not sure yet,” he said.
Wolfe further noted that, thanks to grants and FEMA’s involvement, repairing and replacing the gauges will not require any dollars from the state.
The challenges presented by the destroyed gauges come in addition to many others facing water officials, providers and users.
Representatives from irrigation ditches, reservoir companies and others have reported thousands of dollars in damage, if not millions, along their systems — ditches, dykes, gravel pits, canals, head gates and other diversion structures that need repairs, or even to be rebuilt.
In some places, the surging flood waters changed the course of the river, causing discussions on whether or not the region’s rivers should be put back in their previous locations.
Water providers have expressed support to get the rivers back to their previous locations, at least in areas where their diversion structures are no longer on the banks of the rivers, and can’t draw water into reservoirs or ditches.
The irrigating season is over. The bigger issue, many say, could be the ability to deliver water next year.
Farmers and water experts say the silver lining in the flood was being able to store some of the flood waters in reservoirs, and the needed moisture in the soil that came with the record rainfall. ❖