Western Nebraskans were bracing for high waters toward week’s end.
Flooding along the South Platte River in the western part of the state had initially caused little damage, but the river continued to rise as Colorado floodwaters arrived late in the week.
The flooding began near the Colorado-Nebraska border on Wednesday and forced the closure of the Interstate 80 exit into Big Springs and a truck stop.
A breach in the river bank also developed west of Brule, Neb.
Doug Anderson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension educator in Keith County, said the water encroached on the Farmers Cooperative Association grain elevator outside of the town, but didn’t reach the facility, or threaten Brule.
Anderson added that — because of the devastation caused in the foothills and plains of Colorado in earlier days — there was plenty of warning for residents in western Nebraska.
Farmers, ranchers and others were taking precautions during the week, Anderson said, moving cattle and equipment to higher ground.
Farmers are also bringing in their harvest early.
“We’re expecting the rivers to get high, but not see what Colorado got,” Anderson said. “That’s the hope anyway.”
In Colorado, among those hardest hit were in Weld County — the eighth-largest agricultural producer in the U.S. But those among the county’s renowned ag industry say they’ll bounce back from the historic floods that, during the past week, swept across an estimated 2,300 parcels of ag land along Weld’s rivers.
There will certainly be challenges in the days ahead, though, they added.
There are concerns about the many impacted roads — 122 bridges wiped out in Weld County alone, and about 650 miles of lanes destroyed — that are expected to make transportation of livestock, feed, harvested crops and other ag products longer, more complicated and expensive.
A number of irrigation systems’ ditches were washed out or saw infrastructure crumble, and those repairs will cost thousands, if not millions of dollars, and need to be complete before the next growing season, farmers say.
The recent ambush of rain has set back an already late harvest several days, and northeast Colorado farmers are increasingly concerned that the first killing frost of the season — typically falling in early to mid October — will roll around while there are plenty of crops still in the fields.
Additionally, some northeast Colorado livestock owners are concerned about the debris that came with the flood waters, and question if extra precautions will be needed to make sure the water they’re pumping into their livestock’s drinking tanks isn’t contaminated — although, incidents of such had been reported, according to Keith Maxey, director of the Colorado State University Extension office in Weld County.
While many are preparing for the challenges ahead, others are still picking up pieces.
Glenn Werning, a farmer along the South Platte River near LaSalle, Colo., had more than 400 acres of corn silage under water. He said he’s hoping things dry out enough — and for long enough — to where his saturated crops can still be harvested.
Unlike Werning, Dave Petrocco, who operates Petrocco Farms near Brighton, Colo., knows his crops under water are not salvageable. All together, it’s about 110 acres of cabbage and onions along the South Platte. Petrocco had already lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of produce to hail storms in August.
Back in Nebraska, officials said late in the week that the South Platte was extremely full at Ogallala, but hadn’t yet overflowed on Thursday.
The National Weather Service predicted at the time that flooding would continue along the South Platte and later the Platte River over the next several days as the surge of water moved east.
Even though communities have had several days to prepare, there’s not been enough time to fully protect them from possibly record flooding along a river that rarely floods. Flood protection systems such as levees and reservoirs simply don’t exist on the South Platte, according to a report in the Omaha Herald-World.
As a result, local officials are focused on protecting critical infrastructure and telling residents to take responsibility for their own property.
Broken river gauges have prevented officials from getting a good idea of how much floodwater is headed to Nebraska. ❖