New Platteville irrigation system allows for easy response in disaster situations | TheFencePost.com

New Platteville irrigation system allows for easy response in disaster situations

Kayla Young | FENCE POST EDITORIAL DIRECTOR

A new, more secure irrigation system in Platteville has become the silver lining for 14 agricultural areas in northern Colorado that had a diversion dam wiped out by last September's floods.

Although few designs could have withstood such a large-scale weather event, developers of the new Beeman/Meadow Island structure say the modern system would have prevented some of the damage from the 2013 flood.

For starters, ditch operators will no longer need to enter the South Platte to manually install stop logs that manage water flow. Lowering the floodgates will now be as easy as pulling up a phone app, said Robert Eckman, vice president of Obermeyer Hydro Inc.

This equates to quicker response times and less risk for workers.

"The ditch operator can now lower or raise the gate remotely using an application on his cell phone," explained Eckman at a visit to the reconstructed irrigation facility yesterday.

Obermeyer Hydro Inc. designed the gate and control system for the reconstruction of the Beeman/Meadow Island No. 2 River Diversion. The Wellington-based company has installed 40 similar structures across Colorado, and currently has dozens of irrigation system projects underway across Asia, Europe and South America.

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"The No. 1 thing about this system is that it is really controllable. It will maintain a constant water elevation, which is very important to pull a constant flow rate into the canal," Eckman said. "The second thing it does is that it's fully collapsible. In a flood, it flattens out completely and there is nothing up top that would catch the debris and worsen the flood."

The demand for well-engineered river diversion systems has arisen from a need for safer and more manageable facilities. In Platteville's case, the decision to implement a more advanced structure came down to practicality, said Amy Willhite, who managed the project's funding for Beeman Irrigating Ditch & Milling Co.

"We asked if we wanted a Band-Aid approach or if we wanted to fix this thing for good. We decided we wanted to put the money into it to fix it right so that this wouldn't happen again. We realized that this would cost a lot of money. Luckily, the Colorado Water Conservation Board came to the rescue with the emergency loan program," Willhite said.

In total, the Colorado Water Conservation Board provided $28 million in low-interest loans and grants to rebuild across the flood area. The Beeman/Meadow Island project received $2 million, approximately $1.5 million of which has been used to date. This low-interest loan will be repaid over a 30-year period.

To contribute to engineering costs, the facility also received $50,000 in grant money through Northern Water, said Amy L. Johnson, a Northern Water project manager.

"Northern Water is the fiscal agent for a $2.55 million grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Northern Water and CWCB worked through an application process and developed this grant program and awarded 107 different grants through two cycles," Johnson said. "In the case of this project, the Beeman Irrigating Company received two grants, both in cycle one and cycle two."

Johnson said many of the grant requests received by Northern Water were similar to that of Beeman Irrigating Company. Ditch operators needed help repairing diversion structures and clearing out debris in time for the new irrigation season in August.

In a sense, the timing of September's flood was fortunate for farmers. Although flooding caused extensive crop losses, ditch operators were given enough time to regroup before the 2014 season, said John R. Stulp, a water policy adviser to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

"If we were ever to have a disaster, September was the best time to have it because immediately a lot of companies had financing lined up, and grants from the state to start the assessment and engineering. Then they were able to work through the fall, winter and early spring," Stulp said.

He added, "By the time late winter and early spring came and the water started flowing, many were back in operation. Over 90 percent have been reconstructed so they are operational. By next spring, nearly 100 percent of those that choose to be reconstructed will be back in business."

Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said the remaining repairs will require more careful planning.

"Those are areas where we had the river change channels and the community is undergoing a discussion about where the river should go," King said.

Through collaborative efforts, King said Colorado has been able to respond quickly to natural disasters and develop action plans.

"It's awfully hard to have the human resources infrastructure in place and trained because this may not happen again for 100 plus years. What I think we did have in place was a dedicated staff that was willing to learn. I think we've all come out of this with a better understanding," King said.

He added, "We looked to other states that had been through natural disasters and we mobilized very quickly. We looked at all of the hurricane damage along the East Coast to get debriefings on how to go to the feds for resources."

For a state that has suffered an onslaught of natural disasters in recent years, King emphasized the importance of utilizing human resources to implement rapid response measures.

"Unfortunately, it's something we've gotten far too good at in Colorado. In three and half years of Governor Hickenlooper's administration, we've had 13 natural disaster declarations, which is unprecedented nationwide," King said.

He added, "Whether it's droughts or fires or floods — and we've had all three — we have become very proficient at making sure resources that are available on the federal level are mobilized and put on the ground for Coloradans. That is absolutely something we've become more proficient at than we would like."

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