Relocating Rivers? NE Colo. water providers, officials face rare challenge
October 14, 2013
Northeast Colorado water officials and water providers face a rare predicament following last month's historic flood.
Discussions on whether or not the region's rivers should be put back in their previous locations are now taking place after surging floodwaters cut several new paths — relocating rivers as much as three-fourths of a mile in some spots, according to reports.
A number of water providers this week 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.
Without moving the rivers back, those water providers would have to build new diversion structures where the river is now located, they said, which could add up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe more.
While there's much support to get the rivers back to their previous locations, there still are questions about permitting for the river-redirecting endeavors, legal issues, and who would pay for the projects, among others.
"This issue could be complicated," said Dick Wolfe, state engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources. "In the several instances where ditch companies or others had structures that were washed out or had other damage, it's fairly clear how those repairs should be done. But in the cases where the rivers cut a whole new channel … there's still a lot of discussions that need to be had."
Wolfe said he and others with the state will continue working closely with local and federal officials, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which evaluates permit applications for essentially all construction activities that occur on the nation's waters, including rivers.
"It's certainly not an issue the state has dealt with during my professional career," said Wolfe, who's worked in the water business in Colorado for 27 years. "And while the floods of 1965 and 1976 caused similar problems, the federal permitting process and other things have changed so much since then … that I'm not sure we can really use those as a road map."
Regardless of the challenges, water providers and water users say there's limited time to fix the problem.
"It's definitely something we need to get done … and fairly quickly, so we can be ready to capture spring runoff (snowmelt from the mountains) next year, and be ready to irrigate," said Steve Schultz, board president for the Ish Reservoir and Ditch Co., which provides water to about 15,000 acres between Berthoud, Colo., and Johnstown, Colo., and whose diversion structure along the Little Thompson River is no longer where it can divert water, after the river changed its course during the flooding.
While the rivers changed course in several locations, they didn't separate themselves from diversion structures at all of those spots.
Still, many water providers were impacted in some way from the flooding.
A number of representatives from irrigation ditches, reservoir companies and other water officials have reported tens of thousands of dollars in damage, much more in some cases, along their systems — ditches, dykes, gravel pits, canals, head gates and other diversion structures that need repairs, or even to be rebuilt.
The irrigating season is over for farmers, who are now concentrated on harvesting their crops.
The bigger issue, they say, could be the ability to deliver water to their fields next year.
Farmers and water experts say the silver lining in the flood — in addition to being able to store some of the flood water in reservoirs, 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 and reservoir companies and other water providers now have the winter months to try and get their ditch systems in order.
But fixing some of those issues could be more complex than others — such as potentially relocating rivers.
"It's certainly more complicated than replacing a road," noted Randy Welch, public information officer for FEMA, which is overseeing federal agencies in response to the disaster, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "There are a lot of agencies involved, at the state, local and federal levels. We're still very early into the discussions, and still trying to pinpoint what the roles will be."
David Bell, agriculture resources manager for Boulder County, Colo., Parks and Open Space Department, has sat in on discussions pertaining to the moving the rivers back to their previous locations, or leaving them where they are.
Bell — who said a diversion structure on the St. Vrain River is no longer where it can divert water to some of the department's 100,000 acres — agreed with Wolfe and Welch, in that much is unclear on the issue, and more discussions need to take place.
He also agreed with Schultz, though, noting that he and several others want to see the river moved back to its previous location, and the endeavor needs to be done in a timely manner. ❖