With more rain and farmers using less irrigation water, rivers on the rise in northeast Colorado | TheFencePost.com
Eric Brown | The Fence Post

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With more rain and farmers using less irrigation water, rivers on the rise in northeast Colorado

flooded field with rows of corn and storm clouds

The combination of recent rain, warm weather and farmers cutting back on irrigating is pushing river levels higher in northeast Colorado.

The South Platte River and its tributaries were all above average on Friday, but particularly high was the Cache La Poudre River near Greeley, where flows were more than four times higher than normal.

"You don't typically ask for it … but we need things to dry out right now," said Dave Nettles, the Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 1 engineer, based in Greeley, who noted he was "a bit alarmed" this week when he saw how much it was raining at Red Feather Lakes, northwest of Fort Collins.

How high the rivers will get remains a bit of a mystery.

"You can expect the river to get at least a little higher," said Nettles, noting that the peak in flows on the Poudre River is typically around June 10 — almost three weeks out.

All spring, river flows up in the mountains have been above average, thanks to a historically large snowpack.

But until recently, those river flows were weakening by the time they'd made it out to Greeley, because farmers in the area, battling dry and windy weather in March and April, were quickly pulling water out of the river to get their crops growing.

Now, with the recent rains, farmers aren't pulling as much water out of the river.

The rain is a double whammy for those concerned about flooding.

The moisture not only keeps farmers from irrigating and lowering river levels, the rain also adds directly to the flows.

The agriculture industry uses about 85 percent of the state's water, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, and how it uses runoff has an impact on river flows.

Nettles noted that, while this year's snowpack is large, it's nothing like the historic snowpack of 2011, which caused some flooding, nowhere near as destructive, though, as what was seen this past September.

But while the snowpack isn't as large now, there are other factors at play, Nettles noted.

Due to the 2012 and 2013 wildfires, there's less vegetation in the Cache La Poudre Basin capturing moisture, meaning more rain and snow is running off directly into the river.

And in other tributaries of the South Platte River, like the Big Thompson and St. Vrain river basins, they are still littered with debris and compromised banks from September's flooding, which has long caused concerns for potential flooding in northeast Colorado during the spring run-off period.

"We're going to have high rivers this spring … that's for certain," Nettles said. "How high? That really depends on the weather. If things can dry out, and we can get farmers pulling more water out of the river, the better off we'll be." ❖

River Flows In Northeast Colorado

Poudre River Friday’s flows (approx.) Historic Avg. (approx.)

At Canyon Mouth 2,750 cubic feet per second 1,250 cfs

Near Greeley 1,200 cfs 275 cfs

Big Thompson River Friday’s flows (approx.) Historic Avg. (approx.)

Above Lake Estes 460 cfs 350 cfs

At its mouth, near LaSalle 220 cfs 190 cfs

St. Vrain Creek Friday’s flows (approx.) Historic Avg. (approx.)

At Lyons 475 cfs 350 cfs

At its mouth, near Platteville 675 cfs 475 cfs

South Platte River Friday’s flows (approx.) Historic Avg. (approx.)

Near Kersey 4,100 cfs 2,000 cfs

* By Kersey, all tributary rivers — the Poudre, Big Thompson and St Vrain, among others — have dumped into the South Platte River.