Long-awaited Chatfield Reallocation Project — much needed by farmers — clears ‘major’ federal hurdle

Eric Brown | Fence Post Editorial Director
(Photo courtesy of Jim Rydbom)

Northern Colorado farmers say they can remember serious discussions as far back as the 1980s about expanding the Chatfield Reservoir, south of Denver, to capture, store and deliver more water for users in the region.

Three decades later, that water still hasn’t made its way to their farms.

But this week, it got one step closer — a “major” step.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Record of Decision was received by the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley — one of a dozen participants in the Chatfield Reallocation Project.

Within the document was approval of the participants’ plans, including its wildlife-mitigation measures and other efforts to minimize the impacts of the project.

“It’s a major milestone,” said Randy Knutson, a Greeley area farmer and president of Central Colorado’s board of directors. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we at least have the needed approval now to do that work.”

Without the Corps approval, such water projects can’t go forward. Now a water-supply agreement must be finalized, which Central Water officials said on Tuesday they’re expecting soon.

Many Colorado farmers have long been working against the clock to acquire more water, as demands in northern Colorado continually increase and demand tightens.

The 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative report showed the state was on pace to see a water shortfall of up to 1 million acre-feet by 2050. That same report also said Colorado could see as many as 700,000 acres of irrigated farmland dry up over that time span.

As supplies have tightened, prices have skyrocketed. In January 2013, the price of a water unit in the Colorado-Big Thompson Project — the region’s largest water-supply project — was about $9,500. Now it’s well over $20,000 per unit.

As far as the Chatfield Reallocation Project, Central Water is the only agricultural water provider participating.

The $184 million project would raise the Denver-area lake by as much as 12 feet, and, in doing so, would provide an additional 4,274 acre-feet of water annually to some of Central’s users.

Central oversees two subdistricts that provide augmentation water to farmers in the LaSalle and Gilcrest areas and other parts of southern Weld County. The two subdistricts — the Groundwater Management Subdistrict (GMS) and the Well Augmentation Subdistrict (WAS) — also stretch into Adams and Morgan counties and, all together, cover more than 100,000 acres.

For someone to legally pump water out of the ground in Colorado, most wells must have an approved augmentation plan to make up for depletions to the aquifer. The pumping of that groundwater draws down flows in nearby rivers and streams — surface supplies owned and used by senior water rights holders.

But, because of increasing water prices, some in the ag community — many in the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District’s boundaries — have struggled and continue to struggle to find affordable water they can use for augmentation.

Thousands of groundwater wells in the area have been curtailed or shut down in recent years.

The Chatfield Reallocation Project — expected to be delivering the additional water in 2017 — will help get some of those wells pumping.

“It’s needed to get us pumping again,” Knutson said. “It’s needed for our farmers. Today was a big deal.” ❖