Drought news: ‘Free river’ at this time of the year is fairly unusual — Dave Nettles #COdrought #COflood

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From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

There will be more water for farmers next growing season because of flood waters being captured in the region’s reservoirs, but also headaches that could outweigh the benefits, local farmers and water experts say.

As assessments continued this week, a number of representatives from irrigation ditch companies, particularly to the south of Greeley, are reporting more and more “significant” damage along their irrigation systems — ditches, dykes, gravel pits, 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 as soon as their fields dry.

The bigger concern, they say, is the ability to deliver water to their fields next year. “In some spots of the river … where we have structures on the banks to divert water … the river is now moved,” said Bill Bailey, the owner of P Diamond Irrigation, an irrigation supply company in Kersey, who sits on the board for the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Co., also known as FRICO. “How do you begin to deal with things like that?”

Farmers and water experts say the silver lining in the flood — in addition to storing some of the overflow, 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 companies at least have the winter months to try and get the repairs done, before farmers start planting a new round of crops next spring.

“We still have a lot of assessing to do, but it could be upwards of about $1 million in repairs that we need to do,” said Randy Ray, executive director with the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley, an entity with subdistricts that provide water augmentation and decree administration for over 1,100 irrigation wells in Weld, Morgan and Adams counties, covering 56,900 acres. “Not only is it a lot of work, but then you have to start asking yourself, ‘How do we pay for it?’” Water officials and ditch representatives said ditch companies often don’t have insurance that covers damages to their infrastructure.

As it stands, many crop growers — even ones with fields in standing water — believe much of their crops this year could be salvageable, as long as it warms up soon and stays dry, so they can get everything harvested before the killing frosts of fall set in.

There are concerns, though, about the many roads impacted by the floods — 122 bridges were wiped out in Weld County and about 650 miles of lanes destroyed — that are expected to make transportation of harvested crops, livestock and other ag products longer, more complicated and expensive.

Destruction aside, local farmers — among the agricultural industry that uses about 85 percent of the state’s water — said any abundance of water for next year’s crops would certainly be welcome. During last year’s drought, farmers, as well as cities, relied heavily on water stored in reservoirs to get through the growing season, and this year, those supplies were limited. In most years, many farmers lease extra water from cities to maximize production, but this year, cities — concerned about re-filling their depleted reservoirs — leased far less water than normal to farmers, forcing some crop growers to plant less acres, or plant crops that require less water.

Before the flood, the Greeley-Loveland Irrigation System — which, in addition to providing the city of Greeley with some of its drinking water, also delivers water to about 14,000 farm acres between Greeley and Loveland — was only about 30 percent full, according to Ron Brinkman, general manager of the system. That’s about the same as it was a year ago, during the 2012 drought, Brinkman noted. But diverting flood waters this past week had helped the system get back up to about 45 percent full by Tuesday, Brinkman said, and water was still flowing into the system, pushing it closer to its historic range of being 50 to 60 percent full heading into winter.

Brian Werner — spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud, which oversees operations of the region’s largest water-supply project, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project — said their water levels “unfortunately” were basically unchanged. He explained that most of the system’s 12 reservoirs in the mountains and foothills — many of which are on the West Slope — didn’t receive a lot of rain. And, for places like Lake Estes, where there was a lot of rain, there wasn’t enough capacity to store and divert all of that water into other reservoirs, like Horsetooth Reservoir and Carter Lake. Most of it just flowed down into the Big Thompson River Canyon.

Meanwhile, operators of other ditch companies — including FRICO, which delivers water to about 65,000 acres of farmground, along with municipalities, between Boulder and Kersey — are filling their reservoirs.

The historically high water levels in recent days have caused a “free river” — meaning ditch companies and other water providers for now can divert water off the river regardless of how senior or how junior their water rights are. Dave Nettles, division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources office in Greeley, said, going back the last 10 years, a “free river” at this time of the year is fairly unusual.

Still, concerns remain for next year, with major repairs needed in order to deliver that water.

From The Durango Herald (Brandon Mathis):

Paul Frisbie, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the recent local moisture is significant. “The departure from normal is very high,” Frisbie said comparing rainfall to past years. “It’s a very high number.”[…]

While tremendous flooding has affected thousands of residents on Colorado’s Front Range, killing four and prompting mass evacuations, Southwest Colorado has seen minimal damage…

Elisa Sands, who works at Turtle Lake Refuge, a sustainable farm near Falls Creek, said the rain is fueling a bumper crop of tomatoes, mint, squash, corn, beans, strawberries and other produce. “The farm is really happy,” she said. “Everything is soaking up the water really well. It looks like a jungle out there.”[…]

The Animas River was running at less than 300 cubic feet per second on Sept. 8, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. On Sunday, it was recorded gushing at 2,070 cfs. Lemon Reservoir, northeast of town, is currently up nearly 13 acre feet.

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