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Flood Brings Drought Relief, Financial Headaches To Farmers

The flood damage in Colorado is immense, reaching beyond homes and small businesses. The raging rivers also spilled into low-lying farm and ranchland, wrecking costly equipment and stranding livestock.

Early estimates show more than 20,000 acres of land used for agricultural production along the South Platte River and its tributaries ended up underwater. A team at Colorado State University is currently tallying the damage total to the state’s agriculture industry, which contributes about $20 billion a year in economic impact.

Those producers who live in the floodplain are now cleaning up, assessing damage to structures and equipment, and locating lost livestock.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC and Harvest Public Media
KUNC and Harvest Public Media
The Werning family's farmhouse was inundated with water. The floors will likely need to be removed to save the structure and make it safe to live in.

In LaSalle, Colo., Glenn Werning and his two sons are cleaning up after the hip-high water drenched some farm equipment and left tractor tires, tree trunks and fuel tanks strewn across their corn fields.>

“We had all the equipment out except a planter,” Werning said. “The workings of the planter were underwater so who knows how this is going to turn out.”

Though it took a beating from debris washed downstream in the South Platte River, the metal storage shed on Werning’s land is still standing. The water also inundated a concrete storage silo. A crew had to be hired to vacuum the water-logged and now fermenting corn out.

In Werning’s fields the corn still stands after the flood waters flowed through. A small consolation since harvest will be difficult. The fields are caked in mud and silt.

“For the time being, we can’t harvest. We just can’t. There’s nothing we can do down here,” Werning said.

Not being able to harvest is a problem farmers faced in 2012. The reason was entirely different. Drought gripped Colorado, withering crops and limiting water supplies. It was something that lasted well into this year, with crippling heat preceding the flood waters.

“So it’s been kind of a triple whammy,” Werning said. “We hope those are three, if bad things come in threes, we hope that the drought and the heat was part of it so there isn’t one more coming.”

There was at least one silver lining to the flooding. The deluge of rain pulled some areas out of the drought completely.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC and Harvest Public Media
KUNC and Harvest Public Media
The Wernings' corn fields are strewn with large debris. The flood waters didn't knock over the corn stalks, though. Werning says if weather cooperates they may be able to harvest some of this year's crop.

“Perspective wise, I think a lot of farmers were glad to see the moisture because the reservoirs were filled, et cetera,” said Colorado State University agriculture professor Norm Dalsted. “But those that were directly impacted by the flood, it’s definitely going to be a tough period of time, the next year or two to get back on their feet.”

Getting back on their feet includes everything from purchasing new equipment, replenishing feed supplies for cattle, to repairing structures. The long term effects of the flood will likely bring even more problems. Dalsted says the high water inundated wastewater treatment plants, spilling human waste into streams.

That can cause contamination of pasture land.

“That’s a major clean up for a lot of our farmers and ranchers, no question about it,” Dalsted said.

Most farmers haven’t seen anything like this flood in recent times. The state’s climate history shows that floods can provide relief, even if only temporary, to drought. Colorado’s climatologist Nolan Doesken notes that without sustained moisture, it’s easy to slip right back into dry conditions.

“The lesson is we don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Doesken said. “There’s no guarantee we’re out of the drought woods.”

This flood was helpful in some ways says Doesken said. It recharged the parched soil and smaller reservoir owners were able to capture some of the runoff for next year’s planting. The big ones, owned and operated by the federal government, missed the heavy rains. In some cases the water came too quickly and so filled with that debris water managers couldn’t capture it.

“The reality is, that weather events happen and then we revert back to our regular seasonal cycles with plenty of meteorological ups and downs to go with it,” Doesken said.

This latest storm brought lots of downsides for Glenn Werning’s land in LaSalle. He and his sons had been hoping for rain all last year. Now, there’s just too much.

“We’re always fighting to find water to be able to irrigate in this semi-desert area,” Werning said. “And it’s pretty tough to see that much water become a problem as opposed to something helpful.”

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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