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Colorado Ag Braces For A Post-Flood Irrigation Season

Luke Runyon
KUNC and Harvest Public Media

When September’s flood waters came down the Front Range foothills, it unleashed tremendous pressure on an aging irrigation infrastructure, some of which dated back to the late 1800s. As the weather warms, it’ll be a race to mend the damaged or destroyed ditches before the snow starts to melt.

The St. Vrain river watershed, which includes Left Hand Creek, and the Big Thompson watershed were among the hardest hit areas. A recent state report shows that while the region’s biggest irrigators are scheduled to be up and running for the critical spring planting season, other smaller companies will not. About 30 percent of irrigation systems along the Big Thompson, and 40 percent along the St. Vrain, won’t be fixed by May 1.

“A lot of us are in this weird position where we’re rooting snowpack and we’re rooting for runoff for the irrigators,” said Sean Cronin, director for the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District. “But we’re not rooting for snowpack or runoff for the flood recovery effort.”

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC and Harvest Public Media
KUNC and Harvest Public Media
Wade Gonzales, superintendent for Highland Ditch Company, is concerned about debris later this season. The system's main headgate has been fully repaired, but could be inundated later in the season as spring runoff starts.

The lifeblood of Colorado agriculture, irrigation canals stretch like veins across the Front Range. Heavy metal gates that pull water from the river were upended in flood-affected streams. Without them, the vast network of canals would remain dry. Because some won’t be fixed in time, some cropland will remain fallow.

During the flood, the Little Thompson River swelled about a mile away from farmer Mark Nygren’s fields in Johnstown in Weld County. What’s usually a little creek turned into a raging river. Neighbors were inundated, and barns, trucks, and livestock were lost. Nygren’s farmland was untouched, but that wasn’t the end of his worries. Further upstream, the ditches that divert water to his fields were left in tatters.

“We solely depend on irrigation and in these short water years, it’s scary,” Nygren said. “And then to run into something like this where there might not be any water delivered.”

Renovation of the biggest ditch systems is underway, including the ones that deliver water to Nygren, but farmers are still bracing themselves for a long, tough irrigation season.

A portion of Nygren’s water comes from the Highland Ditch Company, which services more than 35,000 acres of farmland across the plains. The heart of their diversion infrastructure is situated right along the St. Vrain River, outside Lyons, Colo. At the time of the flood much of it was more than a century old. They began repairs as soon as the water receded.

"The thing that makes me nervous now is the debris that's left that isn't cleaned up. What is that going to do? Are we going to end up with the same problem?"

“I think we were aggressive because of the time frame. That snow melt’s coming. If we hadn’t of started when we did, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Wade Gonzales, Highland Ditch’s superintendent.

Thanks to a willing group of shareholders, large cash reserves and available contractor, Highland Ditch Company was able to make quick work of damaged headgates and canals. In some cases they were actually able to make it better than before, a silver lining to the destruction.

“They got a concrete wall that goes clean down to bedrock now,” Gonzales said. “They say that’s what takes these out is the water gets underneath them and then it blows them out.”

Even those systems that are being fully rebuilt could face trouble later on. Debris is still lodged up in the foothills and could come tumbling down with a torrential spring runoff.

After years of drought,2014’s high snowpack in the South Platte River Basin should be a welcome sight for farmers. But with some irrigation systems still in disrepair, or only with temporary patches, this will be the first real test since September’s floods.

“Time will tell how great a job we did on the temporary recovery,” said St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District’s Sean Cronin. “When runoff comes we’ll know what we did well and what we could’ve done better on.”

Johnstown farmer Mark Nygren says he’s feeling more optimistic than he did in the days just after the flood waters receded. The systems he relies on are on schedule for their repairs.

“We’ve got everything fixed and we think the ditch is going to run water. But I think there’s going to be things that come up that were unforeseen,” Nygren said.

Those unforeseen challenges will test not just for farmers and their fields, but the thousands of other Coloradans still affected six months after the flood.

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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