Recovering from flooding, Colorado farmers hope for enough water

Mar 21, 2014

Construction workers rebuild a section of Highland Ditch Company’s irrigation infrastructure that was washed out in flooding near Lyons, Colorado.
Credit Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

When September’s flood waters came down from the Front Range foothills, they destroyed homes and wrecked office parks. The water ruined roads, bridges and highways. The floods destroyed farms and crops, and unleashed tremendous pressure on aging irrigation infrastructure, some of which dated back to the late 1800s.

Dozens of ditch systems were damaged or destroyed. Responsible for bringing water that’s vital for hundreds of Colorado farmers, repairs on many are already underway. Now, as the weather warms, it will be a race to mend the ditches before the snow starts to melt and a disastrous lack of water follows the floods that farmers are still recovering from.

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.”

Irrigation water is the lifeblood of Colorado agriculture. Water 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. Total damage is in the millions. Because some of the irrigation won’t be fixed in time, some farmers will be forced to fallow fields this year.

Last September, the Little Thompson River swelled about a mile away from farmer Mark Nygren’s fields in Johnstown in Weld County, Colo. What’s usually a little creek turned into a raging river. His neighbors were inundated. Some lost barns, trucks, and livestock. 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.”

The ditch systems that deliver water to Nygren are currently being renovated. But he and many other 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 Colorado plains. The heart of their diversion infrastructure is situated right outside the town of Lyons, Colo., along the St. Vrain River in Boulder County. At the time of the flood, much of it was more than a century old. Workers began repairs as soon as the water receded.

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

Highland Ditch Company, with its willing group of shareholders, large cash reserves and available contractor, was able to make quick work of damaged headgates and canals. In some cases they were actually able to improve the infrastructure, a silver lining to the destruction, Gonzales said.

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

But 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.

“The thing that makes me nervous now is the debris that’s left that isn’t cleaned up,” Gonzales said. “What is that going to do? Are we going to end up with the same problem?”

After years of drought, this season’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 Sean Cronin, with the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District. “When runoff comes we’ll know what we did well and what we could’ve done better on.”

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,” Nygren said. “But I think there’s going to be things that come up that were unforeseen.”

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