Improved soil moisture may be silver lining of September flooding

It may go down as the strangest water year on record, but Colorado agriculture appears to have survived and even flourished in 2013, according to experts.

“We could probably use a week without precipitation to let those fields dry out, maybe two weeks in some places,” said Stephen Koontz, an associate professor and extension economist at Colorado State University. Koontz said the overall affect of September’s flooding on Colorado’s $41 billion agricultural industry was fairly limited overall, though much of the corn crop has yet to be harvested due to the wet fields.

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“I have a great deal of faith in the American farmer to be able to get into those fields and get those crops out,” Koontz said. “They have the tools and they have the wherewithal.”

About 15,000 acres of corn and 900 acres of sugar beets were lost to September’s flood waters, according to John Salazar, commission of the Colorado Department of Agriculture. About 1,500 northeastern Colorado farms were affected, with 1,500 farm buildings damaged along with 1,200 farm implements.

Obviously the flooding affected some farmers deeply, but the wounds were limited when it came to the state’s overall farm industry and even northeastern Colorado crops, said Salazar, a former U.S. District 3 representative. Colorado’s agricultural exports increased $128 million, to $1.1 billion, through August 2013 compared to last year, with much of the increase coming from China, Taiwan, Korea and Canada.

While crop totals are yet to come in, with only 39 percent of the corn and 53 percent of the sugar beets harvested as of Sept. 28, farmers are already looking forward to next year’s winter wheat crop. Soil moisture content over much of the state has improved dramatically, leading to a great deal of hope for a bumper crops next year.

Salazar said that 2013 — which started with no water in northeastern Colorado, saw significant improvement with spring snow and steady summer rains and then “biblical” amounts of rain in September — was a good year for Colorado.

Brian Werner, spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said that soil moisture may be a silver lining in the flood. But while Northern’s infrastructure was largely unaffected that’s largely because it is mostly off-channel on this side of the divide, meaning there was little water stored during what some have termed a 1,000-year rain event.

“Some of the ditch companies (and Fort Collins and Greeley, which own the North Fork reservoirs) were able to store quite a bit of water,” Werner said. “But the larger issue for farmers next year is if they will be able to repair their infrastructure in time.”

That is also the issue to which the Department of Agriculture has turned its focus — helping farmers and irrigation companies to repair damage from the floods. A number of reservoirs were damaged in the flooding, as were head gates and other ditch infrastructure.

Importantly, almost every one of these repairs, including those on private property, will require a Section 404 Permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in compliance with the Clean Water Act. That includes every ditch that flows back into a stream or river, as well as people looking to replace lost bridges, driveways or sections of private roads.

“Section 404 comes into play whenever you have placement of fill materials — that would be rock, soil, concrete, including if you have to build new bridge abutments down in the stream. This is why we’re so busy,” said Kiel Downing, state program manager for the corps’ regulatory program in Colorado. “Really if they are doing any repair work in streams or other waterways, I would recommend that they call this office.”

Salazar said this has been a first priority for his department, getting farmers and ditch operators going on obtaining the 404 permits.

“We’ve been able to get exemptions for a lot of this work,” Salazar said.

The Corps also reauthorized a general regional permit from 1996 for flood-related activities. For flood-damaged properties, that regional permit now allows much of the repair and reconstruction of existing roads, bridge embankment repair, protection or repair of utility structures, bank protection and stabilization and protection and restoration of intake structures.

Together with the nationwide permitting in place, that means much of the flood damage will not have to go through a public hearing process, because applicants will be able to utilize an existing permit, Downing said. But the corps still has to review each of the projects to authorize that it falls within the confines of the existing permits, and it’s a lot better to err on the side of making sure.

“The good news is over 70 percent of our requests have been returned within two days,” Downing said. “It won’t take very long provided they give us good information to go on.”

For most of these permits, the corps needs some fairly simple information, such as the exact location, map, name of the affected waterway and diagrams (birds-eye and cross-section) of the structure and waterway and estimates of how much fill will be placed in the stream.