Irrigators hope to tap flood disaster recovery funds

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With as much as half a million acres of northeastern Colorado cropland left without adequate irrigation following the September floods, hopes are high in the water community that the federal government will open up access to Emergency Watershed Protection funds for repairing damage to ditches, reservoirs and diversion structures.

“If we aren’t able to repair this infrastructure, there is a good possibility that even if we have a good water year, it will still be a very bad year,” Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District spokesman Brian Werner said.

The repair needs of both farming and municipal irrigation ditches and reservoirs are acute. Northern Water is administrating a $2.55 million program funded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, but that money has already been allocated to more than 100 agencies in amounts ranging between $20,000 and $25,000.

“This was really intended to be seed money, and many of these agencies are using that money for planning or engineering,” Northern Water’s resources engineer Amy Johnson said. “Some of them may be able to use CWCB emergency loans, but there are a lot of unmet needs.”

Northeastern Colorado is a huge part of the $40 billion agricultural economy in the state, but the effects from a lack of diversion infrastructure could be even more far reaching. Municipal storage is also impacted and all water rights would be further inhibited by inabilities to physically exchange water and augment those exchanges.

Following the 2012 fires, Colorado received about $20 million from the EWP program, which is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That money was allocated to the High Park Fire area, and areas in El Paso County hit by fire and debris flow.

Colorado’s Congressional delegation — primarily led by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet — has been working to get more money out of the Emergency Watershed Protection program, but the money Colorado has received as a result of the 2012 fires took up about half the available budget, Bennet’s deputy press secretary Philip Clelland said. Bennet and fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall have been working to free up more emergency funds through the federal budget morass, while both Republican and Democratic house members of the delegation have been urging the federal government to do more to alleviate damage from the flooding before next spring’s runoff.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service understands the importance of these diversion and irrigation systems, said Eric Lane, the director of conservation services for the state Department of Agriculture, but it is also working diligently to educate other agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, about their necessity.

“Typically, where FEMA is involved there is more concern with moving floodwaters away from communities,” Lane noted.

While Bennet supports using the EWP fund to aid in repairing northeastern Colorado’s irrigation system, Clelland said, there are other priorities, such as restoring stream channels. Though U.S. Rep. Jared Polis represents Boulder and Larimer counties, which were severely affected by the flooding, his office did not offer comment on the situation.

Though the EWP program may seem somewhat unsuited for irrigation restoration, there aren’t many federal-aid alternatives. For instance, the Conservation Stewardship Program does have a program for hazardous dams, but it is largely limited to dams initiated through the NRCS that pose an imminent threat to human life.