Irrigation for farmers dries up due to drought, High Park Fire

With the city of Fort Collins’ water resources expected to be extremely stressed next summer, farmers in the 111-year-old, Wellington-based Northern Poudre Irrigation Company expect to be the first to be left high and dry.

“The horrible thing is that when Fort Collins was here buying up all these shares, they told us this water would always be available (for lease),” said one east Larimer County farmer, who wished to remain anonymous. “I didn’t sell anything to the city, but that’s what they told neighbors to reassure us all.”

The city owns about 35 percent of the NPIC shares, and much of that water comes from the Colorado Big Thompson Project (CBT), a source the city is seeking to conserve. On average the amount of CBT water the city leases shareholders in this former farmers’ cooperative constitutes about 25 percent of the company’s overall available water, said NPIC Operations Manager Steve Smith.

“I think the farmers, if they are astute about this situation — given the drought — they will probably cut back on the number of acres they are irrigating,” Smith said. He said there really aren’t any options for water users in the NPIC service area, which lies between the foothills and the Weld County line, north from the Cache la Poudre River to about County Road 76.

Other than the water company’s rights to natural flow from the Poudre River and the CBT water, much of which the city controls, there is no other raw water available to the area, Smith said.

Fort Collins bought shares in the company to gain control of the irrigation company’s CBT water, which is pumped from the Colorado River basin and stored in reservoirs such as Horsetooth and Carter Lake. That’s exactly the water the city is expected to rely upon much of this spring and summer said City of Fort Collins water resources manager Donnie Dustin.

“We just feel we might need to hold on to that, because we have to take half of what we normally rely on out of the picture,” Dustin said. Besides the drought conditions, the city is fighting the aftermath of the High Park fire, which may prevent it from using water from the Poudre River, which normally accounts for half of its total water resource.

Dustin has already announced that Fort Collins will almost certainly have water restrictions in place for 2013. If last summer was a good indication, he said, the city will be unable to use water coming from the river for a good deal of the year, because of sediment and other particulate loading from the fire area.

“Last year we were off the river for three months,” Dustin said. “Every time it rained that water turned black.”

Dustin said the city hopes to augment water the farmers may receive by trading what agricultural water it controls for any additional CBT rights that may be available. NPIC splits its yearly allocation into two classifications: Water coming from the CBT system is termed “multi-use” water for municipal and industrial use, while water coming from the natural flow into the Poudre River is classified as “agricultural” water.

“In order to increase the amount of its CBT supplies in 2013, utilities is considering swapping the agricultural portion of its NPIC shares for multiple use (CBT) water,” said Dustin in a Nov. 15 message to company shareholders. He said that the city would probably offer about 1.25 acres of ag water for every single acre foot of CBT water, though the city is only exploring the possibility at this time.

How grim this situation becomes for everyone involved, of course, depends on how much precipitation falls over the winter and into the growing season. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District will set its allocation of CBT water in April, which will be far and away the biggest factor in how the city proceeds with its planning.

Farmers in the NPIC will be left even more at the whims of the weather. Substantial reductions in the overall flow of a ditch often diminish supplies to users even further, as a greater percentage of the remaining water is lost to seepage and evaporation.

“Last year we were cut back 50 percent, and we lost 30 percent of that due to the (irrigation) interruptions and cycling,” the farmer said. “They didn’t tell us they were cutting back until after we had leased properties (to farm) and bought seed.”

Fort Collins owns about 35 percent of the irrigation company’s shares, but local landowners now control substantially less than half of the company’s shares, as other ditch companies and municipal interests have also bought into the system.

“We have always been cooperative with Northern Poudre Irrigation,” Dustin said. “I know that is going to be a hardship on them and we appreciate that.

“I keep thinking, ‘is there some alternative we can develop?’ I’m hoping this will be one-year thing, but this spring will tell us how much of our water will be black.”

The city might realize as much as 4,800 acre feet of water for municipal users by not leasing this year, which is about enough for 10,000 homes. Still, it probably will not be enough to replace the 25,000 acre feet of water the city normally takes out of the river.

The city is also working with Colorado State University experts on how to filter water coming down the river, but a basic problem is the particulate matter is highly variable in the river and it is difficult to continually switch the sources that bring water into treatment.

Farmers may face harder times, but easier decisions.

“We normally farm a little more than 9,000 acres,” the farmer said. “This year we might be lucky to farm 2,000.”

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