Six months ago, a half-million acres of agricultural land in northeastern Colorado were without adequate irrigation, but as the irrigation season began this spring the water from plentiful snowfall all seemed to be flowing to the right places.
“We’re pretty comfortable that somewhere in the 85 to 90 percent range was repaired,” said Northern Colorado Water spokesman Brian Werner. Most reservoir structures made it through the flooding relatively unscathed, with the exception of a number of gravel-pit structures, though there probably was some significant repair to intake and release structures.
“Carter Lake is filled, and Horsetooth (Reservoir) should be filled, I think today,” said Werner on May 22. “In terms of storage, both local storage and CBT (the Colorado-Big Thompson project), we’re not going to lack for water this year.”
Of course, all of this activity was spurred by too much water — the historic September floods. However, even three months later it wasn’t clear that farmers and irrigation companies would be able to fund repairs to their damaged systems.
While U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet helped get $110 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program added to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee’s bill, which should pay out about $61.5 million for Colorado projects awaiting funding, most irrigators were probably not able to access that money directly.
Northern Water administered a $2.5 million program funded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which was designed to distribute mostly seed money for initial engineering and to start projects deemed “shovel ready.”
“Those funds were exhausted pretty quickly,” said Amy Johnson, Northern Water’s resources engineer. “There were 109 initial grants, and to date we have approved grant reimbursements for 26 of those projects.”
The program paid up to 75 percent of the total cost of the project, with as much as $25,000 available for the engineering projects and $20,000 for the shovel-ready construction projects. Johnson said a number of people are on the waiting list for the grant and money may be returned to the program from projects that came in under budget.
There was another $40 million emergency-grant fund administered by the water conservation board, as well as some less-easily fit programs administered by the state.
“It’s hard to tell how they might have patched it together, but farmers are a pretty resilient lot — they always seem to figure it out,” Werner said. “When push comes to shove, they are figuring out how to get it delivered.”
Of course it wasn’t all farmers and ditch companies. Everyone from municipalities to a landowner watering property from a ditch was eligible for the program administered by Northern.
“They just had to be a water-rights holder and have infrastructure damaged in the flood,” said Johnson, noting that several municipalities did take advantage of the program.
Meanwhile, the wide availability of water had allowed the Northern Board to set the quota at 60 percent this year, with the hopes of filling much of the Western Slope storage, as well.
“We’re in real good shape,” Werner said. “There will be some flooding, but we’re not going to complain when we have an above average year.”