After Floods, Some Colo. Rivers Aren't Where They Used To Be

NPR icon by Nathan Heffel
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Jim Hill

In Colorado, farmers are scrambling to recover from September's historic floods — floods that decimated miles of roadways, cut off entire towns and sent rivers and creeks into areas they'd never been before.

Like Tim Foster's immaculate front yard.

"It was beautiful," he says. "I had four large blue spruces. We had hundred-year-old cottonwoods all along the bank. We had our irrigation and our pumps. It was just gorgeous."

At the height of the flooding, it all washed away. Left Hand Creek, just 200 yards from Foster's home near Boulder, became a raging river and charted a new path — right across his driveway.

And when the water subsided, the original channel was dry.

Now there's a race against time to put Left Hand Creek — and other waterways that moved with the flooding — back in their original places before planting season, so farmers can get the irrigation water they need.

Getting Back On Course

Farther down Left Hand Creek from Foster's home, large yellow excavators move massive boulders and tree trunks to block the water's path.

Bob Crifasi, a consultant with the Left Hand Ditch Co., says workers are trying to reconnect the creek to its original course.

The raging floodwaters forced Left Hand Creek away from the company's diversion structures and canals, which supplied irrigation water for farmers who were miles away. Crifasi says those structures are now clogged with mud, debris and stagnant water.

All this rechanneling work comes with a cost. For Left Hand Ditch Co. alone, it could cost more than $3 million. Crifasi says there's little financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"They're not stepping up, or they do not have the authority to provide resources for moving the creek," he says.

'A Misconception'

Kevin Houck, the chief of flood protection for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which oversees water use and management issues across the state, says the Army Corps of Engineers doesn't necessarily have funds to help out in this case.

And it certainly doesn't have "the authority to just come in and make wholesale changes without private property approval," he says.

"I think that is a misconception that is out there in a lot of places, which is [that] the state or the federal government are going to come in and fix everything here," he says. "And for the most part, that's not really going to be the case."

The state water conservation board has stepped in with emergency loans to help irrigation providers like the Left Hand Ditch Co. And that, in turn, helps homeowners like Foster move the river out of their yards.

Foster says it's imperative that repairs and rechanneling happen in the creek within the next four to five months, before Colorado's snow melts and the water starts rising once again. If the ditch company's projects aren't completed before then, farmers won't have vital water when planting season starts in April.

Copyright 2013 KUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://kunc.org.

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