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Tue November 19, 2013
Around the Nation

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

Originally published on Wed November 20, 2013 7:34 am

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.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Colorado, farmers are scrambling to recover from flooding that was so bad, entire rivers carved new paths through the landscape. As Nathan Heffel from member station KUNC reports, there's a race against time to get these rivers back where they were before planting season.

NATHAN HEFFEL, BYLINE: The historic rains that caused September's flooding 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.

TIM FOSTER: That was beautiful. It was the lawn. I had four large blue spruces. We had hundred-year-old cottonwoods all along the bank. We had irrigation and our pumps. It was just gorgeous.

HEFFEL: 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, one that charted a new path right across his driveway.

FOSTER: And I would stand right, right here and look down and the river was flowing right here. And it was all dry over there. Because once the water had subsided, this was the new channel.

HEFFEL: Farther down the Creek, Bob Crifasi, a consultant with the Left Hand Ditch Company, watches as large yellow excavators move massive boulders and tree trunks. They're blocking the water's path and his company is trying to reconnect the creek to its original course.

BOB CRIFASI: So they're standing in what used to be the Left Hand Creek Channel. Of course it's flowing over here to the north of us...

HEFFEL: So it went around the house in a sense.

CRIFASI: It moved. It jumped. When the water was flowing here, there was a whole series of waterfalls off of the various terraces coming off the farm fields.

HEFFEL: The raging flood waters that tore through this spot forced Left Hand Creek away from the company's diversion structures and canals that supplied irrigation water for farmers miles away. Crifasi says those structures are now clogged with mud, debris and stagnant water.

CRIFASI: So they're moving - they're working on the creek channel up over here.

HEFFEL: All this re-channeling work comes with a cost. For the Left Hand Ditch Company alone it could cost well over $3 million. And Crifasi says there's little if any federal financial assistance from FEMA or the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to help.

CRIFASI: They're not stepping up, or they do not have the authority to provide resources for moving the creek. When I spoke to them and said that, asked them: Do you have the ability to help a company like Left Hand, they said, well, we don't do that.

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

HEFFEL: Kevin Houck is chief of the Watershed and Flood Protection section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. It oversees water use and management issues across the state.

HOUCK: The Army Corps of Engineers certainly deals with rivers throughout the county as part of their mission. But again, they don't necessarily have the funding in this particular case. And they certainly don't have the authority to just come in and make wholesale changes without private property approval.

HEFFEL: The state water conservation board has stepped in with emergency loans to help irrigation providers like the Left Hand Ditch Company. And that in turn helps homeowners like Tim Foster move the river out of his front yard.

FOSTER: The way that river comes down, you can see it aims right here and this is where the bank gave way.

HEFFEL: Foster says it's imperative that repairs and re-channeling happen in the creek within the next four to five months, before the water starts rising once again. This time due to Colorado's annual winter snow melt.

FOSTER: In the run-off in May and June, it'll get quite high again. And it'll run May and June pretty high, and then it's probably twice this depth most of the summer.

HEFFEL: Meaning if the ditch company's projects aren't completed before then, farmers won't have vital water when planting season starts in April.

For NPR News, I'm Nathan Heffel in Boulder. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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