Those of us who lived in Colorado in September 2013 likely remember the days of hard rain that are so uncharacteristic of Colorado, especially at that time of year. We watched in horror as television footage showed rivers overflowing their banks and houses, barns and livestock being washed away. Aerial shots showed entire farms under water.
Rural communities came together to salvage what they could and make sure neighbors and livestock were safe. Six years later, another story is being told. The Colorado Agriculture Water Alliance is showcasing how farmers, ranchers, ditch companies, conservancy districts, environmental groups and other entities came together to improve river health, irrigation efficiency and environmental and recreational use of Colorado’s limited water supplies.
The story of how different users united to restore Left Hand Creek after the 2013 flood shows how working together can make the creek better for all users, including improving the efficiency of irrigators.
"(The 2013 flood) was the third flood I’ve seen come through here, but it was by far the most destructive," said cow-calf operator Ron Sutherland of Twin Lakes Ranch, Niwot, Colo. Sutherland’s ranch has been designated a Colorado Centennial Farm and has been operated by his family since 1881.
"There was 11-15 feet of water, canyon wall to canyon wall," said Terry Plummer, Left Hand Ditch Company, which provides irrigation water for 30,000 acres of farmland as well as providing water to Left Hand Water District to make drinking water for towns and cities.
"The water jumped the banks and created four rivers coming down," explained Plummer.
Farmers and ranchers along the creek had to deal with washouts that were 30 feet long and eight to ten feet deep. The flooding on Sutherland’s property washed out Left Hand Creek, eroding pastureland and making the creek difficult for his cattle to access for water.
According to Jessica Olson, Left Hand Watershed Center, Longmont, Colo., the flood was the catalyst that brought together farmers, the ditch company and municipal and environmental groups to decide on a plan that would restore what the flood destroyed. The group worked with the state and federal governments to secure funding to help implement the plan.
The plan included stabilizing the creek bed to protect agriculture infrastructure and restoring creek banks for both aesthetic and practical reasons. It also included reconnecting floodplains and grading low flow channels in the creek bottom. On Sutherland’s ranch, ramps were created to allow cattle to access water at a designated location along the creek, while also protecting newly planted vegetation.
"The low flow channels sped up the water (in the creek), and when we get past the run-off and the river shrinks, the water is concentrated over several feet instead of ten to 15 feet," said Plummer. "This enables us to get the irrigation water where it needs to go faster and more efficiently."
"(His ranch land) has all been filled in and reseeded," said Sutherland. "I’m glad to see them come in and restore it."
Olson added that the project also incorporated bank stabilization, which reduces the amount of sediment flowing into the creek and reduces the need for irrigation users to clean clogged creek beds and diversion areas.
"This work was a win-win," said Olson. "We were able to return the river to a more natural and beautiful state, improve fish habitat and increase the efficiency and quality of water used by agriculture. Improving our watersheds requires understanding all users. Multi-benefit projects require collaboration; we really do need to work with each other."
To see a six-minute video of the Left Hand Creek restoration project, a fact sheet on this project and other resources, visit www.CoAgWater.org/stream-management.
Grants to help fund stream management planning, such as those used by the Left Hand Creek project, are available through the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The deadline for the next round of funding is Nov. 1. For more information on stream management planning in your area, or for resources available to assist agriculture with irrigation infrastructure, visit Coloradosmp.org.