On the Rocky Mountains’ eastern flank, just southwest of Evans, Colo., and along the banks of the South Platte River, mud-caked pickup trucks share the back roads with battered, dusty hybrid cars.
In many places, farmers and environmentalists often clash over rivers, but not on this stretch of the South Platte.
That’s because people like Jim Park, president of a 149-year-old irrigation ditch company, convinced his fellow farmers to collaborate with a new-era river coalition, helping replace a major irrigation diversion system, restore a segment of the Middle South Platte River for fish and canoes, and make the region safer in the event of future floods.
It all started after 2013, when Evans saw homes, roads and riverside parks wiped away by flood waters of historic proportions. When the the city began planning for its recovery, it knew that the Lower Latham Ditch Company would be a key player in the work.
The Lower Latham is one of the largest diverters of farm water on the Middle South Platte, which stretches some 20 miles and includes the river as it travels through Milliken, La Salle and Evans. The Lower Latham is a crucial economic force in a region that is heavily agricultural. Its primary dam and diversion structure, damaged during the flood, for decades had spanned nearly the width of the river, trapping tons of sediment and back-waters that inundated the lands immediately upstream during times of high flows.
The City of Evans, along with Jeff Crane, a river restoration consultant, and the Middle South Platte River Alliance (MSPRA), convinced the ditch company to join them in their quest to restore the river by modernizing its historical diversion structure. With the aid of $3.3 million in federal funds, they installed a new kind of dam, one that doesn’t rely on a tall concrete barrier, but which uses a set of highly flexible gates that can be remotely lowered, when the rivers’ waters are running dangerously high, or raised, when its flows are lower, so that farmers can still capture the water they need to irrigate.
They installed another structure that captures sediment before it enters the massive irrigation ditch, keeping the sediment in the river, where fish and other aquatic life need it, rather than clogging the irrigation system’s ditches.
They also created a fish passage that skirts the irrigation structure, one which recreation consultants believe will help restore aquatic life while also making it possible for canoers and kayakers to navigate the river.
And perhaps most importantly, it gives Evans and area farmers the flexibility they will need to protect themselves when the next massive flood comes, as it inevitably will.
The ditch and river restoration project is the largest to date in the river basin and the most expensive, according to Crane, who served as a technical consultant for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), helping plan and oversee the restoration work. DOLA served as the conduit and administrator for the federal money that funded the project.
“We consider this project the showcase,” said Crane, because of its scope but also because of its diverse set of beneficiaries.
After the 2013 flood, several new watershed groups, including the MSPRA, formed in the South Platte River Basin, serving as planners for the massive restoration work that needed to be done. The historic flood slammed Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties causing $4 billion in damage, wiping out thousands of homes and destroying hundreds of miles of roads.
Planners knew, in order to be successful, that the restoration effort would have to take a wholistic approach, one that included farmers, cities, as well as environmental and recreational interests.
But it wasn’t easy. Jim Park knew his fellow farmers well. They have one of the oldest water rights on the river — dating to 1869 — and can divert so much water that at times they dry up that reach of the Middle South Platte.
Park said the farmers were interested in updating their structure, but they were deeply wary of allowing the federal government into their operations.
“The big thing about this was that the government was going to give us the money to do it. That throws up a lot of red flags,” he said, with members worried there would be years of interference and delays, even lawsuits, if things went wrong.
Still, Park persisted. “Last November, when we were getting ready to start construction, we had a meeting in Kersey and about 50 people showed up. It went on for three hours. A couple of guys were really against it. But I thought it was an awfully good opportunity for us.”
Members of the Middle South Platte River Alliance believe the project, which was completed this month, could become a template for the South Platte River. It is perhaps the hardest-working waterway in the state, serving millions of city dwellers even as it irrigates Colorado’s largest farm economy.
The river faces major challenges due to the immense growth on the Northern Front Range. Since 2013, nearly 62,500 people have moved to the area, an 11 percent increase, according to the Colorado State Demography Office. But that pales in comparison to what is to come, with demographers estimating the region’s population will nearly double by 2050, surging past the 1.24 million mark, up from roughly 648,000 today.
Billy Mihelich is the engineer for the Greeley-based Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, a major player in the farm water world on the Eastern Plains. He too sees potential for these kinds of projects to gradually bring the river into a new era, where farmers increasingly will live side-by-side with urban residents who also consider the river an environmental and recreational asset.
“A lot of these structures were built 100 to 150 years ago,” Mihelich said. “They’ve been maintained, of course, but I think there will be pressure on these ditch companies to install environmentally friendly structures because so many people are moving into what have been historically agricultural areas.”
For Evans, the five and a half years since the flood have been transformative, according to Kalen Myers, a management analyst for the city who also serves as secretary of the MSPRA.
“The flood was devastating,” Myers said. “Riverside Park was completely decimated, two mobile home parks were completely wiped out, hundreds of homes were lost. Happily there was no loss of life [in Evans].”
But since then, Myers said, the city has been able to rebuild homes and the park and to begin envisioning a time when there will be trails along the river and when the park could serve as base camp for those who would like to take their canoes or kayaks to Fort Morgan.
Is it far-fetched to think of an old industrial, agricultural river becoming a haven for bird watchers and boaters?
River lovers don’t think so, although the work would be staggering, said Lauren Bond, founder of The River’s Path, a Longmont company that leads canoe trips on the St. Vrain River and who has studied the South Platte in hopes that eventually it will become passable. “There are hundreds of dams [that would have to be modernized], but we have to start somewhere,” she said.
Looking ahead, Jim Park believes such projects will become more common, because aging farm diversion structures will need to be replaced as time goes on, and the use of environmentally friendly structures will become more accepted.
“There was certainly some trepidation” Park said. “But it has worked out well for us.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.