Front Range water district taps millions in new cash to transform mountain watersheds, farms, streams

On the hillsides that rise above James Creek in Jamestown, Colorado, west of Boulder, the yards of mountain homes and the forests that surround them are dotted with trees decorated with pink and blue ribbons.

It’s festive, but not in the usual sense.

Jamestown lies in the headwaters of Left Hand Creek, a tributary of the St. Vrain River. The pink trees will be kept, while those flagged in blue will be cut down in a careful thinning project designed to protect a watershed farther downstream that serves farmers and thousands of people in communities such as Lyons and Longmont.

The watershed is a critical part of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, an agency charged with overseeing and managing the St. Vrain River, a major system in the larger South Platte River Basin on Colorado’s Front Range.

The people of Jamestown have been working for years to find funding to protect their community from wildfire and to protect James Creek. Tree cutting is expensive, sometimes costing $1,000 just to remove one tree.

Trees marked for forest health initiative above James Creek in Jamestown, Colorado. Credit: Jerd Smith

But thanks to a property tax increase the district’s voters approved in 2020, as well as an influx of COVID relief money to the state, and new federal funds for infrastructure and jobs, the people of Jamestown and the St. Vrain district now have access to the money they need to reshape and improve their water systems in ways that benefit supply, recreation, the environment and agriculture.

If state and federal funding proposals come through, and some already have, the district will have more than $240 million to work with. For perspective, that is 60 to 80 times the size of the district’s annual $3 million to $4 million operating budget.

Similar big federal funding opportunities exist for other water districts, and policy makers across the state are looking to the St. Vrain district to lead by example.

Alex Funk, senior counsel and director of water resources at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation partnership is tracking the streams of new cash. He says the opportunities to modernize water systems and improve the state’s farms and rivers now are huge.

“It’s unprecedented in its scope and scale,” Funk said. “There has never been this amount of federal money available all at once. In that sense, we are in uncharted territory.”

That’s not lost on Sean Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District.

After the floods of 2013, the district saw its streams and water systems devastated. Desperate to rebuild, small communities, ditch companies and watershed groups, as well as the St. Vrain district, began banding together to apply for federal and state emergency assistance.

“The flood introduced us to new friends,” Cronin said.

From that grew a ballot initiative in 2020 that has raised millions of dollars in property taxes.

Though statewide water tax proposals have had little success among Colorado voters, St. Vrain’s was one of two local districts that year that succeeded. The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District also won approval to raise taxes to protect and improve the regions water sources.

“The fact that we had a plan that looked at all things regarding water and wasn’t specifically for a single water outcome is part of why we succeeded,” Cronin said. “People embrace looking at things holistically.”

Credit: St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District

Energized by the win, the district launched into planning and design on a range of modest projects.

And then the federal funding deluge began. Now the district is in the running for $240 million to improve infrastructure and restore streams, and improve agricultural irrigation systems, among other projects.

Todd Boldt oversees the federal  Emergency Watershed Protection program in Colorado at the Natural Resources Conservation Service as well as other major grant-making programs that are now flush with cash.

He said one of his agency’s priorities is to get the word out about federal funding opportunities and to ensure even small water districts have the resources to do the planning, engineering and design work needed to begin the grant process.

He credits the St. Vrain district with being well-planned and well-organized at the starting line.

“This is complicated stuff,” Boldt said. “We’re at a critical juncture in time.”

If the St. Vrain and Left Hand team succeeds, its ditches, streams, wetlands, reservoirs and farm fields could look significantly different in seven to 10 years.

High in the mountains, for instance, a historic diversion system will be brought into the 21st century. More than 130 years old, the structure is difficult to access and maintain. Soon it will be rehabilitated so that it can be monitored and operated remotely to make sure water is accurately counted and properly diverted.

“We’re trying to squeeze every last drop out of our system,” Cronin said.

In fact, there are dozens of diversion structures in this sprawling district that includes prized recreational streams, thousands of acres of farms, rich wetlands, and cities.

Cronin and his team are reaching out to everyone, funneling the cash they’ve raised into matching grants and offering assistance to partners.

Another part of the district’s strategy is to grow water supplies where possible, and to do so in a way that doesn’t require the purchase of farm-tied water rights and the subsequent dry up of farm fields.

This year, for instance, the district began its own cloud-seeding program, which is forecast to increase water derived from annual snow storms by 5% to 10%.

Funk said the work in the St. Vrain and Left Hand district is encouraging.

“We need to see more of that. We want people to think creatively about these [federal] funds,” he said.

Back up in Jamestown, St. Vrain’s Jenny McCarty, a water resources specialist, has been monitoring the forest restoration work. She believes the initiative could serve as a template for other community-based, multi-property-owner watershed health projects.

In the mountains, while it’s helpful for one property owner to thin trees and remove slash, the impact is limited, McCarty said.

“These property owners like their privacy. Their contribution to the project has been to allow all those trees to be cut down,” she said. “It’s the collective effort that makes a difference.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

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