By Janaki Jane, Colorado Spirit
Boulder County is fortunate. Boulder County has three river drainages that are sources of native water; that is, water from within the watershed. This native water allows agriculture to flourish and the residents of Boulder and Longmont to have green lawns. However, this good fortune became bad fortune last September. The days long roaring of these rivers blew out ditch headgates and damaged reservoirs. This threatened both thousands of acres of farmland and municipal water supplies.
Last Saturday, June 7, one hundred and forty people studied how well Boulder County’s water systems have recovered from the September floods. They participated in the Boulder County Water Tour, put on by Boulder County Parks and Open Space and Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources.
The seven-hour tour, on three tour buses, made four stops, with presentations on the history of water in Boulder County, the impacts of the floods on water treatment plants and farmers, and the rebuilding that has improved on the past.
The tour started by going through Hygiene, viewing the places where dams had failed, lakes and rivers had breached their banks, and roads had become rocky rivers. The St. Vrain River is still flowing through ponds instead of within the riverbanks in places. Some lakes are still half filled with silt brought downstream. They will likely stay that way, as the cost to dredge one of the lakes would be $10 million.
The tour continued to the Rabbit Mountain Open Space, where a short hike reached an overlook. Looking out over the Little Thompson River valley (http://ltwd.org/) the group stood next to the Boulder feeder canal (http://www.northernwater.org/). This canal was built in the 1920s, and runs north south through Boulder County to feed water to Boulder and to stockholders in the Colorado/Big Thompson Water Project. In years like this one, when native waters are plentiful, the amount of water delivered per share in the Big Thompson project goes down, a counter-intuitive result of the need for the project to amass water for use in dry years.
The second stop of the tour was at the Highland Ditch in Lyons (highlandditch.com). The headgate of the one hundred thirty-year-old ditch blew out during the September floods, which allowed the waters of the St. Vrain cross Highway 66. Cottonwood trees saved a shed at the fork of the river and the ditch, evidence of the importance of native plant species in riverbank stabilization. The entire structure of the headgate was taken out by the floods and has never been found.
At the third stop at the Left Hand Water District, Treatment Manager Ed Baile gave the group a spirited talk. The district provides water to one hundred forty square miles from Highway 36 to I-25. Left Hand Creek carved a new channel in the flood, moving forty yards to the north and twelve feet down, leaving their main intake high and dry. The district was left without water pressure, with pressure breaks and contamination, and only forty days supply of water. They were in a situation where “we needed water, but we can’t turn on the tap because we are the tap,” Baile said. Clearing sand and gravel out of the intakes, which is usually a job for one person one or two hours a day, became a two to three person job for six to eight hours a day.
However, the Left Hand Water District spent three million dollars, got lots of support from local businesses, and repaired the main intake in the creek and fifteen other sites of major damage. The result is a more robust system and Baile is confident that the new system, will sustain much less damage and be up and running much sooner after the next major flood.
Boulder County offers water tours annually, and four to five farm tours a year. This year they are farm and flood tours, according to Meaghan Huffman, of Boulder County Open Space. There is a small fee for the tours. Find registration links at www.bouldercounty.org/os/events, or call Meaghan at (303) 678-6181.
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Colorado Spirit Teams in Boulder County are a program of Mental Health Partners.