This year’s irrigating season is winding down for a number of farmers raising crops and for many city residents watering their lawns — and, despite 2012 standing as the driest year on record for the Greeley area, most were able to grow what green they needed.
But that relative success had its impacts.
Because 2012 brought record-low amounts of precipitation, farmers and residents depended heavily on stored water from reservoirs this year.
And now — seeing how low reservoir water levels are — water providers in the region say at least average snowfall will be needed during the upcoming months.
Another dry winter, like the one Colorado had this year, would spell trouble for the next growing season, they say.
“The reservoirs this year certainly served their basic purpose: They filled up during wet years, and then helped us get through a dry year,” said Jon Monson, director of the Greeley Water and Sewer Board. “But if we don’t get some good snows this winter to refill those reservoirs, we could be in a tight spot next year.
“We used up a lot of our (storage) supplies this year.”
In addition to cities, local agricultural producers, too, would suffer from a dry winter.
Snowmelt fills irrigation ditches and reservoirs in the spring, and once farmers and ranchers use up their resources, they often times lease excess water from municipalities.
But if cities — like Greeley, which leases out thousands of acre feet to agricultural users each year — are short on water next year because a dry winter didn’t fill their reservoirs, they’ll have that much less water to offer local producers.
Heading into this month, the estimated amount of water in the Greeley-Loveland System — which consists of three reservoirs and is one of Greeley’s primary water sources, supplying anywhere from 30-50 percent of the city’s demand — was less than half of what it was just a year earlier, having dropped from about 57,000 total acre feet down to about 25,000 acre feet.
It was the system’s biggest one-year decrease during at least the past 25 years.
One of the city’s other main water sources — the Colorado Big-Thompson Project, which, in addition to supplying another 30-50 percent of Greeley’s demand, provides water to users in eight northern Colorado counties, and includes Horsetooth Reservoir, Carter Lake and Lake Granby reservoirs — saw its collective water level drop by nearly 30 percent from where it was at the start of the current “water year,” on Nov. 1, 2011. Along with supplying about 850,000 residents in the region, the C-BT Project also delivers supplemental water to about 640,000 farm acres each year.
The city of Greeley gets about 25 percent of its water from direct flows in the Poudre River, but that supply had to be shut down earlier this summer, because ash and debris from wildfires were dumping into the river. Not being able to use those direct flows forced the city to even more so deplete its reservoirs this summer.
Coming into this year, reservoirs in the region had plenty of water to offer — thanks to record snowfall in 2011.
But that’s not the case now, and if the region has a winter this year similar to that of 2012 — when snowpack across the state was at all-time low levels, adding very little water to the region’s reservoirs — the situation could be bad once the next growing season rolls around.
After seeing large amounts of its reservoir water consumed this year, the C-BT Project’s water levels are nearly 20 percent below average for this time of the year.
Like Monson, Andy Pineda, the water resources department manager at the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud, which oversees operations and deliveries of the C-BT Project, said the region doesn’t need record snowfall like that of 2011 to meet the needs of next year’s growing season.
Just an average snow year would do the trick.
“But if we do have another year like last year, then the situation could be dire,” he said.
Frank Eckhardt, a LaSalle-area farmer who serves on the Western Mutual Ditch and Farmers Independent Ditch companies’ board of directors, agreed.
“Having that (C-BT Project) water makes a big difference a lot years,” he said. “If we don’t get some moisture this year, I’m not sure what we’re going to do.
“We need snow, maybe more than ever.”