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Water is Colorado's wildcard

There's nothing black and white about conditions in Colorado where water is concerned. But Colorado State Engineer Dick Wolfe said it isn't hard to characterize the situation. "It's a tale of two extremes," he told The Produce News. "We are way above average in the northwestern part of the state. In the Southwest, it's clearly a different story."

Wolfe said I-70, which runs east and west through the Centennial State, has become something of a line of demarcation. Dick-WolfDick WolfeAgricultural producers north of I-70 are seeing more favorable water supplies in 2014. Traveling south of the interstate, conditions begin to change and become more extreme.

"A large driver of the water in aquifers is snowpack and runoff," Wolfe commented, adding that snowpack was generally good in the Rocky Mountains this year. "The lowest water levels on record are in the Rio Grande Valley. In the Rio Grande, runoff continues to be bad." Much of Colorado's San Luis Valley, known for its production of potatoes for the fresh market, lies within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

The district saw the formation of Colorado's first-ever groundwater management subdistrict which continues to take measures to reduce water consumption by agricultural interests and, at the same time, address ongoing depletions in the aquifer. "Mother Nature is that other part we have no control over," Wolfe commented. "Over the last 10 to 15 years, the southern half of the state has been getting drier. And the Rio Grande has been consistently been in drought conditions."

Elsewhere in Colorado, it's another story. "The Arkansas River Basin is not looking too bad in the upper part of the state," Wolfe noted. The headwaters of the river are located in northern Colorado, and the basin supplies water to agricultural producers in southeast Colorado.

Growers in Colorado's Western Slope, located west of the Continental Divide, are generally reporting good water availability this season for their crops. The Colorado River and its tributaries flow through the region. "The Colorado and Gunnison rivers had great runoff conditions in the north," Wolfe said. "The south [Western Slope] is in drought."

There is considerable agricultural production in northeastern Colorado, the location of the South Platte River Basin. Last September, unprecedented flooding occurred in the area, with the greatest impacts affecting infrastructure and residential areas. "The runoff is now over, but we are not out of the woods yet," said Wolfe of the potential for possible flooding attributed to rainfall.

There is concern in the South Platte River Basin about high water tables in the Sterling and Gilcrest/LaSalle areas. "That's certainly a concern at the governor's level," Wolfe commented.

In 2012, HB 12-1278 was passed by the Colorado General Assembly, authorizing a study by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University to: Evaluate whether current laws and rules that guide water administration in the South Platte River Basin achieve the duel goals of protecting senior water rights and maximizing the beneficial use of both surface water and groundwater within the Basin; Identify and delineate areas within the Basin adversely impacted by high groundwater levels and to conduct a feasibility-level evaluation of the causes of high groundwater levels in the affected area; Provide information to use as a base for implementation of measures to mitigate adverse impacts in areas experiencing high groundwater levels; and Provide information to the General Assembly, the [Colorado Water Conservation Board] and the State Engineer to facilitate the long-term sustainable use of the South Platte water supplies.

Report findings were submitted to the Colorado Legislature on Dec. 31, 2013. Wolfe said these findings will be reviewed at the taskforce level.

Officials continue with recovery efforts in northern Colorado following 2013 flooding. Wolfe said 27 dams were damaged. "That didn't make those reservoirs unusable," he commented. "Seventy-five percent of structures have been restored from last year's damage." Another 23 stream-gauging stations and 220 diversion structures were also damaged.

On other fronts, Wolfe said the long-awaited Long Hollow Reservoir - situated five miles north of the Colorado/New Mexico border -- is expected to come online shortly. This reservoir will be important in helping Colorado meet its contractual obligations under the La Plata River obligation to New Mexico while also providing cattle ranchers with water for irrigation. The reservoir has a capacity for 5,400 acre feet of water. "Once it's operational, it will provide a benefit to the area," Wolfe stated.