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Horsetooth Reservoir, seen on May 17, 2022, spans 6.5 miles long with surrounding land available for recreational fishing, boating, camping, diving and more. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project is aimed to transport water from the west to the east slope of Colorado for drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Although two recent storms dropped some much-needed moisture onto the Front Range mountains, that weather did little to help farmers in northeast Colorado who were hit by a particularly dry and windy April and early May. 

“We didn’t get any snow. It did not help the soil moisture in the area here,” Dale Trowbridge, general manager of the Greeley Number 2 Canal, says. “There have been some farmers wondering if they can plant their whole crop.” 

The canal Trowbridge manages is part of what’s formally called the New Cache La Poudre Irrigating Company, a 152-year-old ditch company that services about 32,000 irrigated acres and 350 farmers mostly northeast of Greeley. 

Trowbridge said New Cache is diverting more water than normal for late May. “We’re irrigating harder than we usually do this time of year because it’s so dry,” he said. 

Horsetooth Reservoir, seen on May 17, 2022, spans 6.5 miles long with surrounding land available for recreational fishing, boating, camping, diving and more. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Normally, Trowbridge said, New Cache is able to meet 100% of the demand coming in from shareholders placing orders for water. Right now, however, he said the company only has about 45% of the supply it needs to meet demand. “We’re still looking for more,” he said.

Some of the New Cache shareholder supply comes from the Colorado-Big Thomspon project, known as CB-T, a massive Colorado River water collection and delivery system owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and jointly operated by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Every year in April, Northern Water sets the amount that a CB-T share will deliver for the year. This year, Northern initially set a 70% allocation; two weeks ago, however, the district increased the delivery amount to 80%, specifically to aid northeastern Colorado farmers.

This is the second time in three years Northern Water has increased the initial water allocation amount set by its board in April. 

“The increase in allocation was in response to the hot windy April we had that severely impacted soil moisture as farmers were getting ready to plant,” Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla said. 

The CB-T system collects water from the headwaters of the Colorado River near Grand Lake and delivers it to more than 1 million people and 615,000 irrigated acres along the Front Range. The project was initially conceived as — and remains — a supplemental water supply; no municipality or agricultural producer can rely only on CB-T water. “This project was not meant to increase the number of irrigated acres in northern Colorado,” Stahla said. “This was meant to smooth out the highs and lows of the hydrology around here.”

The 13-mile Hansen Feeder Canal, which diverts water towards Horsetooth Reservoir, is seen in Larimer County outside Loveland on May 17, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Stahla said Northern Water has never decreased an allocation number once it has been set. He also said that although the most recent storms may have helped parts of the Front Range, there are some CB-T users who still need the bumped-up allotment.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “when you look at the growers who are farther east they didn’t get the same amount of moisture as the Front Range did.”

What’s more, Stahla said, even with the most recent snow and rain the region is still “far behind” on normal precipitation since April 1.

Jeff Lukas, an independent water and climate researcher based in Lafayette, said the past two storms dropped a good amount of moisture on the eastern Front Range mountains near and north of Interstate 70. “So now,” Lukas wrote in an email, “all those basins (Bear Creek, Clear Creek, Boulder Creek, St. Vrain, Big Thompson) are probably better off than they were May 1, which is saying something, since May pretty much sucked until the 20th.”

Just because CB-T increased its allotment doesn’t mean doesn’t everyone must use all that water, Stahla said. Northern Water has a carry-over program that allows shareholders to pay to put some water into a reserve for the following year. Currently, municipalities own about 70% of CB-T shares and agriculture producers own about 30%. 

Carter Lake Reservoir, around 1,100 acres in area, is located shortly east of the site of the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project. Chimney Hollow’s storage capacity is projected to supply 30,000 more acre-feet of water annually. Construction of Chimney Hollow began in August 2021. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Trowbridge is hoping that the New Cache Irrigating Company will be able to lease some additional CB-T water from cities and towns this year. “Some of that will free up as cities go through their year,” he said. 

Andy Pineda, an agricultural engineer at Larimer & Weld Irrigation, a ditch company that services about 60,000 acres in Larimer and Weld counties, said they’re also looking to pick up more supply. “We’re desperately looking for reservoir water right now,” he said. 

The company is making deliveries for rights it has on the Poudre River, which started flowing about two weeks earlier than normal, Pineda said. He said the large burn scars left by the Cameron Peak fire seems to be sending the water downriver earlier. 

“Right now, we’re meeting orders,” Pineda said. “It’s just a matter of how long the Poudre will hang in there for us; I expect maybe another good two weeks.”

Chris Outcalt

Chris Outcalt covers Western water issues for The Colorado Sun. He began his journalism career in New Hampshire, then moved West and became a reporter at the Lafayette News. He also was an associate editor at 5280 and a reporter for the Vail Daily. His freelance...