Who said Sterling, CO is hot in July? Well, everybody. A few weeks ago, CAWA took around 60 people to the Lower South Platte and trekked around Sterling in a balmy 92 degree heat. Despite the temperature and the tough water year, participants got to see how irrigation water in the Lower South Platte is managed, diverted, stored and generates almost everything in this part of the basin. The local economy, the scenery, the community, and the extensive wildlife habitat all springs up from the movement and use of water in agriculture. A mix of engineers, attorneys, legislators, conservationists, and state staffers visited groundwater recharge sites, farms a feedlot, ditch diversions, and a reservoir.
The day began with Division Engineer Corey DeAngelis and Water Commissioner Brent Schantz outlining how water is administrated in the Lower South Platte. They discussed the different responsibilities of the Water Commissioners, how they set calls in Division 1, and administer augmentation and recharge in the basin.
Our first stop was the Smart Brothers farm near Atwood, where Joe Frank of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District and Carson Smart talked about groundwater recharge and how that has benefitted Carsons’ operation. Throughout the year, but mainly during the winter, water is diverted from their ditch to recharge ponds on the farm. That water accumulates groundwater credits that allows the Smarts to pump their wells out of priority. They even sell excess credits to other water diverters.
Recharge ponds at the Carson Farm
The next couple of stops were along the Sterling No. 1 ditch, one of the most senior water rights on the Lower South Platte. The main diversion has had significant modern improvements. The ditch rider easily adjusted the 100 foot Obermeyer gate to demonstrate how the diversion can release water downstream. Further along the ditch we ran into the Pawnee spillway where the infrastructure is a bit more old-fashioned. To release water, the ditch rider has to use a long pole to remove individual planks of wood one by one to allow water through.
We made our way north to the outlet of Sterling Reservoir where the general manager of the reservoir, Jim Yahn, explained the history of the North Sterling Irrigation District and Reservoir. The 74,590 acre foot reservoir supplies many of the farmers and ranchers in the area with irrigation water. Recently, the North Sterling Irrigation District completed an agreement with BNN Energy to lease 6,800 acre feet of water for oil and gas extraction. We saw where BNN Energy built a pipeline directly from the outlet of the reservoir to more than 30 miles west into their drilling fields. While the group ate lunch on the shore of North Sterling Reservoir, former Commissioner of Agriculture Don Ament spoke about the Platte River Recovery Implementation Project: a partnership between Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska that provides Endangered Species Act compliance for existing and new water users in the South and North Platte River Basins. The Program partners are seeking to extend the program from 2020 to 2032, which will allow new and existing water development through streamlined ESA consultations.
Jim Yahn with the outlet from North Sterling Reservoir in the background
While the bus made its last leg of the tour, Joe Brummer from CSU spoke about the Alfalfa and Hay. These two crops make up a lot of the agricultural production in the area and are a critical part of multiple industries like dairy and meat. Our last stop of the day we got to visit Gene Manuello’s farm and feed lot. Operations like Gene’s are the end result of water administration, ditches, reservoirs, and irrigation. The scale of his farm gives a good idea of the water, land, work and feed necessary to produce beef for consumers. Gene talked about some for the drainage issues they’ve had and what they’ve done to mitigate those problems. However, a lot of the discussion revolved around how critical water is for his operation and agriculture in general.