Floods That Ravaged Colo. Might Help Drought-Hit Farmland

Sep 25, 2013
Originally published on September 25, 2013 5:03 pm
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The damage from flooding in Colorado is immense. And not just to homes and businesses. As the bloated rivers overflowed, they spilled into low-lying farms and ranches. And now, the state's agricultural industry is coping with the rare problem of having too much water. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports.

GLENN WERNING: We had all the equipment out except that planter.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: The metal storage shed on farmer Glenn Werning's land outside LaSalle in north central Colorado is still standing, though it took a beating from tree trunks, fuel tanks, and tractor tires washed downstream in the South Platte River. The farming machinery inside was submerged in hip-high water.

WERNING: The workings of the planter were underwater, so who knows how this is going to turn out.

RUNYON: Around the corner, men in white hazmat suits maneuver a long red tube inside a cement silo. They're vacuuming out tons of water-logged corn, which has started to ferment. Think moonshine. Werning's corn is still standing after the floodwaters flowed through, but harvest will be difficult. The fields are strewn with garbage and caked in mud and silt.

WERNING: For the time being, we can't harvest. We just can't. There's nothing we can do down here.

RUNYON: Not being able to harvest is a problem farmers faced last year. But the reason was different. Drought gripped Colorado, withering crops and limiting water supplies. Werning says that lasted well into this year, with crippling heat preceding the floodwaters.

WERNING: So it's been kind of a triple whammy. We hope those are the three - if bad things come in threes, we hope that the drought and the heat was part of it so there isn't one more coming.

NORM DALSTED: Perspective wise, I think a lot of farmers were glad to see the moisture because the reservoirs were filled, et cetera.

RUNYON: That's Colorado State University agriculture professor Norm Dalsted.

DALSTED: But those that were directly impacted by the flood, it's definitely going to be a tough period of time, the next year or two, to get back on their feet.

RUNYON: Getting back on their feet includes everything from purchasing new equipment, replenishing feed supplies for cattle, to repairing structures. Dalsted says the high water inundated wastewater treatment plants, spilling human waste into streams.

DALSTED: That's a major clean up for a lot of our farmers and ranchers, no question about it.

RUNYON: Most farmers haven't seen anything like this flood in recent times. Ask Colorado's climatologist Nolan Doesken about flood history and he can rattle off the dates in a flurry. But those were two or even three generations ago.

NOLAN DOESKEN: The lesson is we don't know what's going to happen next. And there's no guarantee that we're out of the drought woods.

RUNYON: Doesken says this flood was helpful in some ways. It recharged the parched soil, and reservoir owners were able to capture some of the runoff for next year's planting. But he says don't get used to all this moisture.

DOESKEN: The reality is that weather events happen and then we revert back to our regular seasonal cycles with plenty of meteorological ups and downs to go with it.

WERNING: We got started yesterday.

RUNYON: Back at his family's farmhouse, Glenn Werning is still assessing the total damage to his home and farm. He says the price tag will be high with equipment damaged and uncertainty with this year's crop.

WERNING: We're always fighting to find water to be able to irrigate in this semi-desert area. And it's pretty tough to see that much water become a problem as opposed to something helpful.

RUNYON: A problem that could push statewide damage totals well into the billions with bridges washed out, homes destroyed and farmland rendered useless.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colorado.

SIEGEL: And that story came to us from Harvest Public Media. That's a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.