RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Colorado, farmers are scrambling to recover from flooding that was so bad, entire rivers carved new paths through the landscape. As Nathan Heffel from member station KUNC reports, there's a race against time to get these rivers back where they were before planting season.
NATHAN HEFFEL, BYLINE: The historic rains that caused September's flooding decimated miles of roadways, cut off entire towns, and sent rivers and creeks into areas they'd never been before, like Tim Foster's immaculate front yard.
TIM FOSTER: That was beautiful. It was the lawn. I had four large blue spruces. We had hundred-year-old cottonwoods all along the bank. We had irrigation and our pumps. It was just gorgeous.
HEFFEL: At the height of the flooding, it all washed away. Left Hand Creek, just 200 yards from Foster's home near Boulder, became a raging river, one that charted a new path right across his driveway.
FOSTER: And I would stand right, right here and look down and the river was flowing right here. And it was all dry over there. Because once the water had subsided, this was the new channel.
HEFFEL: Farther down the Creek, Bob Crifasi, a consultant with the Left Hand Ditch Company, watches as large yellow excavators move massive boulders and tree trunks. They're blocking the water's path and his company is trying to reconnect the creek to its original course.
BOB CRIFASI: So they're standing in what used to be the Left Hand Creek Channel. Of course it's flowing over here to the north of us...
HEFFEL: So it went around the house in a sense.
CRIFASI: It moved. It jumped. When the water was flowing here, there was a whole series of waterfalls off of the various terraces coming off the farm fields.
HEFFEL: The raging flood waters that tore through this spot forced Left Hand Creek away from the company's diversion structures and canals that supplied irrigation water for farmers miles away. Crifasi says those structures are now clogged with mud, debris and stagnant water.
CRIFASI: So they're moving - they're working on the creek channel up over here.
HEFFEL: All this re-channeling work comes with a cost. For the Left Hand Ditch Company alone it could cost well over $3 million. And Crifasi says there's little if any federal financial assistance from FEMA or the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to help.
CRIFASI: They're not stepping up, or they do not have the authority to provide resources for moving the creek. When I spoke to them and said that, asked them: Do you have the ability to help a company like Left Hand, they said, well, we don't do that.
KEVIN HOUCK: I think that is a misconception that is out there in a lot of places, which is the state or the federal government are going to come in and fix everything here. And for the most part that's really not going to be the case.
HEFFEL: Kevin Houck is chief of the Watershed and Flood Protection section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. It oversees water use and management issues across the state.
HOUCK: The Army Corps of Engineers certainly deals with rivers throughout the county as part of their mission. But again, they don't necessarily have the funding in this particular case. And they certainly don't have the authority to just come in and make wholesale changes without private property approval.
HEFFEL: The state water conservation board has stepped in with emergency loans to help irrigation providers like the Left Hand Ditch Company. And that in turn helps homeowners like Tim Foster move the river out of his front yard.
FOSTER: The way that river comes down, you can see it aims right here and this is where the bank gave way.
HEFFEL: Foster says it's imperative that repairs and re-channeling happen in the creek within the next four to five months, before the water starts rising once again. This time due to Colorado's annual winter snow melt.
FOSTER: In the run-off in May and June, it'll get quite high again. And it'll run May and June pretty high, and then it's probably twice this depth most of the summer.
HEFFEL: Meaning if the ditch company's projects aren't completed before then, farmers won't have vital water when planting season starts in April.
For NPR News, I'm Nathan Heffel in Boulder.
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