When the floodwaters came thundering down the rocky canyons of Northern Colorado last month, Keith Maxey knew the outlook wasn’t good for the low-lying farmland in his home county 40 miles northeast of Boulder.
After doing major damage to houses and roads in the mountains, the raging waters of several mountain streams converged into the South Platte River just east of Greeley, Colo., where Maxey serves as director of the Colorado State University Extension office.
The resulting flood—which Maxey called “unprecedented”—swept away barns, shredded fences, destroyed irrigation lines, and left thousands of acres of corn, alfalfa, and vegetables under water.
“I was born and raised here, and I’ve never seen the water get as high as it did,” Maxey said.
The damage to Colorado’s agricultural industry—the state’s third-largest economic driver at $8.5 billion a year—is spread over more than a dozen counties.
It all started when a line of storms parked over the Boulder and Estes Park area for a week, producing as much as 18 inches of rain. Boulder Creek and the Big Thompson River turned into raging torrents that caused more than $1 billion in damage as they made their way to the farming areas to the east.
Though the waters have since receded, most of the fields in the flooded areas remain too wet for farmers to work. Another concern, Maxey said, is that debris left in fields by the fast-moving water could damage tractors and combines when harvest does resume.
“There’s also a lot of pastureland near the rivers,” he said. “Pretty much every fence in those areas will need to be replaced.”
Farm-to-market transportation has been an issue for many farmers as well. The floods compromised hundreds of miles of state highways and destroyed at least 50 bridges. In the days following the flooding, Maxey said that the South Platte River was crossable in only two places in a 50-mile stretch east of Greeley. “For some, a 10-minute drive to the market has developed into a 45-minute drive,” he said. “That takes extra time and increases their fuel costs.”
The upside is that the slow-moving storm did bring much-needed rain to the parched area.
“There is a silver lining, if we look down the road,” said Ron Carleton, deputy commissioner of agriculture for the state. “We just have to get past these near-term impacts.”
Now that the immediate dangers have passed and the floodwaters have receded, area farmers are assessing the damages and moving ahead. Before the floods struck, farmers in Weld County had just begun harvesting corn. That will resume as saturated fields dry out.
But crops that were under water in the lowlands and alfalfa fields covered with a layer of silt will present unique challenges. Farmers will be watching for mold and other crop diseases as they move forward with harvest.
“Typical of most farmers,” Maxey said, “they just roll up their sleeves and figure out how to get things done. They deal with challenges regularly, and that helps them keep going through things like this.”