Technology outfits hope to ease Front Range water wars

For the better part of a century, Northern Colorado farmers have used the Lake Canal reservoir system north of Fort Collins to divert water from the Poudre River to irrigate their crops.

But ever-rising demand for water from growing cities along the Front Range has created plenty of tension and heartache and is, according to agricultural interests, hurting the state’s farming economy. They call it “buy-and-dry.” Farmers, especially those nearing retirement and who may not have children willing to take on their operations, often contribute to the problem, opting to cash out rather than fight in the West’s latest water war.

Add in global climate change, and water managers and irrigators are left to contend with what is an extremely delicate balancing act.

Now, help may be on the way.

The Colorado Water Innovation Cluster, which is based in Fort Collins, is leading a push to encourage farmers and others to turn to a new IT tool, developed by Denver-based Regenesis Management Group, to reveal precise water demands.

The technology is designed to give farmers a better handle on their water needs so that they might be encouraged to lease water rights to cities rather than selling them off.

Three farmers have tentatively committed to a pilot project to test the technology in the upcoming irrigation season.

The effort is one example of Northern Colorado’s muscle in the field of water and climate technology, but it isn’t the only one.

Riverside Technology, headquartered on Harmony Road in south Fort Collins, works regionally and globally helping governments, utilities and environmental planners make informed management choices on water availability.

Through several applications, the firm compiles and makes sense out of very different environmental measures, expanding the information base for resource management decisions.

“Our companies are stepping up to show how to use this data,´ said Brian Ashe, Riverside’s business development manager and board chairman of the water cluster.

Sorting raw data
In business since 1985, Riverside is a leading developer of decision support systems (DSS), interactive computer packages that compile all sorts of raw data – from satellite imagery to local stream-gage measurements – into useful information for planners.

A frequent partner with the federal government, Riverside recently announced it was among five companies awarded a piece of a contract from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agreement, for up to $550 million, will support work to develop the next generation of large-scale drought and climate-forecasting tools, including collecting satellite data for the National Weather Service and a national drought-information network.

Ashe expects the contract to lead to significant expansion for Riverside, which has more than 130 employees, with new positions created in Fort Collins and elsewhere.

Locally, Riverside has helped create a DSS on the Poudre River to help detect and prepare for floods, making real-time information accessible and meaningful for local managers, Ashe said.

The company has also developed a climate-change DSS that uses data collected through National Weather Service models, and “down-scales” the information to be useful at a local level.

Riverside technicians, water managers and anyone else can go to a website that collects snowpack and precipitation measurements, streamflow volumes, and many more resources. Ultimately, farm and other resource managers can use the program to determine the ideal strategies to increase municipal supplies, crop yields, or aquatic habitat, depending on their goals.

While users can now test-drive that system through the web, Riverside is crafting more tools to help managers prepare for water scarcity and climate change.

Water providers typically have to gather climate information from a mind-numbing mix of sources, and while plenty of data is out there, it can be difficult to analyze. Riverside’s toolkit reduces the analytical chaos, Ashe said, fulfilling a need expressed by states and others for better drought information.

Riverside also works to convert the sprawling streams of data in climate-change projections into meaningful decision-support programs.

“When people talk about water availability and scarcity, they’re talking about climate change,” Ashe said. “If you’re not looking at climate change, you’re overlooking a potentially significant impact.”

Patent pendingw

In order to find win-win management strategies for Lake Canal and other irrigation companies, Regenesis has developed its Sustainable Water and Innovative Irrigation Management software program, known as SWIIM.

The program builds on the research of Stephen Smith, head of engineering and technical management at Regenesis, who founded Aqua Engineering Inc. in Fort Collins in 1975. Smith, who has taught irrigation design at CSU, completed his Ph.D. at CSU in 2011 with his dissertation serving as a basis for the SWIIM technology.

Ed Warner, a CSU graduate and geologist who helped spur major gas development in Wyoming, is another principal at Regenesis. Warner’s $30 million gift to CSU in 2005 elevated the school’s college of natural resources, which now carries his name, to national relevance.

The patent-pending SWIIM package incorporates various elements in order to optimize water management and measure the demands of irrigation and crop water use, also called consumptive use.

The demonstration on Lake Canal will track how reductions to irrigation affect crop yields and historic return flows that percolate through farm fields and eventually make their way back into river systems.

By employing instrumentation of various measures, the project should show how farmers can maintain production at base irrigation levels, and determine available supplies to lease – instead of sell – to cities and environmental interests.

Essentially, the project could turn water into a fully valued crop.

“Our software helps the farmer look at their future operations – whether it’s next year or 10 years from now – and how they want to budget their water, just like a financial budget,” Smith said.

“That opens the door to parting off a portion of their consumptive-use water to bring a new revenue stream into the farming operation. If that’s risk-free and continues year to year, that could be (what) an operation really needs to become sustainable and profitable, so we’re pretty excited about this. We’re developing alternatives to (buy-and-dry), which dries up the whole farm in perpetuity.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board awarded a $135,105 grant to the Colorado Water Innovation Cluster to support the Lake Canal project. The funds come from the board’s Alternative Agricultural Water Transfer Methods Program. A second Regenesis test project using SWIIM is working with Colorado Corn, based in Greeley. Regenesis plans to eventually license the SWIIM package for others to purchase and use.

“It’s very, very fast for the farmer to create the inputs for their operation,” Smith said of the SWIIM program. “If a person is minimally computer literate, they download the program, start to run it, and within half an hour, they can have their farming operation put in and be running mathematical optimization programs.”

Whether it can help quiet the water wars remains to be seen.


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