Northern Water works on a grand scale: It collects water from snowmelt on the Western Slope of the Continental Divide and sends it through tunnels to supply agriculture, municipalities, and industry in an area of northeastern Colorado as large and populous as the state of Delaware. To do this, it relies on a system of seven reservoirs and a canal network, some of it owned by the agency itself and some operated on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation.
In this interview, Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind tells Irrigation Leader about the agency’s infrastructure and services and the challenges of providing water for a large and rapidly urbanizing area.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Brad Wind: I did my undergraduate studies at Colorado State University, where I got bachelor’s degrees in agricultural engineering and civil engineering. I went to grad school at the University of California, Davis, where I studied agricultural engineering, and shortly thereafter went back to Colorado State and got a master’s of business administration. I came to Northern Water in 1994, fresh out of graduate school. I had done some work for the agency as an intern during my undergraduate years. Early in my career at Northern Water, I worked in water resources and water rights as an entry-level engineer and did a little bit of project management along the way. Roughly 10 years after beginning at Northern Water, I started dabbling in policy modification related to Northern Water’s changing client base. We initially provided water to agriculture, but we are now a large provider of raw water supplies for many municipalities and some industries, which has required changes in how we allocate water. My work in that field led me into some leadership roles. I was deputy manager of our operations division for a few years. About 2 years ago, our general manager retired, and after an interview process, I was hired to replace him.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about Northern Water and its history.
Brad Wind: Northern Water was created in 1937 to take advantage of the water supplies available on the Western Slope of Colorado, west of the Continental Divide, to meet the need for supplemental supply in northeastern Colorado. It was created to sponsor a project with Reclamation called the Colorado–Big Thompson Project. That project captures and diverts water from the Western Slope and brings it to our service area while using it to generate power. The water is stored in terminal reservoirs on the Eastern Slope. Although we have staff involved in aspects of those operations, Northern Water’s main task is to allocate the water once it gets into the terminal reservoirs and deliver it to our allottees, or the owners of allotment contracts. We deliver it to agriculture directly or to rivers and streams from which municipal interests redivert it and send it to water filtering facilities.
I want to stress that we provide a supplemental supply. The project provides roughly a quarter of the supply needed for irrigation; the rest is provided by native supplies from the Eastern Slope, the South Platte River and its tributaries, and groundwater.
We currently have about 640,000 irrigated acres within our service area, which covers 1.6 million acres in total. As of the middle of 2019, 1 million people reside in our service area. We’re about the same size and have about the same population as the state of Delaware. On average, we deliver about 225,000 acre-feet of water each year.
Irrigation Leader: Would you give us a sense of the scope of Northern Water’s infrastructure?
Brad Wind: Northern Water and Reclamation operate the Colorado–Big Thompson Project, which includes, on the Western Slope, Granby Reservoir, Willow Creek Reservoir, Shadow Mountain Reservoir, and Grand Lake. That’s where snow melt is captured, primarily from late May through mid-July. Over the course of the year, that water is repositioned to fill terminal reservoirs on the Eastern Slope after it passes through five power plants owned by Reclamation. The terminal reservoirs on the Eastern Slope are Horsetooth Reservoir, Carter Lake, and Boulder Reservoir. It’s from those reservoirs that we deliver water to our allottees throughout the year.
Irrigation Leader: Do you have your own canal system to delivers that water?
Brad Wind: We do. Some of those canals are owned by Reclamation; we operate them on Reclamation’s behalf. Other facilities that convey water from the reservoirs to our customers have been transferred to Northern Water and are fully owned and operated by us.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about Northern Water’s power generation facilities.
Brad Wind: There are six power features on the Colorado–Big Thompson Project. One of them is in western Colorado and is tied to Green Mountain Reservoir, which was designed with compensatory storage for the Western Slope in mind. The power features tied to the Eastern Slope reservoirs produce 750 million kilowatt-hours per year. The five Eastern Slope power features are owned by Reclamation. The power is marketed through the Western Area Power Administration for customers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Recently, Northern Water built two smaller hydropower plants associated with the lease of power privilege program, which allows partners of Reclamation to finance and build their own power features on Reclamation dams and reservoirs that have not yet been tapped for power generation purposes in return for an annual lease. We built a small facility on Carter Lake with two 1,300‑kilowatt (kW) generators in it and a similar plant at Lake Granby Reservoir with two 600 kW generators. The two plants are owned by the Hydropower Enterprise Fund, a financially independent enterprise fund that provides a service by generating all its own revenue. The enterprise fund is governed by the same directors who make up the Northern Water board of directors.
Irrigation Leader: How does Northern Water raise money?
Brad Wind: The majority of our funding comes through a 1‑mill ad valorem tax that is applied to property throughout our district. On an annual basis, we also charge owners of allotment contracts an assessment based on how many units they own in the project. Those costs are spread across the agricultural, industrial, and municipal water users that own project allotment contracts. Those charges are on a per-acre-foot-unit basis. Each year, our board goes through a rationing process in which it decides on a quota for water deliveries. For example, if the quota is 80 percent, an individual or municipal customer will receive 0.8 acre-feet of water for every acre-foot of water in their contract. We refer to that amount of water as an acre-foot unit, even though it is sometimes less than an acre-foot.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about some of the district’s top issues today?
Brad Wind: We’re advancing two other large regional projects to satisfy increasing municipal demand within our service area. Those projects are funded exclusively by their underlying participants, and they’re also Water Activity Enterprise projects. It is a challenge to advance those projects at a rate that keeps up with the growing demand that those participants anticipate. As we all know, in the West, it tends to take not just one but a couple of decades to find your way through the permitting process. It is a challenge when that demand is apparent and immediate and you don’t have the supply to meet it. That can put a lot of pressure on agriculture.
The next issue is related. In Colorado, there continues to be a significant gap between future water supply and stable water demand. Often, that results in harm to agriculture, as municipal interests acquire agricultural waters and convert them to municipal supply. That is known as buy and dry here in Colorado.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the effects that urbanization is having on your services?
Brad Wind: The fact that we are providing more water to municipal interests is encouraging us to invest in our project to ensure that we can deliver water uninterruptedly to water treatment facilities. We used to be able to go into downtime for a significant length of time over the winter months to do maintenance. We have a much shorter window to do that now. The challenge is to get the work done but to continue to invest in the project and ensure that outages are minimal. We want to have a project that is resilient to the things that Mother Nature can throw at it. If we happen to go down for some reason, we want to able to find a way to bring the project back online quickly.
One of the counties we serve with irrigation water is Weld County, which is among the top 10 counties in the nation for ag production. It an interesting dichotomy: We’re providing raw water for a million people, many of whom live in an urban area, but we’re also providing water to irrigators in one of the most productive seasonal or temperate regions of the country.
Irrigation Leader: Are you dealing with aging infrastructure that you need to either repair or replace?
Brad Wind: We did an appraisal of key aspects of our project 2 years ago, with the aim of better understanding what it would require to rebuild parts of it. I believe the estimate was that rebuilding key components of the project would cost about $4.9 billion. We did that appraisal to give our board a better sense of our justification for developing a reserve policy to help prepare for addressing that aging infrastructure. There are portions of the project, much of which is still owned by Reclamation, that are in great shape. There are other portions of the project, including the canal lines, that have been improved over the years but will continue to require investment. Recently, relining siphons has been an expensive proposition for Northern Water. We have completed one relining and plan to do another this summer. We think we’re pretty well prepared, as long as those investments are done over time. In most cases, the renovations to those facilities are what we call joint work—the expenses are shared between Northern Water and the federal government, since the latter is the beneficiary of the power production. We split a lot of costs 50/50. With Reclamation’s budget flatlined, as it more or less has been for over a decade, we’re concerned about how the federal government will continue to contribute its portion of the project expenses.
Irrigation Leader: Is there any concern about the state of the tunnel that brings water through the mountains?
Brad Wind: That maintenance is conducted by Reclamation. The tunnel goes into outage several times a year and is in good shape.
Irrigation Leader: Where do the funds for these infrastructure investments come from?
Brad Wind: That money comes from our revenue, either from assessments on allotment contracts or from the ad valorem tax.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about how being a farmer yourself informs your work as general manager of Northern Water?
Brad Wind: Being raised on a farm added to my appreciation of the fact that delivering water on time at a desirable quality is paramount. Water delivery a day early or a day too late can be a problem.
Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future of Northern Water?
Brad Wind: Our organization is transitioning to providing water on a day-in, day-out basis. We are becoming a year-round water utility rather than being a purely irrigation-based district, as we have been historically. We expect that we will always have some irrigation customers, since some of our allotment contracts are on land that we do not see leaving agricultural production. Our challenge will be to become a better water utility for our municipal and industrial users, one that can run 24/7/365. There are also a lot of opportunities to develop the remaining water within northeastern Colorado. How can Northern Water supply nearby cities, municipalities, and towns? We’re growing rapidly and have increasing demand. What can we do or build to facilitate the regional use of water and to conserve water to make every drop go further than it historically has?