Watering the West: How pioneers built local towns through irrigation — The Watch

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From The Watch (Regan Tuttle):

Telluride’s early days, survival depended dearly on water. The enterprises that built the region — farming, ranching and mining — required irrigation from rivers, and lots of it. Of course, water becomes scarcer the farther one moves from the mountains or from the San Miguel River.

For the pioneers, creating an infrastructure that could sustain them in the short term and withstand the march of progress was no easy task. Suffering cold conditions, subsisting on biscuits and beans, laboring with shovels, axes and other hand tools, pioneers worked to channel water from its source to where they needed it.
Back then, this was legal. Just decades ago, as the old-timers established our local towns, “Water could be diverted from the stream, and ditches built across public and private land to convey water to its place of beneficial use,” the Colorado Foundation for Water Education reported.

“In a dry and thirsty land it is necessary to divert the waters of the streams from their natural channels,” Colorado Chief Justice Moses Hallet said in the late 1800s.


During Telluride’s early days, water was hauled from the San Miguel River and from springs on the east side of town. Wilson Rockwell said in his book “Uncompahgre Country” that a man named Dutch George in the late 1800s delivered five-gallon buckets of water from the spring at Cornet Creek to saloons and businesses on what is now Colorado Avenue for 10 cents each, two buckets at a time, balanced by a yoke around his neck.

When attorney L.L. Nunn needed water for his commercial bathhouse on the east end, he ran a garden hose from Cornet Falls. Later, in 1886, H. H. Corbin constructed a 370-foot vertical pipeline that transported water from Cornet Creek into town.

Though people then said it couldn’t be done, high pressure water was flumed from Trout Lake to help establish the Ames power plant, and later the Ilium plant, that would put Telluride on the map as the first city in the world to be powered by alternating electric current. Of course, the purpose was to support the mining industry.


For some, creating access to water was more difficult. The Town of Nucla, formerly Tabeguache Park, was founded by a socialist organization whose members wanted to escape their greedy landlords in Denver. By accident, they discovered the location that provided everything they desired: mild winters, ample sunlight, virgin soil — but no water.

Called the Colorado Cooperative Company, the members, or comrades, set up camp in the late 1800s in what became the second largest city in Montrose County to bring water to the homesteads for which they’d filed claims.
They were told their task was impossible.

“I believe [that] actually helped build the ditch. When you are told you can’t, you’ll bust a tug to do it,” Leonard F. Zatterstrom said in a memoir published in Marie Templeton’s book “The Visionaries.”

The Colorado Cooperative Company constructed a 17-mile-long wooden flume, called the CC Ditch, built along the wall of the San Miguel River canyon. David Lavender in “One Man’s West” writes that those who worked on the ditch were compensated by “credit at the commissary for food and supplies, plus water credits toward the purchase of ditch rights. The canal succeeded, and several prosperous farms sprang up.”

People like Zatterstrom worked eight-hour days building the flume, sleeping in the bunkhouse, buying their food through the company store and receiving rations of milk from the cooperative’s dairy cows.

Nucla was born when the project was completed in 1904, and “Piñon became a ghost town practically overnight,” Zatterstrom said.

But the hard work didn’t pay off for everyone. Mary Rogers was a 9-year old girl during the CC Ditch project. Because both her parents died, she went to live with her grandmother and uncles, the Heinemans, who worked on the CC Ditch. Like others, the German family came to Piñon in search of a better life, and hoped to one day own a farm.

“My mother worked in the garden and did dishes,” Norma McKeever, now 88, said. According to her, the conditions were not pleasant, especially in the winter. Rogers said the food was terrible, just biscuits and beans at the camp’s boardinghouse in the cold season. But it was worth it to the family. They’d filed a homestead claim with hopes that when the CC Ditch was done, they’d have irrigation water and could build a life.

Rogers was in her teens by the time the CC Ditch was completed. But the water didn’t reach the Heineman’s farm in 1904. The majority of the CC Ditch workers had accomplished what they’d needed for their own homesteads, and they weren’t willing to extend the project. What can you do with a farm that has no water?

Grandmother Heineman went to work as a washerwoman and housekeeper for those who owned prosperous farms. Mary Rogers got a job at the Western Hotel in Norwood. One of her uncles moved to Nevada and never came back.

McKeever said the Heinemans, buried in the pauper site at Nucla Cemetery, weren’t the only ones to feel cheated out of their homestead dreams.

Though socialism failed, the town has not. Water still serves Nucla to this day, though the wooden flume has mostly been replaced by more practical means. The town celebrates the water victory every July with their Water Days celebration.


Wilson Barrett of Redvale is the ditch rider — the patroller or inspector — for the waterway that is the lifeblood of Norwood, the Gurley Ditch. He is the only employee of Farmer’s Water Development, the stock company that “owns” the Gurley and divides its shares of water. But nobody really owns the water in Colorado, he said, just the rights to use it. According to him, life in Norwood wouldn’t be possible for anyone if the old-timers hadn’t dug the ditch.

In the late 1800s, when pioneers began settling Wrights Mesa, Rockwell said Ed Joseph — of the Joseph family, one of the first to settle the area — began construction of a reservoir east of the Lone Cone in the high country.

Some people disagree as to who later built the Gurley Ditch and finished the reservoir above it. Barrett said it was Naturita Land and Cattle Company. Regardless, whatever company worked on the project went bankrupt. One of the owners in that outfit was named Charles Gorley. Over time, the spelling of “Gorley” evolved into “Gurley,” which is used today.

To avoid losing the rights to use their water, local farmers and ranchers on the mesa decided to purchase the floundering company, buying it out of bankruptcy, and then established Farmer’s Water Development.

Now irrigation water runs from the dam through Beaver Park and to Wrights Mesa, mostly for agricultural purposes, but a small percentage is used for domestic water in town.

Barrett’s great uncle, Gordon Barrett, was one of the first workers to help dig the Gurley.

“They came in 1914, and they worked on the ditch in the fall. If you worked in the fall, you could get shares in the company,” Barrett said. “He was nominated to work on the ditch as part of the family so they could get more water.”

Recently, going through old paperwork, Barrett found one of the original invoices for equipment. He discovered a purchase order, sandwiched between old papers, for picks, boxes of dynamite, shovels and other tools that made the Gurley.

Without the ditch, Barrett said, Norwood would not have survived.


Most people probably don’t know that Ridgway almost didn’t survive. Years ago, in the 1960s, there were plans for a dam to be constructed just north of where Ridgway now sits. Had the original plans been executed, Ridgway would now be under water.

Some refer to it as “the town that refused to die,” and Ridgway lucked out when officials in the 1970s decided to move the dam farther north. Now, the Ridgway Reservoir, constructed in the late ‘80s, covers what was the old ghost town of Dallas.

Though Ridgway is situated on the Uncompahgre River, that stream is not the town’s source of water. Sometimes running yellow or orange, the Uncompahgre is known as a “dirty river” due to the minerals it contains. The town of Ridgway sourced its water in the late 1800s from Hartwell Lake, now Lake Otonowanda, below Mount Sneffels.

Ridgway completed a major expansion of its reservoir last summer.


Today, being on town water is a luxury most people probably don’t think much about. While just 100 years ago we were hauling water and digging ditches through the local mountains, most folks now just turn on the tap. Our pioneers have made it possible for us to have access to water even in places where water didn’t naturally occur.

Those who live further out in the country have other water issues, and real estate in many parts of Colorado becomes complicated when water rights enter the picture. Sometimes water rights are a part of landownership; sometimes they’re not. Water is overseen by water commissions and boards in various regions.

These days, one cannot simply dig a diversion ditch from an existing stream or take water from a manmade ditch. Now, water projects involve planning, permits, engineering work and financing. The Colorado Doctrine, a set of laws pertaining to water use and landownership, has been in place since the 1860s.

Some producers, especially the new farmers without water rights, have trouble wrapping their heads around the laws.

Last July Leila Seraphin, formerly of California, bought a property in Norwood that the Gurley Ditch runs through. She said she wishes she could use some of that water for her own farming and gardening, but she knows it’s against the law.

“We were told right when we moved here water was a big issue and taking from the Gurley was not allowed, and that all the water was owned,” she said.

Building a life as a new producer on Wrights Mesa, she has learned a lot about where her water comes from.

“It’s hard to imagine water being free to use, as every drop has a price tag,” she said.

Barrett said people living in this region should be grateful for their water.

“The water we have — 99 percent of it was done with a shovel and a pick. Without the pioneers, there would be nobody here,” he said.

He believes that is especially true for Wrights Mesa, as he said that before the Gurley ditch, life didn’t exist in Norwood.

“The early homesteaders had to go clear into the San Miguel River or into Naturita Creek with wagons and barrels to haul it to have any water at all,” he said. “I’d say for most people [this] is new information.”

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south
Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

Voters approve “deBrucing” of Dolores Water Conservancy District mill levy

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Voters have approved a request by the Dolores Water Conservancy District to freeze the mill levy at the current rate of 0.483…

Mcphee Reservoir
Mcphee Reservoir

The district sought to avoid the ratcheting down effect on the district’s budget because of fluctuating property values.

“Passage of Ballot Issue 4A will really help the Dolores Water Conservancy District provide a stable water supply for our farmers and communities going forward,” said DWCD general manager Mike Preston. “We want to offer our deepest appreciation to the voters for supporting this measure.”

Preston said passing the measure allows DWCD to better secure grant money, which is important to keep McPhee Reservoir and delivery systems in good shape. He said the funds will allow the district to face growing challenges of protecting water rights, and dealing with drought and emerging threats to McPhee Reservoir, such as an invasion of quagga mussels that could damage water delivery systems and kill sport fishing.

Setting a permanent tax mill levy allows the district to stabilize its income relative to area growth and retain any additional income it receives.

According to the district, “changing laws and regulations at the federal and state levels, including BLM and Forest Service management plans, require increased vigilance, negotiation and legal involvement to protect established District water rights.”

Ballot Issue 4A is a waiver to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), known as “deBrucing.”

La Plata County: Water Information Program land use forum recap

San Juan River from Wolf Creek Pass
San Juan River from Wolf Creek Pass

From The Pine River Times (Carole McWilliams):

Land use choices and water use are connected. So how come water people and land use planners don’t work together as water supply becomes more at risk and state population keeps growing?

That was the focus of a water and land use forum on Oct. 23 at the La Plata County Administration Building. It was organized by the Durango-based Water Information Program (WIP).

Denise Rue-Pastin, the director of the program, cited predictions that global population will reach 10 billion by 2050.

“Some of the information being presented is kind of a downer,” she warned. “Hopefully you (participants) will be armed with the information you need to make really good decisions.” She showed maps of global water shortage areas, including in the U.S., areas of growing food demand, and regions where wars are being fought over water…

She cited the Colorado Water Plan aimed at addressing water supply gaps as state population grows to a predicted 10 million.

The final plan must be presented to the governor by Dec. 10. She cited the familiar statistic that 80 percent of state population is on the Front Range while 80 percent of the water is on the West Slope, and 80 percent of water use in Colorado is for agriculture…

The Colorado Water Plan “doesn’t say a lot about what we should be doing,” although it lists ideas such as development that does not increase water demand, referred to as net zero, [Drew] Beckwith said. “The divide between water planners and land use planners is sometimes a challenge.” There are efforts to come up with estimates of how increased density might affect water use, he said.

The Water Plan will tout a goal to have 75 percent of state population living in communities that have incorporated water saving actions, Beckwith said. He asked for comments…

Beckwith said, “The challenge I see is for you in the southwest (part of the state) to say we don’t want any more trans-mountain (water) diversions, you need to lead by example.”

Shepard cited subdivision covenants and homeowner associations that require outside landscaping, and the HOA will sue for non-compliance.

That’s illegal under a state law passed a couple years ago, Beckwith responded.

Rue-Pastin raised another issue. “I know of a water utility that got rid of their water conservation because one of their directors said, ‘If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it.'”

Beckwith added that some utilities depend on the income from selling more water, but, “When you need more supply and conservation is the cheapest alternative, it makes sense.”[…]

Green and Beckwith listed ways to link water and land use:

. a system to allocate water taps

. impact fees on building permits

. use of state authorized 1041 powers to protect water supplies from diversions

. comprehensive/ master plans that encourage denser development and water conservation

. landscaping codes

. more development restrictions in areas with less groundwater

. prohibitions on outside water use, as in Summit County

. requirements for water efficient appliances.

Green cited the need to go beyond “aspirational” master plans to implementation in land use regulations.

Beckwith said, “At the end of the day, it depends on what your community cares about.”

Uravan: Confluence (Dolores and San Miguel rivers) Cleanup October 24, 2015 — Sheep Mountain Alliance

From the Sheep Mountain Alliance:


Here’s an opportunity to get outdoors, meet people, and help the environment. On Saturday, October 24, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., join SMA as we clean up the confluence of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers just west of Uravan, Colorado.

We’ll team up with members of the San Miguel Watershed Coalition and others. Email Leigh Robertson leigh@sheepmountainalliance.org if you’d like more information or if you’d like to sign up.

McElmo Flume restoration project update

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

“It could take a year or longer for construction to be completed,” once bids are approved, said county planner James Dietrich.

The roadside attraction will have an entrance and egress road, parking lot, sidewalks, information kiosk and a handicap-accessible trail to an overlook of the flume, built in 1890.

Two grants are helping to pay for the project.

A $253,000 grant from the Federal Highways Administration was awarded to the Trails of the Ancients Scenic Byway, a section of which includes U.S. 160 that goes by the flume.

The Colorado State Historic Fund provided a $123,840 grant to restore the flume foundation.

Several groups chipped in for a $41,280 match, including Montezuma County, Southwest Water Conservancy District, Ballantine Family Fund, Montezuma County Historical Society and Southwest Roundtable.

The flume is the last of 104 built in the area from 1890 to 1920. It delivered irrigation water south of Cortez and to the Ute Mountain Tribe.

McElmo Creek Flume via the Cortez Journal
McElmo Creek Flume via the Cortez Journal

Are our headwaters at risk of a mine leak? — Officials unsure what’s happening in tunnels — the Cortez Journal

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The headwaters of the Dolores River share space with century-old mines similar to the Gold King mine that spilled 3 million gallons of wastewater into the Animas River this August.

But the long-abandoned Argentine Mine Complex near Rico is receiving proper pollution controls to reduce the risk of such an accident, mining officials say.

The St. Louis and Blaine mine tunnels once provided access to a vast network of hard-rock tunnels bored into the Rico Mountains.

Now the tunnels act like drains for snowmelt and rain, which accumulate unnatural levels of heavy metals that has to flow out somewhere.

The mine entrances have collapsed, but the wastewater continues to drain out of them within yards of the Dolores River.

“It’s a hazard we need to pay attention to because the Dolores River supplies water for four towns, and for McPhee Reservoir depended on for irrigation,” said Paul Hollar, emergency manager for Montezuma County.

Mine drainage from St. Louis and Blaine flow through an on-site wastewater treatment system that is working properly, according to the EPA and state mining officials.

Eleven settling ponds remove heavy metals, and the water meets state health standards when it returns to the river.

For the past 15 years, the treatment system has being upgraded and maintained under a cooperative effort by former mine owners Atlantic Richfield Co., the EPA, and the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety.

“While you can never be sure what is happening two miles back in these tunnels, we feel the mine entrances are under control,” said Allen Sorenson, project manager and engineer with the state’s inactive mine program…

It was also discovered in 1996 that a concrete plug in the nearby Blaine Tunnel was failing, releasing orange-colored, toxic water directly into Sliver Creek, a tributary of the Dolores River.

The Blaine Tunnel plug is designed to redirect drainage through the St. Louis Tunnel, and into the settling ponds.

In 2013, the Blaine plug was successfully repaired, Sorenson said, at a cost of $350,000.

“The mine entrance was shored up, and diversion structure installed,” he said. “There is no surface discharge out of Blaine.”[…]

To monitor whether that is happening at the Rico mines, wells with piezometers that measure water pressure and water level were installed behind the collapsed St. Louis Tunnel.

“Investigating whether they are backing up is ongoing,” Sorenson said. “It is being tracked, and if problems are observed they will be addressed.”

The Blaine Tunnel does not have the piezometers, he said, but it is checked several times a year by inspectors to make sure the diversion structure is working and to monitor flow rates.

Sorenson warned that the nature of underground mine tunnels make them unpredictable, and there are no guarantees a scenario like the Gold King mine won’t happen again.

“It’s a significant issue,” he said. “We eliminate risk to the extent possible, but you can’t rule out what a massive surge of water will do.”

#ColoradoRiver: Southwestern Water Conservation District Water 101 session recap #COWaterPlan #COriver

From The Pine River Times (Carole McWilliams):

The nightmare scenario for West Slope water nerds is a “call” on the Colorado River, meaning that Colorado, Wyoming, and Northwest New Mexico are not delivering a legally required amount of water to California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.

If or when that happens, some water users in the three Upper Basin states will have their water use curtailed so that the Lower Basin states get their share. Water banking as a concept being proposed on the West Slope to minimize curtailment and huge water fights between holders of pre-1922 water rights, which would not be curtailed, and holders of post-1922 rights that would be curtailed.

Durango water engineer Steve Harris spoke to this at the Sept. 25 Water 101 seminar in Bayfield.

The idea started in 2008 with the Southwest Colorado Water Conservation District and the Colorado River Conservation District. Those two entities cover the entire West Slope, Harris said. The idea of water banking is “to provide water for critical uses in cases of compact curtailment.”

West Slope agricultural water users would voluntarily and temporarily reduce their water use and be compensated for it. The water would go to Lake Powell to satisfy the legal requirement for the three Upper Basin states to deliver 7.5 million acre feet of water each year (averaged over 10 years for a total 75 million AF) to the four Lower Basin states and avert curtailment…

All this is dictated by a water compact signed in 1922. It committed 15 million AF per year divvied up between the Upper and Lower Basin states. “Average flow now is around 13 million AF in the Colorado,” Harris said. The result has been continued draw-down of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

“Right now we are at around 90 million AF versus the 75 million AF over 10 years,” Harris said. If the amount delivered goes below the 10 year requirement, perfected water rights before 1922 would not be curtailed. Most of that is West Slope ag water.

About half of Bayfield’s and Durango’s municipal water is pre-1922 rights, he said. More than 90 percent of the 1-plus million AF of pre-1922 West Slope water is used to grow grass or alfalfa hay.

Post-1922 rights include area reservoir storage, water for coal-fired power plants, a lot of municipal and industrial water, and 98 percent of West Slope water diversions to Front Range urban areas. “So they would be curtailed. But that’s not going to happen,” Harris said, because Front Range residents aren’t going to have their water supply cut to grow hay.

“We want to set up a water bank so the pre-1922 users would set aside water for the post-1922 users. Otherwise, pre-1922 rights could be targeted for acquisition by post-1922 users,” he said.

Water banking is still an idea at this point. “We don’t know if the water bank will work,” Harris said. Two studies have been done, one is under way, and a fourth will be conducted by Colorado State University to look at the impacts on eight small farms of full irrigation, reduced irrigation, and no irrigation.

Harris said 50,000 to 200,000 AF of West Slope pre-1922 water might be able to go into a water bank, based on land that could be fallowed. But there is concern that some other senior water right holder could take the water before it gets to Lake Powell. Also, he said, “It’s very hard to measure water saved through fallowing. Every year is different.”

In contrast, there is an estimated 55,000 AF of critical post-1922 municipal and industrial use on the West Slope and 295,000 AF of critical diversions to the East Slope. “The amount of pre-compact water that might be available is much smaller than the demand,” Harris said. He cited another local issue: “If you don’t irrigate on Florida Mesa, people don’t have water wells.”

An assortment of water entities in the Colorado River Basin have contributed $11 million to do demand management pilot projects to get more water to Lake Powell. Durango applied to change their water billing to “social norming,” meaning how much water you use compared to your neighboors. Harris quipped that he’d pull the norm down because he made a show of removing his lawn back in the spring.

State Sen. Ellen Roberts also spoke at the seminar. “Even though we are a headwaters state, there’s a limited amount of water, and if the population is going to double by 2040 or 2050, where will the water come from? … Every direction from Colorado, there’s a neighboring state that has a legal right to some of our water.”

Eighty-seven percent of the state population lives between Fort Collins and Pueblo, and they like their Kentucky blue grass, she said, adding, “Kentucky is a much better place for it. … On the Front Range, all they care about is does the water come out when they turn on the tap.”

She noted the heated reaction to the bill she introduced in 2014 to limit the size of lawns in new residential developments that use water converted from ag, leaving the ag land dry. Harris initiated that idea. Roberts commented, “To feed their lawns, they need our water.”

As with population, 87 of 100 state legislators also live betwween Fort Collins and Pueblo, she said. “If they don’t come out here to know our world, they don’t appreciate why water is so important. … Water is our future.”

Roberts gave an update on the Colorado Water Plan, which is intended to address the projected gap between water demand and supply. Community meetings on the plan were held around the state last year and earlier this year. “The number one thing we heard was the need for storage,” Roberts said. “If we can’t capture and hold the water we have, we are hurting ourselves.” The next question is how to pay for storage projects. “That’s where the fighting begins,” she said.

The water plan needs more specifics on recommended actions, Roberts said. And after the Gold King spill of toxic mine waste, it needs something about water quality threats from abandoned mines.

The 470-plus page plan is being done by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is supposed to be presented to the governor by Dec. 10. It’s available on-line at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com.

Colorado River Basin including Mexico, USBR May 2015
Colorado River Basin including Mexico, USBR May 2015