BY JIM POKRANDT
April is a good time to celebrate the Grand Valley’s relationship with the Colorado River. The great canals and laterals of the valley’s turn-of-the-last-century irrigation infrastructure are filling with water, an annual rite of spring. Irrigation season is upon us and that matters to every soul in the valley.
Water makes the Grand Valley grand. It makes it green. It makes the desert livable. It makes the economy go ’round.
Look north of the Government-Highline Canal and what do you see: a dry, scrub landscape. It’s beautiful in its own right, good for livestock grazing and in today’s world, an attraction for mountain bikes and dirt bikes.
The Grand Valley would look like the desert it really is but for three things: the good soils, a long growing season and the introduction of irrigation water, the ultimate catalyst that makes the formula work for agriculture and our urban landscapes.
More than that, it matters to folks from the headwaters counties along the Continental Divide all the way down the mainstem of the river to the Grand Valley. And it’s not because everybody loves a Palisade peach or a bottle of Grand Valley-produced wine, although they should. It’s not because people like me prize the unsung, delicious tomatoes grown in the valley or the locally produced beef that finds its way into restaurants.
Here’s why: the very senior water rights held by the irrigation companies command the river, controlling the natural east-to-west flow of water. That natural direction of water could otherwise be intercepted by big tunnels through the Continental Divide that move water to eastern Colorado. Some 500,000 acre-feet already go to the east, and it has defined the Front Range as we know it with vibrant cities, universities, culture, agriculture (the primary reason water was first moved) and an economy that benefits us all. Use it well, we say here in western Colorado. But if you want more, that’s a problem. That is a story, though, for another time.
Grand Valley folks are water savvy, in my experience. They understand the role their water rights play in the well-being of western Colorado. Likewise, the headwaters counties of Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield know the value of your Grand Valley water rights. Your irrigation rights pull water downstream and that underpins the economies, the environment and recreation in each of these upstream locales. They don’t want your water. They want you to maintain a thriving water rights system so their communities can thrive, too.
The linchpin of the Grand Valley water rights system is the Roller Dam in De Beque Canyon, just upstream from where Plateau Creek enters the mainstem of the Colorado River. It is more than 100 years old. It diverts water for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, the Palisade Irrigation District and the Mesa County Irrigation District. It’s not just about agriculture anymore. Many residential homes receive raw irrigation water from this infrastructure. Valley residents should know that the Grand Valley Water Users Association, operators of the Roller Dam, is working its way through a master plan to keep it in repair. It’s not inexpensive work.
The Grand Valley Irrigation Company is the last canal to divert. Its infrastructure is at Palisade. It, too, is working to maintain and improve its system. This month it finished the latest canal-lining segment. In fact, it has lined 10.63 miles in the last 11 years at a cost of about $14 million. This work is part of a long-running effort across the valley to keep salts out of the river.
One of the most important pieces of the Grand Valley’s water mosaic is located many miles away in Summit County. It’s Green Mountain Reservoir. Green Mountain stores water that comes into play for the Grand Valley and other users as snowmelt winds down through summer and streamflows diminish, part of the natural cycle. Releases are then stepped up to bolster river flows.
Green Mountain was negotiated as a western Colorado benefit back in the 1930s when the big transmountain diversion, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, was proposed to take Colorado River water out of Grand County and send it to northern Colorado. That raised alarms in Mesa County and all along the river. The negotiators became the founders of the Colorado River District in 1937, so there could be a taxpayer-supported entity to watchdog regional water interests as the Front Range grew. Some of those founders were from Mesa County. Yes, back then, folks realized the importance of water supply and river flows to the Grand Valley.
Not to be overlooked in this ode to the Colorado River is the importance of the Shoshone Hydro Plant in Glenwood Canyon. It also commands the river, not just in the irrigation season, but in all 12 months. The Daily Sentinel recently reported on how reservoir operators and Grand Valley irrigation entities cooperate to mimic Shoshone water rights in the river when the plan is down and cannot call for water. The benefits of Shoshone, whether its operating or its flows are mimicked, are the same generated by the Grand Valley water rights. Plus, they improve the environment for endangered fish.
So, while we cope with orders to stay at home in order to avoid getting or spreading the coronavirus and wonder how we can restart the economy, we can take solace in the bedrock fact that water is flowing in the Grand Valley and springtime will soon be in full bloom.
Jim Pokrandt is the community affairs director for the Colorado River District. Mesa County is one of his favorite places in western Colorado.