Dixie Luke's grandfather once talked of the days when farmers on Rogers Mesa would take teams of horses up Leroux Creek in the 1920s and 1930s to work on the nascent reservoirs that would capture runoff from the Grand Mesa. Others up in the Paonia area were busy digging canals. They were working together, said Luke, often in uncomfortable conditions, toward a common vision: to bring irrigation water to the farms, orchards and ranches in the North Fork Valley.
Luke, whose family has ranched in the North Fork area for more than a century, shared her story at the Jan. 8 groundbreaking ceremony for the Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project. The ceremony was followed by a luncheon and presentation at Memorial Hall in Hotchkiss.
The roughly 34-mile-long Fire Mountain Canal winds from Somerset to the east end of Rogers Mesa, providing irrigation water to almost 15,000 acres of farm and ranch land. The project involves replacing about four miles of open canal on Rogers Mesa with buried pipeline. An umbrella project of the Lower Gunnison Project, it is intended to modernize agricultural water management, conserve irrigation water, increase delivery efficiency and agricultural productivity, lower maintenance costs, and reduce salinity loading in the Colorado River Basin.
In a time of declining water resources, said Luke, president of the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Company, "This project shows what a little ditch company is doing to improve water quality and save every drop of water."
"This is a complicated project and it's taken a lot of people to bring it this far," said Tom Alvey, president of the North Fork Water Conservancy District. Alvey is also president of the Colorado River District (CRD).
Spearheaded by the Colorado River District, project cost is estimated at approximately $4.6 million. The Bureau of Reclamation will provide about $3 million for salinity control. The project will prevent an estimated 2,365 tons of salt per year from entering into the Colorado River Basin.
The Upper Colorado basin is "where a lot of water and salt loads are generated that affect critical habitat for four endangered fish species in the Colorado River and its tributaries," said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the CRD. "So what we do has large implications to the Upper Colorado River Basin, and in fact, all seven states in the whole Colorado River Basin."
About $1.154 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) will go toward delivery system efficiency improvements. The remaining funds come from the North Fork Water Conservancy District, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Gunnison Basin Roundtable Water Supply Reserve Fund, and FMCRC.
Kanzer and Sonja Chavez, water resources specialist for the CRD, are credited with bringing Reclamation and the NRCS together to fund an irrigation efficiency project. The key, said Chavez, "was to get them talking to one another." If the CRD could coordinate off-farm types of improvements with on-farm irrigation efficiency and pressurized deliveries like gated pipe, "we could create a win-win-win situation."
Because Reclamation's funding process favors more cost-effective salinity-reducing projects, RCCP funds were used to buy down the project's cost per ton for salt control, "which ensured that our partners were awarded funds," said Chavez.
Brent Newman is with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state's primary water policy and project funding agency. When people ask what type of project the CWCB wants to support," said Newman,
"You don't have to look any further than this one. This is an ideal, model project."
Fire Mountain is the first large project being built under the umbrella of the Lower Gunnison Project, a cooperative project to increase water use efficiency and agricultural productivity in the Lower Gunnison Basin. Other projects are in the works for the Bostwick Park Water District, Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, and Crawford Water Conservancy District.
The Fire Mountain project is one part of the big picture for the FMCRC, said superintendent Steve Fletcher. They were recently awarded a Reclamation Small-Scale Water Efficiency grant for a supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA monitoring and control project that would tie in to existing stream gauges on Muddy and Anthracite creeks. The system will provide more effective water turnout and system control and help extend the irrigation season.
Last year, said Fletcher, dam tender for the Paonia Reservoir, the FMCRC was relying 100 percent on stored water when the canal shut down Aug. 4. That marked the fourth time since the Paonia Reservoir first spilled in 1962 that the canal shut down before the end of growing season. With the system in place, say, a heavy rainfall above the reservoir increases Anthracite Creek by 100 cubic feet per second. Sensors at the dam would automatically reduce flow from the reservoir by the same amount, allowing more water to remain in storage for later use. That project is slated for completion this spring.
The FMCRC is also investigating the possibility of building a small regulating reservoir above Rogers Mesa that would eventually tie into the SCADA system.
Sen. Michael Bennet issued a press release applauding the project. In 2014 Bennet opened up funding eligibility in the Lower Gunnison Basin by securing Critical Conservation Area designation for the Colorado River Basin. A member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, through the 2014 Farm Bill he helped secure $8 million for the CRD project in the lower Gunnison Basin. In the 2018 Farm Bill recently passed by Congress, Bennet worked to reauthorize and increase RCPP funding.
"Because our parents and grandparents made necessary investments in water infrastructure, agriculture has thrived on the Western Slope," said Bennet. With demands on rivers increasing and populations growing, "Collaborative efforts like the Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project are critical to making irrigation systems more efficient to support our agricultural economy."
In looking to the future, "The best thing right now is to help create more efficient water distribution systems, address water and soil quality, and make it easier for growers to get their products to the market," said Andy Mueller, manager of the Colorado River District. "In times of drought, that efficient application of water becomes more important."
In order to get maximum benefit out of the water available, "We need to reach out to a variety of sources to help us push these projects forward," said Alvey. "In these days of drafting drought contingency plans, we think it's going to have large benefits to all our water users. We think it's a model for what can be done going forward."