Here are a couple of common ways to get to the San Miguel River Valley where you find Nucla, Redvale and Naturita. You can take State Route 90 out of downtown Montrose and traverse the 9800-foot Uncompahgre Plateau to get to west Montrose County. It is a gorgeous drive. But, if you are not a big fan of dirt roads, tight turns, 200-foot drop offs, dust or mud, or steep inclines, you’ll probably want to go to Ridgway, Placerville, Norwood and then Nucla. It’s all paved that way and still a pretty nice ride, especially in the fall.
Why go to Nucla anyway?
Well, the scenery is spectacular, the air is super clear and fishing in the San Miguel can be good. There are tons of friendly folks. There is Ruth’s Toffee, a must for anyone who loves real toffee. Ruth’s is a major presence in town, right on Main Street and on the internet, where she sells her scrumptious wares worldwide.
Well, “It’s quiet,” says Valerie Naslund, a lifelong resident, who helps operate Spirits of Tabeguache (tab-a-watch) liquor store. That quiet hasn’t changed much even though a few California escapees have discovered the likes of Nucla, population 725, or so. Elevation 5,780 feet. Any influx is welcome in this little town that has, over the years, had its share of setbacks.
First, a century ago, there was the implosion of the Utopian experiment and most people picked up and left. Then the Uravan Uranium Mine shut down, taking out the only job producing entity at the time. More recently the decision to decommission the nearly 40-year-old Tri-State coal-fired generation plant hit the little town like a blown fuse at a light show.
While the imported California retirees give things a little boost, what keeps the wheels turning for the economy of the other Montrose County is agriculture. More specifically cattle ranching. There are about 70 square miles of the roughly 1145 that make up Western Montrose County that are arable. The area is known locally as Tabeguache Park. The immediate Nucla area is about 20 square miles. Grass grows very well there. As long as there is water. And there is.
Dean and Valerie Naslund have been in Nucla all of their lives. In fact, Dean is a fifth generation cattleman, who also just happens to be the Colorado (Water) Cooperative Company’s Ditch Rider. He is the guy who keeps the 115-year-old “ditch” in good repair and who keeps the water flowing from the San Miguel River to Nucla. The ditch is a masterfully engineered dirt aqueduct that delivers San Miguel River water from 18 miles upstream to the system of laterals and delivery ditches in the valley. It was built pretty much by hand, picks and shovels, that sort of thing. The entire system operates on gravity, right to the end of the last ditch in any rancher’s pasture. That 18 miles of ditch would be a third that length if it weren’t for making sure the grade was right.
“The drop is about eight feet per mile,” Dean explains. There are no pumps anywhere. How do you cross a canyon? “We have some inverted siphons that keep the water moving,” he said. Which is to say that water will find its own level, and as long as the output of the siphon is lower on the grade than the input end, the water will flow.
The original ditch had several wooden trestle flumes that spanned the arroyos and canyons, but the flumes were subject to maintenance issues and began to deteriorate. The co-op replaced them with the 36-inch pipe siphons.
The co-op has water rights to 145 cubic feet per second flow out of the river between April and October. That amounts to about 50,000 acre feet per year. What the town gets for that is enough water for a small municipal water system and the rest goes to the farms and ranches to grow primarily cattle feed.
“Our crops are mostly alfalfa and silage corn. A couple of people experimented this year with hemp, but I think the experiment was a failure,” Naslund says. Of course, almost every farm has a personal garden where they grow some of their own food.
“We put in a little bit of everything, like corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and potatoes,” says Buckshot Burbridge, another lifelong Nucla native. Now, before we go any further, about that name.
“When I was born, one of my uncles came to see me and he told my parents that I was as small as a buckshot BB. They been callin’ me Buckshot ever since.”
Ever since is 65 years. Buckshot is living on the same piece of ground his father owned. He even has the first Ford 4WD pickup his dad bought back in the ’60s. “It don’t run, I keep thinking I ought to work on it, but you know how it is.”
The family at one time had over 300 head of cattle. As well, over the years, they also grew sheep, chickens and some hogs. Buckshot didn’t always work on the farm full time. He had a second job with the State Highway Department and the Montrose County Road Department. Many of the Nucla environs have more than one income stream.
“I also worked on the farm and helped the family run the cows and grow the hay,” he said.
So here is the drill for the biggest percentage of cowmen in Western Montrose County. During the summer, their cattle are in the higher country north of Nucla. They are in the hardscrabble land between the San Miguel River and the top of the Uncompahgre Plateau.
“Most everybody here has BLM and/or forest permits for summer crazing,” said Buckshot. That’s where his 50 head are right now. Later this month, he and his neighbors will go up and collectively gather (roundup) their herds and bring them down to the winter range on their own property in the lower country. The ranchers all still brand their cattle and that is done to the new calves born on the higher ranges.
“I haul mine down,” Naslund says. “Some of the guys will drive them because they just like to do it that way.”
“I help my neighbors and they help me and we work hard. Then we have a big supper together. It is part of our way of life and I love it,” Buckshot said. The gathering is all done by horseback. An ATV wouldn’t last a minute in some of the places the cows and their offspring feed. And that brings up one of the few things that bothers the Nucla cowmen.
“People ought to stop and think about where all that food in the supermarket comes from,” said Burbridge. “They complain about us running cows on public land. Well, about 90 percent of that land won’t produce anything else, so we put it to good use.” Typically high desert and chaparral vegetation won’t support more than a half dozen or less cattle per section (a square mile) of land.
Meanwhile, while the cattle are grazing the high country grass, the people like Naslund and Burbridge are growing and cutting the winter feed.
“I take two cuttings off the alfalfa by mid-September. Then I let it grow and when I bring the cows down in late October I put them on that month-old grass,” Buckshot explains. As the cows finish the growing grass, or it gets covered with snow, the rancher will supplement with the baled hay and silage that he produced during the summer. It is a cycle that has been going on for more than a century and a half.
It is a way of life more than it is a business,” says Buckshot as he leaves his tractor after bringing his baled hay out of the pasture.
Dean Naslund and his family will bring their cows down in late October as well. That will be after he puts the Colorado Water Co-op Company system in winter mode.
“We had a good snow pack this year and the water was good until about three weeks ago,” says Naslund. “We didn’t get much in the way of summer rain this year though and we took everything the river had for the last three weeks.” Between the head gate on the San Miguel and the confluence with the Delores River, the stream is reduced to a shadow of itself until more rain and snow bring it back.
It’s not the seasonal and annual fluctuations that bother the ditch rider, however.
“What I worry about is how many people want our water or want us to change what we do here,” says the 56-year-old who spends a lot of his days bouncing over rough roads in his 14-year-old Toyota 4WD pickup. He has a shovel too, and he is not afraid to use it.
Aimee Tooker has the same cloud over her head.
“The issues I see are the Eastern slope and the (other) Western states wanting our water. It is pretty scary for the water users here,” says Aimee, who is the Secretary for the Colorado Co-op. Aimee also owns that liquor store where Valerie works. She has been in Nula most of her life.
“We did have to leave for several years when the Uravan mines closed. We went to California,” but Aimee came back and is deeply involved in her town. She is heavily active in the Rimrocker Historical Society. If you want to know about the history of Tabeguache Park, stop by the liquor store.
“I hope that generations and generations will continue farming and ranching on the Park. Especially considering the sacrifices the original company made in order to get water here, she says.
Meanwhile, the ditch rider got one of those calls.
“I got up this morning to the news that I had a major break in the ditch about four miles from the head gate,” he says. “I haven’t seen anything that serious in 30 years. I have to get it fixed, there are a lot of people depending on this ditch to finish their season.”
And life goes on in Nucla over in the “other Montrose County.”