Each year western Colorado, Wyoming and Utah contribute several hundred thousands of tons of salt to the Colorado River. To help prevent seepage and reduce salinity loading in the basin, open irrigation ditches are being replaced with buried pipe.
In Orchard City construction crews are currently working on the Orchard Ranch Ditch. By piping its two miles, farmers will have better irrigation and 1,000 tons of salt won't go to the river each year.
Built over a century ago, the open and unlined ditch leaks water into the surrounding soil. Later it crystallizes close to the surface when water is removed through evapotranspiration, or evaporation through soil.
Funding for this $1.4 million project comes mostly from a grant through the Bureau of Reclamation. Over the last several years it has targeted western Colorado to resolve some of the salinity issue through agricultural irrigation.
Millions of funds have already been put into Delta County alone.
"This salt is damaging to users in lower Colorado and states like Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico," said Paul Kehmeier, salinity program coordinator for Western Colorado with the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Increased salinity increases water treatment costs, deteriorates plumbing, increases soap needs and creates an undesirable taste when drinking.
Irrigation with those ditches is also less efficient due to water loss from seepage. This one project will affect about 40 different shareholders in OC for a total of 350 acres of farmland.
Construction began in November and completion is projected for April. However, it's been four years since the idea to pipe the ditch began.
Other elements included running an environmental analysis to ensure no endangered species were threatened, completing a cultural survey to not disturb any historical aspects, replacing habitat since several areas of tree and grass are affected, and hiring an engineering firm to design the project. Landowners close to the construction were notified, too.
"We're complying with the RIPA act to receive the grant funding," explained Kehmeier. For a project this size some changes are also required as they go along. Challenges include not hitting power lines, minimal disturbance to trees and working quickly when crossing roads. A construction supervisor helps to find solutions to difficult scenarios as they arise.
Kehmeier reported that they've thankfully had no major disruptions or complaints. He said the company hired, Pitt Construction Company, is doing thorough work. Jason Serve, with Willow Creek Construction, is placing the inlet concrete structures that filter debris as the ditch diverts water at Surface Creek.
Over the last eight years Kehmeier has worked on several similar ditch projects, with this being the second largest. He became involved with the Orchard Ranch Ditch piping out of a desire to better irrigation in the area.
Recently he took on the job of salinity program coordinator to help ditch companies find the funding to transition to piping. "The goal is to ultimately keep salt out of the Colorado River," he said.
Those interested in piping their ditches can contact Kehmeier with the CDA at 720-614-4921 or stop by his office at the National Resource Conservation Service building in Delta.