Transmountain diversions: Moving water from the rainy side of Colorado

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Here’s a look at some of the history behind transmountain diversions, from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. Be sure to click though and read the whole thing. Here are some excerpts from the article:

“I expect that these waters in the mountains, instead of being a menace to the people upon the plains, will be their source of strength and their source of wealth,” William Jennings Bryan told an international water conference in Pueblo in 1910. The problem then, as it is now, is that the water just wasn’t there.

A semi-arid region where the average annual rainfall is less than 20 inches was not readily recognized as an agricultural mecca. In most years as it does now, water came in a rush when snow melted in spring, during summer monsoons and in many years would stop late in the growing season, when many crops were ready for harvest. In the worst years, no water came at all. “Nature gave Colorado two valuable resources: an abundance of water and vast tracts of fertile and arable land,” said the late Harold Christy, a CF&I water engineer who helped form the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “She gave us these great assets but did not logically locate them practical use. She left the job of consolidation to the hand of man.” The solution was to move water from one side of the mountains to the other and store it for when it was needed. The state Legislature began looking at ways to do that as early as 1889. The 50-year span from 1920-70 would mark an era of projects designed to fulfill that vision in Eastern Colorado.

At first, moving water across mountains mostly involved digging ditches across mountain passes. The earliest effort still running is the Grand Ditch, completed in the 1890s, in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park. Many other ditches were dug by farmers looking for a way to make water available throughout the growing season. As the cities have grown, they have acquired many of those systems after irrigators found them expensive to maintain. Pueblo, for instance, acquired the Ewing, Wurtz and Columbine ditches in Lake County in the early 1950s to cope with water shortages at the time.

Engineers also were already toying with tunnels in the early 1900s. An early large tunnel project devoted solely to water was the Gunnison-Uncompahgre Tunnel completed in 1909, which was built by the Bureau of Reclamation to move water from one sub-basin of the Colorado River to another, and later transferred to a local district. Similarly, the Laramie-Poudre Tunnel, completed in 1911, brought water from the North Platte into the South Platte basin in Northern Colorado. Rail tunnels, like the Carlton Tunnel near Leadville that later became the diversion tunnel for the Busk-Ivanhoe system, or Denver’s Moffat Tunnel, were later used as ways to move water.

More transmountain/transbasin coverage here.

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