Here’s an in-depth look at the history of water projects in Montezuma County, from Reid Wright writing for the Cortez Journal. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:
The town of Cortez was first founded in December of 1886 near Mitchell Springs by officials of the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company, led by James W. Hanna. “It was not enough water at that time,” [Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company President Randy Carver] said. “As a matter of fact, a barrel of water at that time was 50 cents.”
The officials filed a claim for 1300 cubic feet per second of water from the Dolores River, which they planned to deliver through a tunnel to irrigate 200,000 acres and provide water for an expected Cortez population of 50,000. “The plan was particularly optimistic,” Carver said.
Work began in 1887 on a 5,400 foot long tunnel to bring water from the Dolores River into the Montezuma Valley basin, Carver said. Although railroad tunnels would be built in the coming decades, it was unusual at that time for tunnels to be built for water. “This was a very significant project in the United States,” Carver said. “It was considered one of the greatest irrigation enterprises.” The tunnel was not lined and after repeated cave-ins in 1863 and 1864, steel arches were installed to shore up the sandstone.
The first feasibility study on the [McPhee dam and reservoir] was completed in 1942 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, according to information on the agency’s Web site. However, Congress would not authorize the project until 1968 and would not allocate funding for the project until 1976. The project came under fire from President Jimmy Carter, who placed it on a “hit list” of 19 Western water projects up for funding cuts. Ultimately, Carter relented due largely to a 1908 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that required the government to provide water to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in exchange for large tracts of land previously relented by the tribe, Ground was broken on the project in September of 1977 and would endure numerous technical setbacks as well as threats of funding loss. Three people died in accidents related to construction of the project.
The McPhee Dam and Great Cut Dike were completed in 1984 at a cost of more than $99.5 million and the new Dolores Tunnel was completed in 1985 at a cost of more than $12 million. Tens of millions were spent on pump stations, canals and hydroelectric power plants. With the irrigation system, the Dolores Project now provides an annual average of 90,900 acre feet of water to Montezuma County, Dolores County and the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. It generates an annual average of more than 36.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity, the reclamation Web site states.