A look back at old-school irrigation efficiency — Greg Trainor #COWaterPlan

Flood irrigation -- photo via the CSU Water Center
Flood irrigation — photo via the CSU Water Center

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Greg Trainor):

In the early 1980s, I worked for the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) on the Colony Oil Shale Venture at Parachute, Colo. I was a staff member in ARCO’s Community Development Group that was working on the development plans for the Battlement Mesa New Town. The New Town was designed to house the thousands of oil shale workers that were expected to move to western Colorado for oil-shale jobs.

ARCO had been in the oil-shale business for some time and had purchased property on Battlement Mesa 30 years earlier in anticipation of oil-shale development. Upon purchase of these properties, ARCO leased the lands back to the original owners, allowing them to continue farming and using the water rights attached to the ranch lands. This continuation of use of the agricultural water rights ensured that the rights would not be abandoned, and the water would be available when the oil shale industry had need for it.

One of my responsibilities with ARCO was to manage these leased ranch lands, working with previous owners, tracking water use, and ensuring a communication link between the land owner (ARCO) and the ranch lessees.

One of ARCO’s lessees was a man named Dan Duplice, a sheep herder and farmer. Dan lived on Battlement Mesa and owned a band of sheep that traveled each summer from Battlement Mesa, across the Colorado River, and up the steep, hair-raising trails that connected the Colorado River valley floor with the thousand-foot-thick horizontal bands of the oil shale cliffs. At the top of these cliffs were the spruce-fir zones and open, grassed parks of the Roan Plateau.

Dan had farm lands on Battlement Mesa that were fed by a small ditch that crisscrossed the lower elevations of the mountains that rose above Dan’s farm. Known as “Pete” and “Bill,” these peaks held snow at high elevations as well as on their lower slopes. It was the “low water” that Dan, and now ARCO, had rights to. With an early and short run-off of this “low water,” Dan had to take early advantage of the flow when it appeared.

On my travels of Battlement Mesa, I would find Dan standing at the head of his alfalfa fields where the ditch emptied into his laterals. He would carefully bring the water to his creases, allowing only enough water down the crease to wet it down to the end of the field. Then he would move the water from one set of creases over to a new set and repeat the process. Dan would stand there with his shovel, husbanding the flow down the field, making sure that it got the water it needed and that no water left the bottom of his fields.

Having spent most of my adult life in western Colorado, I was more used to standard “flood irrigation,” where irrigators would open up their laterals and flood their fields with all the water the creases would carry. Then, leaving their sets to return later in the day, irrigators would allow their water to flow down across the field and out the end of the field as return flow, usually into the small drainages that would carry the return water to the Colorado River.

Today I participate in the Colorado Basin Roundtable, one of nine roundtables across Colorado working on development of the Colorado Water Plan, which the governor says is supposed to point the way forward to meeting the needs of growing cities and towns while also preserving agriculture, the environment and recreational opportunities. It’s a tall order.

Agricultural water efficiency improvements are often suggested as a tool to address shortages and to leave more water in streams for environmental and recreational purposes. As I participate in the discussions, I think of Dan Duplice and my observations of him 34 years ago.

Dan Duplice invested a significant amount of time to the special care of the flow and management of the available water. Despite the small amount of water carried by his ditch, the result was the production of an incredible amount of tall, thick alfalfa before this ditch water trickled out.

In times of drought and increased competition for water, the kind of careful management of water practiced by Dan Duplice may have to become more widespread. His experience showed that good yields can still be had when water is tight — but it’s not easy. He spent a lot of time in those fields with a shovel.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

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