The Arkansas Basin Roundtable finishes up their basin implementation plan #COWaterPlan

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Water plans don’t always pan out.

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable last week wrapped up a basin implementation plan that was two years in the making. The aims of the plan are to preserve agriculture in the Arkansas Valley while filling the needs of a growing population, primarily in El Paso County.

It’s part of a state water plan ordered up by Gov. John Hickenlooper as a way to accommodate a growing population without diminishing the state’s agricultural and environmental needs for water.

The roundtable hammered out differences between geographic areas and types of water use among its members, with the common theme of protecting what we have.

But a century ago, the vision was vastly different. It was a dream of turning the valley into an agricultural mecca on an industrial scale. The water plan of that era was spelled out in 1910, when Pueblo hosted the 18th National Irrigation Congress.

Pueblo was Colorado’s second largest city at the time and the industrial and rail hub for the region. Agriculture was seen as the wave of the future. The optimism at the Irrigation Congress appeared to be an irresistible force at the time and the seeds for grand plans were being planted at the time. A souvenir program from the 1910 convention in Pueblo was recently discovered in the estate of Bill Mattoon, a longtime Pueblo water attorney.

The expansion of irrigated agriculture was seen as a national duty, much the same as California Gov. Jerry Brown recognized its importance in context with the current drought.

“There is no movement more important with reference to the food supply of this nation than the progress of irrigation of the arid and semi-arid lands of our Western, now desert, plains,” President William H. Taft wrote in the program.

The U.S. Reclamation Service outlined plans for two dozen major water projects — dams, ditches and tunnels that would redirect rivers — in all Western states. Those included the Gunnison-Uncompahgre tunnel near Montrose, completed in 1909. The agency, forerunner of the Bureau of Reclamation, had just been formed in 1902.

Congress had just passed a $20 million program to begin building those projects.

Kansas and Colorado apparently were taking a break in 1910 from their century-plus battle over the Arkansas River. In the souvenir program, R.H. Faxon, editor of the Evening Telegram in Garden City, Kan., pushed the phrase “Valley of Content” for the Arkansas Valley shared by the two states. The Arkansas Valley Commercial Association, presided over by Faxon, included officers from Rocky Ford and Canon City as well.

Crowley County, which would be decimated by water raids in the 1970s and ’80s, was not even a county at the time — that would come in 1911. But the Desert Land Reservoir and Canal Co. was a scheme to open up 200,000 acres of land to the east for irrigation.

It would use stored flood waters from Lake Meredith, which was then part of Otero County, which was targeted as a 400,000 acre-foot reservoir — roughly 10 times its present-day capacity. The ambitious plan would also tie in Horse Creek and Adobe Reservoirs, which are part of Fort Lyon storage.

“There is no other situation on the river where it is possible to build a ditch large enough to divert the entire volume of your average flood,” the famed engineer James D. Schuyler of Los Angeles proclaimed.

Kansas, once it got over the Valley of Content, would have more to say about that in the future. Supreme Court battles with Kansas that would culminate with a 2009 final judgment have limited Colorado’s ability to divert the waters of the Arkansas River.

The program of the 1910 National Irrigation Congress reported 262,000 acres under irrigation in the state, and dreamed of placing 2.5 million acres under irrigation after more than 100 new irrigation projects were completed.

That part came true. The 2012 Census of Agriculture listed 2.5 million acres under irrigation in the state, which by the way is a decline of about 300,000 acres from 2007.

Pueblo was seen as a distribution center for the fruits of the land, which included large-scale orchards along the lines of those that already had seen success in places like Montrose and Grand Junction. Pueblo County’s own crops included cantaloupes, celery, alfalfa and corn.

But the crop that would become so important to the valley was sugar beets, already a valuable commodity for the Arkansas Valley. There were 16 sugar beet mills in the state at the time, with seven in the Arkansas Valley.

An unsigned article, “When We Shall Produce Our Own Sugar,” explained how the United States raised only one-fourth of the 3.6 million tons of sugar it consumed each year. Colorado and California were the leading producers.

We can’t get enough of the stuff. In recent years, Americans consumed about 10 million tons of sugar annually, with about three-fifths of that produced domestically.

Sugar beets are still grown and processed near Greeley. But things did not turn out so sweet for the Arkansas Valley, which lost all of its sugar beet mills — and the acreage and water that came with them — by the 1980s.

Above all, the 1910 Irrigation Congress promoted the idea of the small family farm.

“Are you looking for an ideal home in a land of sunshine?” one tempting advertisement for land near Delta asked.

“Farmers beginning to see the light,” blared an ad for the Pueblo-Rocky Ford Land Co.

“We have some splendid propositions for colonization,” an ad for San Luis Valley farms offered.

Article after article in the 148-page publication touted methodical paths the enterprising farmers of the day could use to develop their land.

Colorado in 1910 was wide open for agricultural development, and that seemed to be the water plan of the era: to develop and use as much as possible to grow crops.

A century on, that vision is fading, but still defended as a value by the water planners of the present. One of the planks added by the roundtable to its basin implementation plan last week included a preference for using the water in the Arkansas River basin at home and not allowing it to leak away to other basins.

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