The Grand River Diversion turns 100 years old #ColoradoRiver

The Grand River Diversion
The Grand River Diversion

From the Associated Press via The Greeley Tribune:

Many people pass by and marvel at its size. At 14 feet high and 546 feet long, the Grand River Diversion Dam is one of the biggest roller dams in the world, and it just turned 100 years old.

“You know you see it with those orange towers and maybe a lot of people don’t know the significance of the dam,” said Palisade Historical District’s Charlene Weidner.

“I feel like this is a great opportunity to educate people and let them know it’s an important dam.”

The six 70-foot rollers move up and down depending on the amount of water to be let through. The water is siphoned off into the Highline Canal, sending water to 33,000 acres of farms, fields, and wineries.

“We know we live in a high desert it would just be too hot to live here, because it also waters trees, so we really wouldn’t exist without it, said Weidner.

Water first turned into the canal in 1915, and a caretaker has watched after the dam day and night ever since, KKCO-TV reported.

“I love it,” said current caretaker Alfonzo Gallegos. “The sound of the waterfall, the water sloshing up against the wall here, it is a great place to be.”

Gary Hines has a special relationship with the roller dam – his grandfather was the dam’s caretaker for 33 years.

“You walk up on the catwalk above the rollers and it still gives you that massive same impression that I had 55 years ago,” said Hines. “It’s incredibly special. I was about ten years old when my grandfather unexpectedly passed away and we kind of lost our passport to this magical land.”

A unique German design, it is one of four roller dams in the country. It is too fragile and hard to access for public tours.

Click here to visit the US Bureau of Reclamation webpage for the Grand Valley Project. Here’s an excerpt:


Water for project use is diverted into the Government Highline Canal at the Grand Valley Project Diversion Dam, about 23 miles northeast of Grand Junction. Approximately 4.6 miles below the main diversion, water for the Orchard Mesa Diversion is diverted from the canal. This water passes through the Orchard Mesa Siphon under the Colorado River, through the Orchard Mesa Power Canal to the Grand Valley Powerplant, or to the Orchard Mesa Pumping Plant, where it is pumped into Orchard Mesa Canals No. 1 and 2 for distribution to the water users.

From the Orchard Mesa diversion, the Government Highline Canal continues westward, approximately paralleling the river, distributing water to laterals of the Garfield Gravity Division. Water also is furnished to 8,580 acres in the Mesa County and Palisade Irrigation Districts which were served by private facilities prior to project construction.

Facility Descriptions

Grand Valley Diversion Dam

The diversion dam is on the Colorado River about 8 miles northeast of Palisade. This concrete weir is 14 feet high and 546 feet long. Flow over its crest is controlled by six roller gates. These gates were the first of their type designed in the United States.

Government Highline Canal System

The canal is on the west and north side of the river and extends from the Grand Valley Project Diversion Dam south and west a distance of 55 miles. It has a diversion capacity of 1,675 cubic feet per second, which includes 800 cubic feet per second for the Orchard Mesa Power Canal. The remaining flows are distributed through the Government Highline Canal and Price-Stubb Pumping Plant. The distribution system for the Garfield Gravity Division consists of 166 miles of laterals. The drainage system consists of 2 miles of closed drains and 110.5 miles of deep open drains.

The Price-Stubb Pumping Plant is on the canal near Tunnel No. 3 Outlet at the east end of the Grand Valley. It lifts 25 cubic feet per second of water 31 feet to the Stubb Ditch to serve land of the Mesa County Irrigation District. Power is provided to the hydraulic pump by water delivered to the Price Ditch for the Palisade Irrigation District.

Orchard Mesa Canal System

The Orchard Mesa Siphon conveys water from the Government Highline Canal to the head of the 3.5-mile-long Orchard Mesa Power Canal on the east side of the river. The siphon is reinforced concrete with a capacity of 800 cubic feet per second. Orchard Mesa Pumping Plant lifts water from the Orchard Mesa Power Canal to the distribution system. The plant contains four pump units: two have a combined capacity of 80 cubic feet per second and a lift of 41 feet to Canal No. 1; two have a combined capacity of 60 cubic feet per second with a lift of 130 feet to Canal No. 2. Water is conveyed to privately owned and operated laterals by Orchard Mesa Canals No. 1 and 2. The canals have capacities of 85 and 65 cubic feet per second, respectively, and a combined length of 31.6 miles.

Grand Valley Powerplant

The plant is about 1 mile south of Palisade at the lower end of the Orchard Mesa Power Canal adjacent to the Orchard Mesa Pumping Plant. It operates under a maximum head of 79 feet and has a capacity of 3,000 kilowatts. The plant was constructed by the United States with funds advanced by Public Service Company of Colorado. The company operates and maintains the plant under a rental agreement with the United States and the Grand Valley Water Users Association. Power generation averages approximately 19,350,600 kilowatt-hours annually…



Soon after their arrival in the Grand Valley in 1881, settlers began work on ditches to irrigate lowlands adjacent to the north side of the Colorado River. By 1886, the Grand Valley Canal (not part of the Grand Valley Project) was completed and the canal system expanded to serve approximately 45,000 acres of land. From 1886 to 1902, several attempts were made by private interests to construct a canal to higher lands in the valley, but because of initial technical difficulties private investors were unwilling to back the project.


After passage of the Reclamation Act in 1902, an evaluation of the proposed Government Highline Canal, now a part of the Grand Valley Project, was requested by the local citizens. In 1905, the Grand Valley Water Users Association was organized to cooperate with the Reclamation Service in developing a project. After investigation, the Reclamation Service proposed a project consisting of a diversion dam and distribution canal to irrigate lands at higher valley levels than those being operated by private interests. A board of engineers approved feasibility of the project on December 15, 1908.


The Grand Valley Project was one of the projects examined and reported upon favorably by a board of Army Engineers in accordance with the act of June 25, 1910 (36 Stat. 835) and approved by the President on January 5, 1911. The project was constructed primarily for agricultural and power generation purposes.


The Reclamation Service was authorized by the Secretary of the Interior on September 23, 1912, to begin construction on one of the smaller tunnels. Irrigation was first provided June 29, 1915, at which time the entire project was less than 60 percent completed. Cooperative drainage work in the Grand Valley Drainage District was begun in March 1918.

The Price-Stubb Pumping Plant was completed and water supplied through Government-constructed facilities to Palisade and Mesa County Irrigation Districts in April 1919. A powerplant was constructed in 1932-33 using funds advanced by Public Service Company of Colorado. Tunnel No. 3 on the Government Highline Canal collapsed in March 1950 because of landslides. In a dramatic effort to open the canal before the start of the irrigation season, a contract to construct a section of new tunnel to bypass the slide area was negotiated and the contractor broke all records in finishing the tunnel in time for the irrigation season.



Since it first delivered water in 1917, the Grand Valley Project has furnished a full supply of irrigation water to approximately 33,368 acres and supplemental water to about 8,600 acres of fertile land. The project has made possible diversified and intensified farming in the area, regularly bringing to maturity such late-season crops as fruit, alfalfa, beans, seed, corn, oats, barley, potatoes, and wheat. Favorable climate, cheap winter forage, and proximity to good range combine to make the area desirable for profitable raising of livestock. Dairying and poultry raising are also important to the project area.

Hydroelectric Power

Grand Valley Powerplant, completed in 1933, has a capacity of 3.0 MW. The powerplant was constructed by Grand valley Water Users Association. The powerplant is operated by by the Colorado Public Service Company under a lease of power privilege contract.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Bob Silbernagel ):

“Newspapers produce the first rough draft of history.” — Philip Graham

People pushing for construction of a dam in De Beque Canyon and the accompanying Government Highline Canal had overcome a variety of obstacles — opposition in Denver, foot-dragging in Washington, D.C., disputes with Orchard Mesa irrigators and a slowdown created by private entrepreneurs who claimed they could build the project without government help.

So they weren’t going to let a world war halt their plans.

Engineers working on the Grand River Diversion Dam had settled on a unique design. The “roller crest” dam would employ huge steel rollers that could be raised and lowered to maintain a constant level in the river behind the dam, and thus avoid flooding the railroad tracks beside the river.

A German company held patents on the design. However, work on the Grand Valley Project began in 1913, and by August of 1914, Germany was embroiled in World War I. The German company’s factory was not available to build the rollers.

So a firm in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Ritter-Conley Manufacturing, built the steel rollers using the German design. They were delivered in the spring of 1915 and installed in the new dam, which became known as the “roller dam,” in time for the official dedication ceremony on June 29, 1915.

The Palisade Historical Society will host a celebration from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Saturday at the Veterans’ Memorial Community Center in Palisade to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the dam and canal.

The historical society has also produced a booklet, “The History of Irrigation in Palisade and East Orchard Mesa, Colorado,” as part of the centennial celebration.

Work on the project went relatively smoothly, but some clauses in the contract look unusual today.

“Among the conditions of the standardized contract was the requirement … that there be no Mongolian labor used on the project,” said Priscilla Walker, with the historical society. “That was apparently standard for federal contracts at the time. I’ve looked but can’t find any information on why that was required.” The contract also prohibited importation of foreigners for labor or the use of convict labor.

There were other irrigation projects in this valley that predated the Grand Valley Project. But the project, with its roller dam and lengthy Highline Canal, would take water farther west than any of the other projects, would be more dependable than most existing projects and would bring thousands of acres of new agricultural lands into production.

The project was authorized — with $31.5 million in funding — as part of the Reclamation Act of 1902, which created the U.S. Reclamation Service. But it was one of a multitude of projects in 16 states authorized by the act, so work on it didn’t begin immediately.

Newspaper accounts from the time show the ongoing struggles by local leaders to ensure the project stayed on track.

D.W. Aupperle, then secretary of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, was among the most important. He made several trips to Washington to meet with representatives of the Department of Interior and the Reclamation Service.

In a 1908 meeting of the chamber, Aupperle talked of the recently resolved conflict between backers of the Government Highline Canal project and interests on Orchard Mesa. “We take the stand that we will protect the government ditch if at the expense of the Orchard Mesa ditch, but this has not been necessary,” he said, according to the Grand Junction Daily News.

Eventually, key features of the Orchard Mesa system, including a pumping station outside of Palisade, would be incorporated into the Grand Valley Project. The Price and Stubb ditches would also obtain their water from the project.

Also in 1908, the chamber passed a resolution deploring newspaper articles in Denver that attacked the Reclamation Service in general and the Grand Valley Project in particular. “We are capable of attending to our own affairs and do not need the dictation of the papers of that city,” one chamber official said.

The project was finally given the federal go-ahead in 1912 and work began on July 1, 1913. Work on some the lateral canals that were part of the system continued into 1917.

Although the Reclamation Service — now the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — built and owns the Grand Valley Project, the Grand Valley Water Users Association operates and maintains it.

A century later, the massive rollers manufactured in Pittsburgh continue to operate on the same gear system with the same Westinghouse electric motors to raise and lower the rollers, officials with Grand Valley Water Users Association said last week. There have been minor repairs, but it’s essentially the same system.

Thanks to the Palisade Historical Society, Grand Valley Water Users Association and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for their assistance.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

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