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Gunnison Tunnel Series: Putting The Water to The Land, pt. 4

To view additional resources and information, click HERE.

Putting The Water to The Land
The surprisingly complicated operation of Colorado’s largest irrigation project.

  • For the last three episodes we’ve explored the incredible feats of innovation, perseverance, and death it took to build the Gunnison Tunnel. A part of the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Uncompahgre Project that flows water from the Gunnison River at the bottom of the Black Canyon to the upper South end of the Uncompahgre Valley where the water is used to transform on of our countries most arid landscapes into a verdant agricultural oasis where ever one of the Valley’s 50,000 citizens benefits from the project. Indeed every drop of municipal potable water throughout the winter months is provided by this tunnel. If you haven’t listened to those episodes I encourage you to do so, but that said this episode on how the water is distributed to the Uncompahgre Valley and how the project is operated today - should stand on its own.
  • As usual references and back-up materials can be found in the show notes. 

    • Hi, my name is Brody Wilson, and I live in the Uncompahgre Valley. I’m a mechanical engineer here in Colorado, and work in corporate sustainability, but having grown up right next to the primary canal that carries Gunnison Tunnel Water, my life was shaped and infused, by the water that flows through this tunnel. This is the second of four episodes in which I’m telling you the story of the Gunnison Tunnel, and associated canals, collectively known as “The Uncompahgre Project”. In the last episode we covered the tunnel’s actual construction, and the engineering that went into that.  In this final episodes we cover the distribution system, and the system’s operation today.   
    • I’m telling this story because most of us take our water for granted, and for those of us that live in the arid Western US, there’s a story like this behind every city, town,  and agricultural valley in the west. And while water is sure to remain a crucial issue for decades to come in the Colorado River Basin, I think we’ll all make better decisions if we understand just how much has gone into enabling our water use, our way of life,  today. Let’s continue our story?
  • We left off with the tunnel’s completion at the end of 1909, but that was actually far from the end of the project construction. The Bureau of Rec had spent $2.9M on the tunnel and diversion dam at the east portal.

    • One interesting tidbit, the tunnel was done before the diversion dam, and once the tunnel construction was complete it enabled the team to move materials for the east portal diversion dam THROUGH the tunnel rather than the much longer arduous journey OVER Vernal Mesa and down the perilous east portal road.
  • Let me spend a moment describing the East portal diversion dam. This is NOT a tall concrete arch dam, like you might picture when I say dam. Rather a humble structure that simply raises the river level a bit so it can be diverted into the mouth of the tunnel. 
  • McConnell and team constructed a huge, basically flat foundation of large timbers across the river bed, then arranged a series of supports (picture “A” Frame joists) to hold up flat boards (like plywood, no kidding they still use plywood covered in tarpaulin today) that is supported by a basic metal frame from the downstream side

  • The Dam only raises the level of the river about 6-10 feet, but enough to fill the head-gates for the tunnel. 
  • While the water from the tunnel was put to immediate use, the construction of the distribution system continued for another… 16 YEARS!
  • The West portal of the tunnel is just south of the turn-off you take off of highway 50 to go up to the south rim of the Black Canyon National Park. Most people have no idea it is there. In fact if you continue east on Hwy 50 you drive right over the tunnel. 
  • From the west portal the project’s second biggest piece of infrastructure begins. The South Canal is approximately 30’ wide and 12’ deep and runs 11 miles south, and falls about 300’ to a point where it dumps into the Uncompahgre River.
  • From there, a portion of the Tunnel Water does a U turn, and heads North, downstream in the Uncompahgre, and another, smaller portion, flows OVER the Uncompahgre in an aqueduct (that looks like a railroad trestle) and begins the West Canal. This Canal  runs some 22 miles along the western edge of the Valley.
  • Now these canals are far from simple structures.   hills in tunnels, and across small valleys in aqueducts (like a bridge for water), and via a siphons. Now you can probably picture an aqueduct and a tunnel, but a siphone is an entirely different animal. Picture a tube full of water, bent in a “U” shape. Now lower one end of the tube, that’s the outlet side. Pour water in the higher side, and an equal amount of water flows out of the outlet, well that’s how these siphons work, but on the South Canal they’re HUGE, like big enough to drive a small call or certainly a 4-wheeler through. When you stand next to the inlet side of these things it’s a little… spooky. It kinda throws your eyes for a loop, we’re not used to seeing such huge volumes of water just kinda disappear into thin air, then reemerge on the other side of the arroyo only slightly lower. It’s wild.
  • While there is much less written about the construction of these tunnels, aqueducts and siphons, most of them were constructed at the same time as the tunnel was and certainly had some similar challenges and required similar perseverance.
  • But it’s not just canals, laterals, and ditches, the system has some 7 diversion dams (depending on how you count) on the Uncompahgre river where that Tunnel Water dumped in at the top of the system, gets pulled out (or diverted) into a new canal. Again, this is really best appreciated by looking at a map. Check out the show notes.
  • When the federal government took charge of the Uncompahgre project they required the local citizens to form an organization to coordinate matters for the future water users of the system. Accordingly, those that had been pushing for a tunnel got together and formed a representative organization. They had their first meeting in Olathe in 1902. They called the organization the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, and the organization still exists today. We local just call it “ The Water Users”. 
  • I wanted to learn as much as I could about the operation of the current system and so I asked for some time with the General Manager, and he was gracious enough to spend some time with me. 

Steve Pope Interview

  • “Hi my name is Steve Pope and I’m the General Manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water users”. 
  • “Well, I've been with water users, two years, I started in December of 2021 prior to that. I worked for the state Engineers, the state of Colorado administering water rights and augmentation plans in the Colorado River Basin.”
  • Steve is THE GUY at The Water Users, and is responsible of for the overall operation, planning, and financial management of the system that delivers a critical resources to thousands of farmers in the valley and to the water treatment plant that provides drinking water to all 50,000 plus people in the valley. The water he administers is the life-blood of this community. Without it – the these towns would not be here. His pedigree with the Colordao State Water Engineer’s office is prestigious. The Colorado State Water engineer is a critical office not just to Colorado, but all of the states to which the water that flows OUT of Colorado is connected. I asked him how he found his way to this job. 
  • [1:58] “Well, you know it was a great opportunity. I was nearing the end of my career. With the state Engineers office, my family was leaving and it was a, this position came up and you know, it's something that I've always been very excited about I guess. One of the things in, as I worked for the state I was really focused on very complex engineering involving small amounts of water. We would sit here at these tables and argue over a quarter of an acre-foot during the shoulder seasons. The opportunity to physically move large volues of water and put it on fields was very appealing to me. Dealing with what we call wet water.   A lot of times we deal with water and it’s on paper.”
  • Just listen to him describe the organization. 
  • [3:20] SO we operate, our system is the Uncompahgre valley which extends south of Montrose from Vernal just north of Colona, down to Delta. WE service 84000 acres of farm ground, we have a staff of 40-45 empl oyees. Predominantly a group of “Ditch riders” that go out daily to administer the headgates within the system. Maintenance crews and equipment operators, small office staff of 4 that handle all of the billing and accounting that goes along with operating this system. Specifically, the RRA form. 
  • So because we are a federal facility –  we are operating a Federal facility under contract - we have to follow under  the Reclamation Reform Act of 1989. There are stipulations on how much land any one individual in the project can hold, and so we track every real estate transaction, and track the water, because the water is tied to the land. So if a property divides and splits, well, we make sure that 10 shares go to the 10 acres of irrigated ground and the remainder stay with the other parcels.
  • Okay – for the layperson there was a LOT of information in what Steve just said, but first I want to focus on this part

    • “The water is tied to the land”

Fair Distribution – “The Water is tied to the Land”

  • I went to the National Archives in Broomfield and saw the original contract between the Unocmpahgre Valley Water Users, and the Federal government, from 1903,  and that original contract makes this point absolutely clear. For every acre there is a share. There are mechanisms that allow for areas that will never be irrigated to give their share back to the company, but those are rare. And that means that when a 40 acre field gets carved up into 10  4-acre parcels in a subdivision… well… Steve and his staff have to account for that in their records, and bring all those new land-owners into the company and give them their shares, inform them of their rights and responsibilities, and make sure they pay for their fair share to the company. Steve showed me original 120 year old maps of the valley that they still use for this, an on which the ownership records are still stored. It was pretty cool. 
  • But this whole – “the water is tied to the land” thing brings up another question… whose water is it really? I asked Steve. 

    • (40:50) “We do not own our water rights. Technically, none of the water users within our system that owns shares own a water, right. You own shares in a company. The company manages a system that's owned by the federal government. So all of our facilities and all the water rights are still maintained in the name of the federal government, so they can't be bought and sold.
  • Interesting, eh?  – in other areas, if you have a water right that, maybe you’re not using, or not using all of. You can sell that water right to someone else, in fact this is happening all along the front range of Colorado as municipalities scramble to secure water rights to ensure their booming cities have enough water to support the anticipated growth. In the Uncompahgre Valley. not so. Every acre gets a share, whether you like it or not. 
  • But does that mean everyone in the valley puts the same amount of water to their land, uses the same amount of water per acre? No. You heard Steve mention the ditch riders that administer the head-gates in the system. Well… every land owner contacts their ditch rider and orders their water. And it’s that ditch rider’s responsibility to adjust the head-gates to give the land-owner the appropriate flow-rate of water depending on their type of soil.
  • Wait what… type of SOIL? Yea. Get this. 

    • [32:25] Each of our Shares, they are assigned to a volume of water. So we have two different classes of shares. We have what are called Mesa shares, Mesa soils and then Adobe soils. And as an example, a Mesa soil would get .02 cubic feet per second per share, which equates to about 11 gallons a minute. Adobe soil gets .0167, slightly less. So if you had 10 shares of Mesa soil, you would get 20 hundredths of a cubic foot per second or roughly 90 gallons a minute. 
  • I checked Steve’s math on this… and he was (from the seat of his pants there…) spot on.
  • Steve talked a bit more about the size and complexity of the distribution system, a system that irrigates 84,000 acres.

    • [8:55] We're responsible for maintaining the delivery system and and drains for that. So we have roughly 720 miles of canals, laterals and drains. Our our largest longest canal would be the M&D Canal, which is our probably one of the more famous older ones, the Montrose and Delta. And I believe it's shy of 34 miles long. You know it starts out there on Trout Rd. That's the head gate. Trout Rd. on the Young Uncompahgre and it it and the tail end. the IT is out off of Carnation and very far West northwest tern portion of the the valley. And like and it's got siphons and aqueducts. Numerous siphons, flumes, there are no pumps. We that's the one interesting thing about this system. If you look at the geography, when you get out on the California, Mesa, Ash Mesa and all of these different land features, we don't pump one drop of water. Everything is gravity fed.
  • 720 miles! Wholey smkes. And in case just sheer size wasn’t enough to grapple with, listen to this…. 

    • [6:03] The one thing about it is this valley is still really heavily comprised of small family operations. It's not like we have big corporate farms out there. These are these are multi generational and small farmers truck farms and and so that's where we kind of maintain that local community of farmers which is very unique to an operation of you know the size. You go to Southern California and look at those properties in the in the Imperial Valley, I was down on a tour of the lower basin touring the Palo Verde Irrigation district. They irrigate about 100,000 acres. So they're bigger than us, by a little bi,t and I asked how many water users they had and they said thirty. We have 3500. So it kind of gives you a little proportional scale. I mean, and they were all corporate farms, you know, one.
    • That's kind of crazy these guys are all irrigating. 10 to 12,000 acres of ground.
  • That fact kind of astounded me. Just doing the math there real quick the Palo Verde system averages 3,300 acres per user, the Uncompahgre 24. This system has WAY more users, and our farms are, on average much smaller. I’m sure that cuts both ways. In Palo Verde, you can put all the users in a room and hear from each of them. In the Uncompahgre Valley. There is a LOT more user administration. 
  • Okay – so now you should have an idea of how this works. Water flows down the Uncompahgre River, OR through the Gunnison Tunnel into the valley. It’s distributed via hundreds of miles of canals and laterals, and every share holder is entitled to their portion of water and the ditch riders make sure that happens. BUT ---  We’re actually just getting started. 
  • What happens when there’s not enough water? Who get’s their head-gate shut-off first? Well, it turns out that every shareholder has an equal priority and if there’s not enough water in a given year, everyone’s volume is reduced proportionally. I discussed this with Steve.

    • [52:56] So one of the interesting things is you know when when we start our irrigation season, we look at snowpack, we meet with the Bureau, we they run models on projected runoff flows and we look at our, you know, we get with our board and we talk about all kinds of things. And we said, well you know this year we're not going to have enough water to give everybody their 100% of their allocation.
    • So we have to, I make, we make the decision we're going to go to a 70% or 80% or some port proportion.
    • To go when we start it, we say yes, well there's two parts we we we say yes, we're probably going to go on percentage this year based on snowpack.
    • So they everybody knows that they can plan, they can buy crop insurance, they can make all of these financial decisions on regarding their AG business.
    • And then if you know and then some years you know we've had oh a couple years where we looked like we're doing great and then the bottom fell out, there was no monsoons, it got hot.
    • So then we had to, we might start out with 100% allocation, but then have to go to percentages later in the year.
  • Imagine you’re a farmer with a lot of land, and you’re deciding how much and what types of seed to put in the ground. Say the snow-pack looked good, and you decide to plant a lot of onions and field corn (that’s corn for animal feed that uses a lot of late-season water.) Then Right about the time you need the water to finish off your onions and corn, the Water Users says, “Sorry guys, the predictions were off, we’re going to reduce your water down to 70%.”  These decisions – These operations have real implications for people whose lives and livelihoods depend on this water. 

    • [54:34] You know, and and when it passed, I mean it's, you know, we, you know, and it's funny, 'cause you can never out guess Mother Nature, you know, one year I believe we purchased some water out of Ridgeway,  additional water and so as we purchased it started raining, it didn't stop.
    • It goes both ways. So, you know, yeah, it's a, it's a challenge. You really have to look at a lot of different factors. And you're looking at the weather projections, you're looking at the runoff. You know, the big issue with this drought or drier climate that we've been in is the soil moisture is not there. So as an example, I believe it was 2019 or 2020. We had a decent snowpack, but we didn't have any runoff because the previous years have been so dry that. It just, it just never made it to the rivers. 
  • SO Steve has to have a really good forecast of the volume of water the system will have for the season. That’s a whole field of science in and of itself. But even when there’s enough water, just getting it to each user proportionally is also a bit of an art. Listen to this… 

    • (49:10) And another interesting thing that it's most this is the most complicated part of our system is we are so heavily reliant on return flows. […]  So the return flows are, you know, the water that runs off of the field. You know a lot of places in the lower basin states, even in the Grand Valley, they divert water out of the Colorado River, they put it on a field, it runs back into a drain and it runs right back into the river, and then they don't use it again.
    • We use water seven times roughly, before it leaves our control. So we'll divert water out of the tunnel and we'll put it in one of the canals. They'll somebody will put it on a field, it'll get into a drain back into the river. We'll divert it out of the next canal all the way through the system. And as we get down the further northwest corner of our project, you know outside the West of Olathe and north of Olathe, they're heavily, heavily reliant on these return flows.
    • And you know everybody talks about well we should be very efficient in in our system and put in sprinklers and drip.  Well, we need them to be inefficient to make the water up for their neighbor that's part of the system there. So it's very complicated when we get to when it comes to water management much more so than a lot of other projects in our state.

Water Efficiency

  • I don’t think that anyone would argue that efficiency is bad. But this isn’t like energy efficiency where what you save is… saved.  and certainly when the Uncompahgre valley as a whole uses less water, there’s more available downstream.  But the nature of The Uncompahgre Valley Water User’s system is, there are areas, where if one user gets super efficient or decides to fallow their field for a year, the down-stream neighbor might not get the water they are entitled to. When you look at the system map, you can see ways around such situations for most land owners, but not all, especially those at the farthest Northwest Corner of the system (way up West of Delta) .
  • Okay – we need to talk about water efficiency just a bit. It is such a hot topic today. With the Colorado River Compact up for re-negotiation by 2026, a lot of people are thinking about how we can use less water. And look, there’s a Ph.D. thesis waiting to be written about this. (actually several have probably already been written). But it is NOT a simple topic. My professional background for the last 20 years has been in energy efficiency and I can comfortable say, water efficiency is more complicated, and much less understood, especially by the public.  
  • First, some fundamentals, and I’m pulling these from David Owen’s great book on the Colorado River called “Where The Water Goes”. 

    • According to Brad Udall, Senior Water and Climate Research Scientist at Colorado State University, there are, broadly, two categories of water use: consumptive, and non-consumptive. When a Grand Valley farmer flood irrigates a vinyard with Colorado River water, some of the water goes into the grapevines. That water, along with any water that evaporates from the field, can’t be used again.  It’s in the atmosphere or the grapes it’s essentially gone. For that reason, it is referred to as “consumed”, But not all of the farmers irrigation water goes into the grapes or evaporates. Some of it runs off the end of the field and is channeled back in to ditch system, from which it can be diverted again (indeed we do this up to 7 times in the Uncompahgre Valley with Gunnison Tunnel water)  and that excess is referred to as “non-consumed.” What Steve Pope calls “return flows” in our conversation. And ultimately some of that water ends up back in the river, available for additional down-stream uses.
    • Most of the Uncompahgre Valley is flood irrigated, and much of that water soaks into the ground and can also be considered non-consumed, because it helps maintain the local water table and replenishes ground water aquifers that feed local wells and surface streams. Here’s where it really starts to bend my mind.
    • Remember when Steve said,

      • the big issue with this drought or drier climate that we've been in is the soil moisture is not there. So as an example, I believe it was 2019 or 20/20/2019. We had a decent snowpack, but we didn't have any runoff because the previous years have been so dry that. It just, it just never made it to the rivers.
    • Imagine if magically, all the farmers in the Uncompahgre Valley were able to switch to drip irrigation, and the valleys total water consumption was cut in half.  If you live in a lower basin state you might applaud. But, what would happen to the flow in the Uncompahgre River through the winter, or in the next spring’s run-off ? Well, picture all of that dry ground, how much less water would be in the aquifer, flowing ,eventually back to the river. There would be a lot less ground water flowing to the bottom of the valley and into the river all year long. And then, when run-off came the next Spring, how much less snow melt would make it to the out of the valley because the entire place had dramatically lower soil moisture content?
    • By flood irrigating this huge valley we introduce a kind of a reservoir or buffer into the Colorado river system, that makes our rivers higher in the fall and winter than they would be otherwise. Sure, a lot of water is “consumed”, but also a lot is non-consumptive and ends up right back in the Uncompahgre River, or Gunnison River, for downstream users. So if the valley’s farmers were suddenly much more efficient, it’s possible that the valley’s true consumption might not decrease that much ( yea there’d be less evaporation, but the non-consumptive, return flows, the below ground aquifers flow, would all be much less, and it’s not exactly clear that just letting that non-consumed water flow down the Gunnison River, instead of diverting it into the Tunnel, would be significantly better for downstream users. Look I’m not a hydrologist, and I’m way over my skis here, but my point is… it's complicated 
    • And get this, in general, domestic uses IN the house, toilets, sinks and showers, are mostly NON-consumptive. Nearly all of that water gets treated at the local sewage treatment plant, and put back in the river, or flows from your septic system into the water table and eventually back to the river. But watering your lawn in colorado, that’s almost 100% consumptive. Almost all of that water goes to growing grass or evaporation.  But that’s all for users in the Upper Basin, Places where we’re sending water downstream – we’re exporting water.
    • Efficiency is a different story at the end of the system where there is no one to send your non-consumed water to. Say you live in LA, yea, you have the same complication around irrigation efficiency and ground water, or water table recharging. Just google California Groundwater recharge programs, if you ever get interested. They are getting much more sophisticated about using their aquifers as reservoirs to store water on a multi-year basis between wet years and dry years. BUT – when your sewage is treated and flows into the ocean as treated domestic water, as many in California do, 100% of your sinks, showers, and toilets cannot be re-used. That is all “consumptive” use, and the less you use, the more is available for other people in the system.
  • Look this should really just be a whole ‘nother podcast where I get experts to speak to this, – let me know if you’d like to hear that – but suffice to say the benefits of “saved” water depends entirely on where it is saved, and the benefit to the entire system is… complicated. And certainly a toilet flush saved in Colorado, does not equal a toilet flush available in Los Angles. This ambiguity, this complication, makes policy making difficult, makes public education difficult. It’s going to take the West’s brightest minds to maximize the human benefit to the 50 Million inhabitants of the Colorado River Basin, as the water we all depend on becomes less reliable.

UVWUA Mater Management

  • So now you have the fundamentals of how Gunnison Tunnel water is distributed across the Uncompahgre Valley and some of the complications of that distribution. Let’s shift to the management of the volume of water the valley needs. Guess what? It turns out that the 1,100 cubic feet per second flowing through the tunnel in the summer is not enough to meet the needs of the valley. And the Uncompahgre Valley’s water supply is connected to a larger system with multiple, often competing, interests.  Let’s dive in. 
  • Engineers suspected that even with the tunnel in place there may still be seasonal shortages (especially in the late summer), when flows through the tunnel may not be enough, and ideas for a reservoir were considered as early as 1903, well before the tunnel’s completion. And after water shortages in 1931 and 1934, the Water Users Association asked the Federal government to build Taylor Reservoir. The Reclamation Service looked at reservoir sites all over western Colorado to store water to benefit the Uncompahgre Valley. They performed detailed surveys to calculate the volume of water able to be stored for least 8 sites. in the upper Gunnison watershed around Crested Butte, The upper Uncompahgre Water shed around Ouray and Telluride, and even areas around Lake City, and far east of Gunnison up Ohio Creek. They considered an additional 18 location, but didn’t perform detailed surveys of those. 
  • Bids were awarded for the Construction of the Taylor Park reservoir dam in February of 1935, and the dam was completed by 1937 for a total cost of less than a million dollars. 
  • The reservoir’s capacity is 106,230 acre-feet, at an elevation of 9,330 above sea level  River. Water from the reservoir flows approximately 100 miles down the Taylor and Gunnison Rivers to the Gunnison Tunnel. That water flows through THREE reservoirs and three dams before reaching the Gunnison Tunnel. 
  • Those three dams are:

    • The Blue Mesa Dam, which holds back Colorado’s Largest Reservoir, Blue Mesa, has two turbines with a total of 86 megawatts. 
    • Morrow Point Dam, the next dam downstream, (just above where the Cimarron River joins the Gunnison), has two turbines with a total capacity of 165 megawatts, and 
    • Crystal Dam, just upstream of the Tunnel’s East portal, has one turbine with a total capacity of 32 megawatts.
  • These three reservoirs and dams are collectively known as the Apsinall Unit and were built between 1962, and 1976 with Blue Mesa and Morrow Points Dams built pretty much in parallel in the early 60’s and Crystal Point Dam built in the 70s. (My dad actually set concrete forms on the Crystal dam just before my sister and I were born. Wayne Aspinall was a Democratic US House  Representative for Colorado, from Pallisade. He was in the US House of Representatives for 24 years, and had a major focus on western water issues.
  • Taylor reservoir functions as a bit of a back-up for Steve and the farmers of the valley, a  reserve, if you will. When late season flows in the Gunnison and Uncompahgre are insufficient Steve and the Water Users can elect to release water from the Taylor Park reservoir for use in the Uncompahgre valley. 
  • This came up in conversation with Steve when I asked how they decide when to open and close the tunnel each season.

    • [1:16:26]So we we meet with the Bureau of Reclamation or we meet with our water users first of all and then kind of get an idea of, you know, how many of them as they change crop types. So we we meet with the Bureau of Reclamation or we meet with our water users first of all and then kind of get an idea of, you know, how many of them as they change crop types. And you know, it takes a while to just charge these canals up to get water in them. to get everything burned and cleaned and charged up, I would say weeks to get our whole system up and running. But we do it, you know, as that demand comes in. So we'll usually start burning and cleaning you know in February. They're dependent upon the board and they're the they pool, you know they're out there in the community talking to all the other big producers and we're talking to the big producers and seeing what the demand would be, you know. But generally we start the tunnel up that first part of mid, mid of March to get things going and then you know by 1st of April they want, no, they want some water. This in typically we run on a water year which is you know it would be April, generally speaking it's about mid-april, you know because they don’t  all turn on at the same time. But we need to have that system charged up and then by the time that everybody gets fully you know planted, meaning they'll they'll put the onions in first, and then then they go into the sweet corn and feed corn. By mid-May, latter part of May pretty much everything's in the ground. We're irrigating and then they'll start pulling sweet corn out and and then onions and later field corn and other things. So we run mid-april through the end of October.
    • This year, [this was 2023] my guys took a kind of a beating on the sweet corn with the bugs that they'd had. And so a lot of them asked to put some winter weet in and things like that. We wanted to stretch it a little bit. And then fortunately Blue Mesa has to operate, you know, they operate the reservoir, but then they have icing issues. So they have a flow, a target level that they need to be at by December. They need to be below a certain. So they have an elevation, a target elevation. So we were, I was we were talking with the Bureau, they said that we're going to run water in December to get down to our target elevation. And so I met with the Division of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation and we agreed that, hey, can we release a little bit of that water early. Which allowed us to get about two more weeks of irrigation. 
    • Otherwise it would have come out of our Taylor Park pool. So we also control the Taylor Park Reservoir. So we have 106,000 acre feet. And the way that works is If our diversions out of the tunnel exceed the inflows in Aspinall, then I have to make a release out of Taylor Park. 
    • And we have a fixed pool there which we don't want to use in November, We need it in the early part of the spring.
    • So by them making that release earlier than we were allowed to use that and it would have been didn't impact any of our Taylor Park water and it gave our farmers the opportunity to put winter wheat in and put quite a bit of it in this year and give them a head start for getting things wet. So we we coordinate with divisional water resources. We work very closely with tri-county on the Ridgeway operations and in the Bureau it's a weekly, biweekly calls.
  • So if the  Tunnel is taking more water out of the Gunnison River than is flowing into the River upstream, then Steve has to make it up, with water out of Taylor Park. AND, really Steve wants to have that water available in the spring for early season irrigation, so farmers can get crops started when the valleys are warming up, but before spring run-off has started in earnest. See how a reservoir can extend the growing season, allowing for and earlier start, and if required, a later harvest. It’s actually pretty awesome.

Ridgway Operations and the “No Call” Agreement

  • Remember when Steve said, 

    • We work very closely with tri-county on the Ridgway operations, and with the Bureau, it’s a weekly, biweekly calls” 
  • He’s referring to Ridgway reservoir, the other major reservoir connected to the Uncompahgre valley. The Ridgway reservoir was built in 1987, and has two turbines with a maximum capacity of 8 megawatts.
  • The reservoir is critical to the operations of the Uncompahgre Valley Water users Association, but also to other water users throughout the valley. Including folks up-stream of the reservoir. You might think, “Wait how can a water user upstream benefit from the reservoir. Get a load of this, and listen closely. 

    • [44:14] If you think about just the sheer numbers. If we were to operate the tunnel alone, not relying on in the Uncompahgre, we can only satisfy about 50% of our shareholders. The Uncompahgre doesn't participate a great deal. we have a senior water rights on the Uncompahgre River. So we have the ability to call out at the M&D that is our Our Calling point. And what happened is this as these projects bought into the Gunnison Tunnel project, you know in the early 1900s, they transferred their water rights to the water users and they all made them alternate point to the at the M&D Canal. So we can conceivably legally place a call on the if we're short of water and if we were to place the call at the M&D, we would call out 80% of Ouray County what is happened in.

      • Sorry, just to understand. So those water rights are older than the tunnel and that's from the people who put that water to work before the tunnel?
    • Before the tunnel, there's all 1890, 1897, so that we have a portfolio of water rights. So we could place a call at the M&D which would basically tell 80% of Ouray County to stop what you're doing and send us all your water. What has happened in in 2021, we entered into an agreement with Ouray County. They had hired an engineering firm and they calculated what their yield was and what their consumption was and we entered into what is called a no call agreement. So they have acquired some water in Ridgeway Reservoir. They contracted with the Bureau of Reclamation.
    • There's a case and I don't know if it's in the paper occasionally it's called Rams Horn Reservoir. So up outside of Ouray, there's a reservoir called Rams Horn, a proposed reservoir. It's been decreed, oh, I think quite a long time ago, maybe in the 60s. It's never been built but they were trying to get a change and to get some water right to construct it. It's run into some opposition. One of the components of that was they were going to put a diversion out of a Cow Creek which runs into the Uncompahgre River just below Ridgeway Reservoir. And they were going to divert some of that water into Ridgeway Reservoir. And then if they would make it available to us to basically allow uses above Ridgeway to continue when we were short. And so they haven't quite figured out the Cow Creek pipeline yet, but Ouray County went to the Bureau of Reclamation who has a portion of water pool of water in that reservoir and they leased it. They leased 3000 acre feet. so we entered into this agreement that basically states if you give us 3000 acre feet of water then we won't place, we won't have the need to place a call and so they purchased it and it's in our account.
  • Ok, this gets a little complicated, but stick with me because the concept at play here is a beautiful example of how water law (which can often have a brutal reality) can be made to flex for society’s needs. Ouray and Ridgway (both in Ouray County) are upstream of Ridgway Reservoir and far upstream from where Gunnison Tunnel water enters the Uncompahgre River, BUT because farmers down valley near Montrose put water from the Uncompahgre river to use before most folks in Ouray. Those rights that call at the Montrose and Delta Canal are senior, and that means, that if Farmers in Montrose, Olathe, and Delta aren’t getting 100% of their allotted water from the Uncompahgre River, Steve can “call out” as he says, the junior upstream, users in Ouray County. This includes… many farmers, and Ridgway’s water treatment plant.
  • Now imagine, you’re a new dad, mom’s at work, and you go to mix up some formula for your infant daughter, and when you turn the tap on to fill the bottle, instead of a stream of clean water like you’re used to, your tap… just gurgles, and sucks air. Then you find out, that the reason  you can’t feed your baby, is not a pipe break, or something like that… no. It turns out the Ridgway water treatment plant had to shut down because sweet corn and onion farmers down-valley were not receiving the water they are legally entitled to. You’d be pissed? Right? How could someone be prioritizing corn and onion crops over your daughter’s baby formula?! 
  • Well, that’s the way water rights work. The law of prior appropriation says that whoever put water to use first is entitled that portion of water, and those that came after, have to turn off first when there is not enough water. Water rights are established first with a shovel, and THEN with a pen. Again – this is a whole nother episode, but this IS the way it works, and The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users has some of the most senior water rights on The Uncompahgre River and Gunnison River . So. Ouray county took the pro-active step to act on behalf of all water users in their county and exploring all kinds of ways to secure water in Ridgway Reservoir, so they won’t get called out by senior down-stream users. Overall it’s called Augmentation.
  • So… Ouray County puts 3000 AF into Ridgway Reservoir (right now they just lease it from the Bureau of Reclamation, but in the future they hope to build a reservoir high in the San Juans, and put it into the Ridgway Reservoir via a pipeline. Steve Pope and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users are “un injured” they get all the water they are entitled to, and the Ouray County Water Users get to keep putting their local water to work. 
  • Now this 3000 AF isn’t just ANY water… this is stored water in a reservoir, dispatchable water, that Steve can hold and draw on any time his users need it.  And basically anytime the upstream users are forecasted to deliver 3000 AF of water into Ridgway – Steve and his users, agree not to “call out” those junior upstream users in Ouray County. 
  • But,  what happens when it’s RERALLy dry and folks in Ouray County can’t even come up with anywhere close to 3000 AF to deliver to Ridgway Reservoir? What then? Well, this “no call” agreement covers that situation by saying… If forecasts show that Ouray County won’t be able to deliver “at least” 1000 AF of water that year, well then, Steve can call ‘em out, and say,

    • stop what you're doing and send us all your water. 
  • But that doesn’t make Steve and the Uncompahgre Valley Water users, the bad guys in this story, to the contrary, I think this agreement is an excellent example of how different, competing interests can reach resolution to get everyone’s needs met. 
  • Efforts by Ouray county and other interested parties continue, to further bolster water security for Ouray County, just as counties and municipalites across the West are doing every day. 

Tri-County History

  • Ok remember, Steve said

    • We work very closely with tri-county on the Ridgway operations, and with the Bureau, it’s a weekly, biweekly calls”
  • And we covered Ridgway reservoir , but who is tri-county? How are they a part of this story? 
  • Tri-County Water Operates Ridgway dam. Tri-Couty is the biggest water utility in the valley, but interestingly… they have no way to get water out of Ridgway Reservoir and into their treatment facility east of Montrose. No kidding. The Treatment plant, that actually serves a group of 7 water utilities, collectively called “Project 7”, has a small reservoir call Fairview just above the plant East of Montrose. They use that reservoir to store raw water to be treated, and the ONLY way to fill that reservoir is with water from the Cimarron Ditch (when it’s running in the summer), or the Gunnison Tunnel. So in the winter, the Tunnel is the ONLY possible source of raw water for the Valley’s treatment plant, and Steve and his team open up the tunnel every two weeks or so throughout the winter to fill Fairview reservoir so all 50,000 residents of the valley can have potable water. 
  • Tri-County is a water conservation district that supplies treated domestic water to thousands of people throughout the Uncompahgre Valley, but they didn’t actually start as a water utility. They actually formed in very much the same way as the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation was looking to construct “The Dallas Creek Project”, what we call Ridgway Reservoir today.  And just like the Reclamation Service back in 1904, the Bureau required that the local parties organize under a single organization to interface with the Bureau of Rec. for the project. So just as the Uncompahgre Valley Water users Operates the Gunnison Tunnel (a Federaly owned project), Tri-County Water operates the Ridgway Reservoir (also a federally owned project). 
  • So tri-county emerges as an organization to interface with the feds, and ALSo in those early days “there was an intent to create a valley-wide domestic water distribution system.” So they partnered with the City of Montrose and became the largest water distribution utility in the valley. 
  • But what does this all have to do with the tunnel, and why is Tri County operating a Dam and Reservoir that has no physical connection to their treatment plant? 
  • Well wait’ll you hear this. So Tri-county, and 6 other water utilities in the valley organized under a common group called “Project 7” to pool their resources, and consolidate all of the treatment plants into one. They too applied for a federal grant and loan program to improve the Water Treatment Plant East of Montrose – that’s right, there is only ONE treatment plant for all of them. Yes, this is the treatment plant that has water rights in the Cimarron Ditch, but guess what… that’s not enough water, and collectively they rely on water rights that Tri-County has in Ridgway Reservoir.

  • So how does it work then that Steve Turns on the Tunnel every two weeks in the winter to deliver water to  Fairview Reservoir for the Project 7 Water Treatment Facility? Well Project 7 (but mostly Tri-County) have plenty of water in Ridgway Reservoir. So Rather than building a pipe-line from Ridgeway Reservoir to the Treatment Plant East of Montrose, some 16-17 Miles… They built a “paper pipe”, and said, “Hey, Uncompahgre Valley Water Users, we have water in Ridgway Reservoir that can hit your distribution system, how about for every gallon of water you run through the tunnel to Fairview and our treatment plant, We will give you a gallon of water in Ridgway Reservoir.  The Water User said-- - DEAL.  And so it is. Everyone gets water to where they water they need. 
  • Listen to this?

    • [47:52] So the way this system works is as as we divert water in the summer and the winter months into Fairview Reservoir, for every gallon they we deliver to the reservoir, they give us a corresponding amount in Ridgeway reservoir. So Project 7, Tri-county and the different municipal entities, they hold water in Ridgeway, but they don't have, I mean if they were just to release it, they don't have a way to get it into the treatment facility. So we put it into the treatment facility and they exchange that amount of water for us. So now we have up to 9000 acre feet of water that we can exchange up to Ridgeway reservoir for the water that we would deliver to fair to the reservoir. And then we've purchased some additional water as a company and then we have this pool of water for the no call agreement. So we're we're operating we can we've control about 23,000 acre feet of water in Ridgeway reservoir that we can release at our discretion.
  • And Project 7 sees the obvious resiliency risk here in having only a single raw water supply be via a 115 year old tunnel. And so They are building a new treatment plant just downstream of Ridgway Reservoir, that will be able to use raw water from Ridgway Reservoir, and supply water to the Project 7 distribution system.  Once that’s built, Steve and his guys won’t have to open then tunnel every couple weeks in the winter.

Hydro Power

  • Ok – there’s one other pretty cool aspect of the system that I want to cover. I got a copy of this interesting book from Sally Johnson at the Montrose History Museum. It was published in 1905 and is Called, “The Uncompahgre Valley and the Gunnison Tunne” And, from what I can tell this was a book written to entice people to come settle in the valley. It’s full of beautiful old pictures of the valley and the bountiful crops being grown, and it really makes you think, “Gosh, how could I not come settle there. This sounds like Heaven”. Well, it is… pretty nice, here, but I’ll say the book is full of hyperbole and some exaggeration. 
  • Well, one of the things they book says is that the South Canal, with it’s “Numerous Drops”, “It is estimated that … [it] will produce power to the amount of 6,000 horses”. That’s about 4 and a half megawatts.  You see other reference to hydro power “lighting the entire valley” in other early writings. People were talking about using the falling water in the project (especially on the South Canal), to make hydro power, electricity. Well, it took ‘em about a hundred or so year, but we DID eventually get there. And now there are several low head hydro electric facilities generating electricity when the canals runs. Here’s Steve… 

    • [1:20:37] So these projects started probably in 2011 ish.  They started the first few.
    • So there are four power plants that are on the hydro on the South Canal and then we have one out in the Shavano Valley right below Shaw what's called Shavano Falls and the the top two are drops one and three and and we are partnered with DMEA on those, the Delta Montrose Electric Association. And so they operate them but we're 5050 owners in them. The next drop down, the next two power plants or the the next power plant down. We're partnered with a company that built them all called Sorensen Engineering and and mountain states construction and and they own the lion's share. We're a partner in that plant. Drop five we own 100% and we lease it back to Sorensen and then we own a percentage of the one Chauvino as well. So they're they're only they're they're power plants. They only run during the when the canal's on. We do have a power right, but there's limitations on when we can call for that.
    • And then additionally we're building right now a power plant at Taylor Park Reservoir. We're partnered with Gunnison County Electric and it's a small, smaller plant, but it's going to run year round. 
    • EDIT
    • It's a 500 kW plant but there is the potential once they get some better infrastructure up there that dam, the potential energy on that dam I believe was like 5.5 MW.
    • So we'll we'll hopefully pump that up when as the demand the limiting factor there is their contract with  Tri-state Energy only allows them to produce a certain percentage of their power in house. And so they'll be, we'll see where and even with this one is only like 2% but We'll see if there ever comes up to where they can utilize that to generate a little more power.
    • Pretty cool eh? That’s clean zero carbon electricity being generated right on The nCompahgre Project for local communities. 


  • Now – I haven’t really gone deep on the financial side of the canals, or the operations today, but you get the picture, it’s a huge complicated system, and takes a big team of very skilled people to operate and maintain. Also lawyers – lots of water law experts keeping things straight. But this section of my conversation with Steve Kind blew my mind. 

    • [59:11]It is, it's. It's in and there's in 2015, the water users I believe was 15. Sometime right around there the water users received a grant from the River District and we had a company or a Cal Poly came out and they did. It's called an ITRC report and it's basically a system analysis of efficiency, risk assessment on aging infrastructure. It's just this huge study they did on our system to say, hey, these are some of the things that you're going to have to work on maintaining, you know, aging infrastructure. These are ways that you could be more efficient in your water movement management. The challenge we really run up against is the cost. 
    • So we are a nonprofit. We're so being a nonprofit. 85% of our revenues have to come from shareholder assessments. So theoretically we charge our shareholders so much per share and that's what it costs to operate our system. When we get into maintaining it, OK, there's the maintenance, there's the cleaning of the canals, that's one thing. But these larger infrastructure improvements? 
    • Yeah, you want to replace a siphon on the West Canal. 
    • And the costs to those are just staggering right now. So we have to secure grants. We we, you know, grants don't really impact our percentage if it's a grant funding. 
  • Wait, so so when all the water you just pay like you bills just went out for for the year for next year and mine's 300 bucks. My one acre? Yeah, you're saying that that of that that the majority of that goes into just day-to-day operation. You don't carve out a bunch that's builds up in a large capital fund. 

    • No, I mean, we have a very small emergency rainy day reserve account, but. 
  • But if you want to make big, if you want to make, it's not like if you wanted to, you know, look, we need to replace a siphon once a year for the next 10 years. That's not coming from water user fees? 

    • No. 
  • Where's that? Where's money for that stuff come from?

    • We put in grant applications.
  • To Who?

    • The federal government.  The Bureau of Reclamation has these water smart grants, you know the inflation reduction Act and the this $8.3 billion that they've ever carved out for watershed, you know water infrastructure improvements and and we really have to look at, you know solely grants. The problem with some grants is they'd require a matching component.
    • One of the benefits, and we've been heavily involved in this for, oh, probably the last 20 plus years, is the salt and selenium reduction. 
  • Quick background – if you drive anywhere on the East Side of the Uncompahgre Valley, you’ll see areas where the adobe mud is coated in a find white powder. That’s salt, and the Colorado River basin as a whole, has a big problem of their being too much salt in the system.  

    • And so we've piped a  fair portion of our east side of our system to reduce the amount of salt and selenium that's introduced into the river. Those grants, we've been very successful for two reasons. Number one, we had really poor soil. So when they ran the calculations on how much we can say, they loved us because we can really reduce a lot of salt. Right now I believe it's close to 60,000 tons a year that we're keeping out of the river because you because. You piped or lined. Because we piped or lined or pipe primarily piped laterals.
    • And the benefit that we run into is we can do the piping work, the labor we install that. So we that meets our our cost share you know instead of saying that we do in kind labor instead of coming out with a financial outlook and so that helps us. 
    • But as an example you know we've got a project out on the M&D Canal where it was sloughing off and we received a grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the NRCS actually to it's called APL 566 grant. And originally we were trying to get 100% grant funded for the project in engineering based on public safety, but it really didn't qualify for that. So we got the grant that covers the design of it, the design and engineering. And this is lining a section of the M&D canal which is about a mile, a little over a mile. The engineers laid out the design. They came back with three proposals. You could put it all in a concrete box culvert, you could concrete line it or you could line it with the PVC liner. The concrete box culvert was $24 million for the mile. So that money would have to come from our shareholders. That's not practical. 
    • So again, we got to find grants and things that that we can, buckets of money that we can come in and help offset that and that that's the biggest challenge. I go back to that ITRC report and and everybody says, well, there's this tremendous amount of money out there. Yeah, that's millions of dollars. Yes, I'd like to think of the IRA.
  • The IRA is the Inflation Reduction Act that was passed in August 2022. 

    • Number one is getting the money from wherever it is to our project is is just an almost an insurmountable challenge. You know, we have to have the engineering and the in order to just apply for the grant we have to, you know, it would probably take a couple $1,000,000 in engineering just just to say hey this is the project. This is how much money we need and how this is the project we're. Proposing that money would have to come from users. Well, or another grant, because you can't combine two federal grants. So we get grants from the state, the CWCB to maybe design the project, and then we go to the federals to help us pay for the project.  
  • Well there ya go. 
  •  Call me naïve, but I had no idea, going into this interview with Steve that SO much goes into keeping this system functional, and I suspect, (unless you’re a real water geek) that you didn’t either.  Now look, this is the biggest, most complicated irrigation project in the State of Colorado, but much of what you’ve been hearing about here, learning about, can be extrapolated to water issues around the West.
  • Thanks so much for spending your time listening to me and this series on the Gunnison Tunnel. 
  • I hope you’re leaving with a deeper appreciation for what it took 115 years ago, and what it still takes today to keep the fields green and the taps flowing. The West is full of stories like this, but I hope now when you drive by an irrigation canal, or see a diversion dam on a river. You’ll remember just how much goes into those water uses, and how important it is that we all have some fundamental understanding of what’s happening with the water around us.
  • If you enjoyed this, let me know, and I hope you’ll tune in again for my next series, that will focus on small hydro electric plants in the mountains of Southwest Colorado. 
  • ‘till Next time. 

Special thanks for this episode, goes of course, to Steve Pope, General Manager for The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. Steve you were generous with your time, and your expertise is inspiring. Thanks so much.

Brody Wilson, serves on multiple nonprofit boards, has been a KVNF Listener for 44 years, and is a corporate sustainability professional and mechanical engineer from Montrose.