Many historians agree Cortez and Montezuma County would not have developed into what they are today without water and the vision of those who brought it to the valley.
More than 50 attended a lecture on the history of water in Montezuma County Feb. 24 which spanned an era from a mile-long tunnel bored through crumbly sandstone and network of rickety flumes and leaky ditches to the modern and complex network of reservoirs, siphons and canals known to area residents today.
The event was sponsored by the Montezuma County Historical Society, hosted at the United Methodist Church in Cortez and featured Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company President Randy Carver as the keynote speaker.
Everybody knows that civilization is built around water, Carver said.
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, 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 other diversion point was downstream at what is now known as the Great Cut Dike, which went around the ridge instead of through it, requiring heavy excavation.
Labor on the tunnel, dike and early ditches was done by imported labourers and local ranchers, who worked 12 hour shifts for $1 a day.
They were so occupied digging ditches, they failed to prepare their land for irrigation, Carver said. The water, when it began to flow, had few customers. So (Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company) went bankrupt.
The Colorado Water Supply Company took over in 1888 Carver said, and joined forces with the Dolores No. 2 Land and Canal Company in 1889 to form the Colorado Consolidated Land and Water Company. The existing water rights and ditch system were purchased for $325,000 and $425,000 was saved for the construction of two reservoirs, Carver said, which would later be named Narraguinnep and Groundhog.
MVIC took control of the system and water rights in 1920 and remains largely in control today.
The need for a reservoir like present day McPhee was foreseen as early as 1900.
Carver read a letter from 1905 discussing the desire to construct an expensive reservoir system to capture the floodwaters of the Dolores River.
The author of the letter contended that water should first be provided to bonafied settlers.
And until they are supplied, it is our contention that no water should be diverted from the Dolores River to supply Indian land, the author wrote.
The author predicted the reservoir would cost at least $500,000 to build.
The first feasibility study on the dam was completed in 1942 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, according to information on the agencys 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.
An acre-foot is equal to 325,829 gallons of water, enough to fill a football field to the depth of 1 foot.
Carver said the project is beneficial to all the parties involved, including MVIC, the federal government and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
It provided power generation, additional farmlands out north, it provided water treaty fulfillment, it gave us the full irrigation season and it gave continued flows in the lower Dolores, he said.
MVIC directly benefited by receiving additional storage that extended the irrigation season to October, Carver said.
Here in Southwest Colorado where the annual precipitation is less than 13 inches, storage is key, he said.
Carver said the Dolores Project would not have happened without MVIC.
What created it? he said. Vision created it. Who in the world would have thought to file on 1300 CFS from the Dolores? Who would have thought to come up with a plan to cut a hole through the mountain at that time and (build) our current delivery system?
Reach Reid Wright at [email protected]