Flowing ditches mark start of irrigation season in Carbondale
For Gavin Metcalf, April 15 isn’t just tax day. It’s the beginning of six months of full time work as Carbondale’s official “Ditch Rider.”
Metcalf’s steed is a John Deere utility vehicle, but otherwise his job description looks like something out of the previous century. He starts the morning by turning a wheel on a large metal gate along the bank of the Crystal River. When the water in the Carbondale Ditch reaches a certain point, he locks the gate in place.
“You can tell it’s the right depth because that root is just barely sticking out of the water,” he explains. Sure enough, when he walks down to the flume for a more scientific measurement, it’s dead on.
The Weaver Ditch, a little farther downstream, has a fair amount of ice in the bottom of the otherwise dry channel. As Metcalf cranks the gate open, the water first slides crackling over the top, then gains momentum, and the ice is swept away.
Each ditch feeds numerous smaller laterals throughout the former agricultural community of Carbondale. The town is allotted up to 52 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water between the two ditches, which is free for residents to use for irrigation.
From now until Oct. 15, Metcalf will check and adjust the flow on a daily basis.
“As the river fluctuates, the ditch fluctuates,” he observes.
In addition to natural challenges, Metcalf struggles with human interference. People construct makeshift dams which can flood upstream and burn out downstream pumps. They dump all manner of things into ditches they wouldn’t dream of throwing in the river. Not that most of it makes it that far. Even grass clippings tend to stick around and clog the system, explains Metcalf. And when he has to turn off the water to fix the problem, few residents connect the dots.
“The water is there to be used,” Metcalf says, “but a lot of people don’t seem to understand what it takes to make that happen.”
Carbondale’s water rights on the Crystal are as old as the town itself. It’s one of the few municipalities in the region — along with Aspen and Silt — that has kept its system intact. The original 1880s rights were expanded considerably in the 1920s. Since then, usage has fluctuated as the community expands and the ranches begin to disappear.
So far, the runoff forecast for this year looks bright, but Carbondale’s utilities department is planning ahead. “If, at some point, we elect to go into water rationing, we want a really firm idea of what it’s going to take to maintain the system under drought conditions,” explains Utilities Director Mark O’Meara. “It’s going to take some time to really dial in, but I think we have enough foundation to make better judgment calls on how much we take out of the river.”
On the other hand, if the outlook remains bright, utilities might actually consider expanding into some disused historic channels.
“I continue to keep an open mind and an open eye on what we can do to enhance our ditch system and get people using it instead of potable water for irrigation,” he says.
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