Water Lines: On Ohio Creek, water efficiency delivers for fields & fish
Free Press Opinion Columnist
I was standing there looking at a trickle running down a very large ditch, thinking, “Man, it’s going to be hard to irrigate with that.” It was the summer of 2012, and I was visiting with a ranch manager about options to improve his irrigation system and water delivery while also improving flows in Ohio Creek. As many remember, the snowpack that winter was pretty lean, and by the middle of June there wasn’t much water left in many streams or ditches in western Colorado.
Nobody can be certain when we will see another year similar to 2012, but odds are we’ll face a comparable scenario in the future. How can we prepare and protect ourselves against the impact these short water years have on aquatic habitat and agricultural production? Part of the solution involves working together to upgrade infrastructure and developing solutions to manage our water use more efficiently.
Since that conversation in 2012, Trout Unlimited has been working with several irrigators in the Ohio Creek Valley to develop a solution to make both the water users and the stream less susceptible to periods of low stream flows — and more resilient long term.
Working together, we identified goals for water delivery and established a stream flow target. Part of the problem was that as spring flows diminish, this particular ditch at times would divert the entire stream into the ditch, leaving a dry cobble stream bed below the diversion. Allowing enough water past the diversion to sustain aquatic life and maintaining production on the irrigated meadows became our two top priorities.
After studying the current system, we settled on a solution that would better coordinate water use and improve irrigation efficiency. The project would improve water delivery and stream flows — a win-win for both the ranch and stream habitat.
Putting together projects like this takes partnerships and expertise. The National Resources Conservation Service provided technical assistance to review several improvement options and helped with the final project design. We also obtained funding assistance from the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservation District, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board grant programs. By combining TU resources and cost sharing with these agencies and the ditch owners, we were able to purchase and install remote monitoring equipment at the diversion and a pipeline and center pivot in an area that was historically difficult to irrigate several miles down the ditch.
We recently completed installation of the new system, and we’re eager to see it in action next year.
The new equipment at the head gate consists of two sensors, one in the creek and one in the ditch, and a solar-powered satellite transmitter. This will allow water users to remotely monitor their ditch and the creek near the diversion without having to make the trip to the head gate, which can be a couple of hours round trip. Moreover, the irrigators can fine-tune water deliveries based on what is available in the creek and work to improve flows in the stream below the diversion. A new center pivot will convert about 40 acres from flood irrigation to sprinkler and make the stream flow target realistic.
Changing irrigation management when things get tight in order to meet the flow target will reduce water temperatures in the stream (cold water is vital to trout) and increase in-stream habitat for fish and aquatic insects; and at times it will give downstream water users access to additional water.
There is no denying this new equipment was expensive, totaling a little more than $100,000 for the pivot, delivery pipe, and equipment at the head gate. But the project has a big upside in several ways. Rewetting a section of stream is obviously valuable from a fishery’s perspective; and, going forward, monitoring this project also gives us an opportunity to understand how these improvements (specifically the center pivot) will affect crop production and ultimately a producer’s bottom line in this type of climate. We will continue to work with the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservation District as well as other project partners so this information is available for other water users in the Upper Gunnison Valley.
There is no question that dry years like 2012 take a heavy toll on our state; and industries such as agriculture and recreation, which depend on abundant snow and healthy flows, really feel the burden. This project is one example of how updating irrigation infrastructure and employing creative water management can translate to healthier streams and more consistent production, both of which will make our communities and economy stronger and more resilient.
Jesse Kruthaupt is the Upper Gunnison project specialist for Trout Unlimited.
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