By Mark Harris | Grand Valley Water Users Association
CONGRESS passed the Reclamation Act in 1902, creating what was then known as the Reclamation Service and gave it the charge to develop water projects that would draw farmers and community development to the arid American West. In 1905 the Colorado Assembly facilitated the creation and execution of long-term repayment contracts between water user associations and the Reclamation Service. The Grand Valley Water Users Association (GVWUA) was created in 1905 to accommodate such an agreement between certain potential Grand Valley irrigators and the Reclamation Service. This effort became the Grand Valley Project (GVP).
Several private irrigation companies existed in the Grand Valley and had been delivering water, in some cases, since the early 1880s. The Grand Valley Irrigation Company, one such provider, is still in business today and serves a significant portion of the Grand Valley from its own diversion structure near Palisade.
The remaining early irrigation providers, Orchard Mesa (OMID), Palisade (PID), and Mesa County (MCID) Irrigation Districts entered into agreements with the Reclamation Service and GVWUA to consolidate the diversion of their combined water rights at the to-be-constructed Grand River Diversion Dam approximately five miles east of Palisade Colorado and to deliver it via the planned Government Highline Canal. This reach of the Colorado River was then known as the Grand River until the confluence with the Green at which point the combined rivers became the Colorado. Nearly 40,000 acres are served by these combined operations.
These diversion and delivery agreements and the evolving attendant infrastructure required to fulfill those contractual agreements remain in effect and in operation today. Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and the GVWUA have added a hydropower plant to the system as well. The original facility is being replaced by a new 4.5KV facility which will be commissioned in the fall of 2022.
The GVWUA, in various agreements with OMID, is responsible for all operations, maintenance, and replacement of all GVP infrastructure as well as being responsible for the protection and accommodation of the delivery of the combined water rights diverted at what is now known as the Roller Dam. The GVWUA and OMID provide irrigation water to MCID and PID largely free of charge in perpetuity as part of the original Reclamation Service agreements with them that made the GVP possible.
Agriculture in the Grand Valley
Grand Valley agriculture is driven by the geography of the Grand Valley and the surrounding higher elevations today, as it has been since Anglo settlers arrived in the area. The east end of the Grand Valley, the areas in and around Palisade and Orchard Mesa, are nationally known for fruit and wine crops. The largest wine grape grower in the state is located on Orchard Mesa. The air flow entering the Grand Valley from DeBeque Canyon comes accelerated by the venturi effect created by passage through the canyon and allows for more delicate crops to be grown. This does not eliminate the threat of freeze damage and such damage can be significant, sometimes leading to nearly complete crop loss in some areas for some fruit and wine crops. The wind machines that have replaced the smudging activities of previous years can make a substantial difference and offer some protection. Much of the fruit and wine growing acres are using drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation technology. Fruit, especially apples and pears, which were historically grown in the mid-valley, are no longer in production.
Alfalfa, other perennials, row crops, and small grains are also grown on the east end of the Grand Valley, but the majority of the commercial grain corn, silage corn, small grain, alfalfa and perennial mixes, dry beans, seed crops, and other miscellaneous row crops are grown on the west end. Most irrigation water is delivered via furrow and gated pipe systems. There is a growing use of sprinkler irrigation, but field size and configuration make the widespread adoption of sprinkler irrigation a challenge. Grain corn is used in local egg and livestock production and throughout Utah for livestock, poultry, hog and dairy production. Alfalfa and perennial mixes are shipped locally, in the intermountain region, and to Texas and Oklahoma. More than 85 percent of agricultural economic activity in Mesa and neighboring counties is related to livestock and perennial production.
The GVWUA has significant responsibility for assuring adequate stream-flow to what is called the 15 Mile Reach on the Colorado River. The 15 Mile Reach has been identified as the most critical habitat for the four federally endangered fish. Combined improvement and efficiency and improvement efforts of the State of Colorado, Bureau of Reclamation, US Fish and Wildlife, and OMID and GVWUA have made over 60,000 acre-feet of forgone diversion available to the 15 Mile Reach annually. This continued effort provides ESA compliance for more than 2,200 water users on the Colorado River, many of whom are East Slope trans-mountain diverters. The Recovery Program is internationally recognized as a successful collaborative effort on the parts of state and federal government, environmental groups, and private water users leading to the effective and successful support of endangered species recovery, while avoiding expensive and unproductive litigation at the same time.
The complications of providing irrigation water to an increasingly urbanized and suburbanizing west, climate change, and increasing environmental responsibility will continue to challenge the Grand Valley, as they will the San Luis Valley. We look forward to the task.