#Maybell project solves problems for irrigators, boaters and fish — @AspenJournalism – Coyote Gulch

The headwater gate of the Maybell Ditch in the lower left draws water from the Yampa River for irrigation. A major reconstruction project will repair the diversion structure to create better passage for fish and boats. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

The Maybell Ditch is the largest diversion of the Yampa River and irrigates approximately 2,500 acres of grass and alfalfa in northwest Colorado. But the remote and outdated headgate, along with a dangerous diversion structure and 18 miles of nearly flat channel, are creating problems for irrigators, boaters and endangered fish.

Today, the Maybell Irrigation District and The Nature Conservancy are working together on an ambitious project to rehabilitate and upgrade the historic structure with the goal of improving conditions for all water users on this stretch of river. So far, TNC has secured around $3.5 million in funding for the project, which it hopes can begin next summer.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

The Yampa River flows from Flat Tops Wilderness, passes through the town of Steamboat Springs, then turns west and finally joins the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Along the way, it transforms the semi-arid landscape of Routt and Moffat counties into a ribbon of irrigated green meadows.

In recent years, the Yampa has begun to experience problems that have long been part of other river basins, such as over-appropriation, appeals and water shortages.

“This reach has seen declining water levels over time with drought and long-term climate impacts,” said Jennifer Wellman, TNC project manager. “(The Maybell Ditch project) was one of those that came to the surface where we could hopefully work with water users to have a bigger impact in this basin…. All this extent is truly special, and it justifies more water if it is available, especially during periods of low flow.

This map shows the 18 miles of the Maybell Ditch, which irrigates the land with water from the Yampa River. The Nature Conservancy is planning an overhaul and modernization of the headwaters and diversion structure.

Challenges for irrigators, boaters, fish

Maybell Irrigation District Manager Mike Camblin said historically some ranchers couldn’t get their full supply of water unless the ditch, which was built in the 1890s, is running at full capacity. regime.

“We had a field where if the ditch wasn’t full they couldn’t wet it because there wasn’t enough elevation,” he said. “It was too flat.”

This meant that more water was sent through the ditch as “push water” to ensure the flows reached the dry fields. It also meant more water was flowing back into the Yampa River at the end of the roughly 18-mile-long ditch, known as tailwater. If there’s too much water downstream, it could mean a ditch is pulling more from the river than it can use, a no-no according to the state’s Division of Water Resources.

A first round of improvements to the ditch added a liner to reduce seepage and check structures, which slow the flow of water. These measures only partially solved the problems.

The project that is now proposed is much larger and involves rebuilding the diversion and upgrading the head valve, which controls the flow of water from the river to the ditch. By setting a level control structure – essentially having boulders midway that push water into the river upstream from the headgate – it creates more elevation to allow gravity to move the water in the ditch, which should reduce the need to push water. It will also facilitate the passage of fish and boats.

The circular twin gates in the Maybell ditch are rusty, outdated and have to be manually opened and closed. A modernization project includes plans to allow the main gate to be operated remotely.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Remote location

Twin, circular and century-old doors are rusty and difficult to operate.

“There’s no way these things are going to be easy to fix,” said Erin Light, a Division 6 engineer with the state’s Division of Water Resources. “Quite frankly, if the water commissioner had to adjust it, I don’t think he could. We would have to rely on (the irrigation district) to do that, which is not preferred.

The gateway’s remote location — a three-mile round-trip hike through rugged Juniper Canyon from an already remote dirt road — is a challenge for the district. When all the headwater gates in the ditch open and close based on the irrigators’ schedules and water needs, it can be difficult to coordinate the manual operation of the main headwater gate. The new entrance gate will be automated and remotely controlled.

“It’s a four or five hour affair by the time you drive there, walk up there, adjust it and go home,” Camblin said. “The automation will be huge. From a management perspective, it will be our biggest tool.

But the construction will not be easy. Heavy equipment cannot descend to the river along the ditch and will need to access the diversion using newly constructed roads on Bureau of Land Management land. The BLM views the gap as a cultural resource and project proponents will need to take care to avoid impacts on it.

Western Colorado Regional Manager for JUB engineers, Luke Gingerich, explained the complexities of the project during a site visit in July.

“They’re going to have to create a few miles of nice road to get in,” Gingerich said. “It’s going to be a big disruption and we need to come back and make sure we get this back as close as possible to the state it was in before.”

According to Camblin, it was the federal Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program that prompted the district to look at where it could better manage its water. This stretch of river is designated critical habitat for endangered fish species. Water is released from the Elkhead Reservoir upstream for fish, and the new automated head gate will make it easier for the Maybell Ditch to let that water flow, to get where it’s needed.

The Maybell Ditch Diversion, located in Juniper Canyon in northwest Colorado, takes water from the Yampa River to irrigate hayfields. The Nature Conservancy is raising funds for a project that would revamp and modernize the diversion structure and entrance gate.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Boon for boaters

The diversion reconstruction project will also be a boon for boaters. Friends of the Yampa River, a non-profit river advocacy organization, said in a letter of support for the project that the Maybell diversion is the single most important barrier to safe and passable recreation along a 200 mile stretch of the Yampa River. Boaters often have to go out to carry the rapid formed by the diversion structure. The new diversion will create a boat passage, connecting two sections of navigable river.

Visiting the site in July, Friends of Yampa recreation and education coordinator Kent Vertrees said he was grateful for the collaboration between agriculture, recreation and environmental users.

“As a recreation specialist, I’ve always said we get the dregs from all the other water users,” Vertrees said. “We rely on agriculture more than anyone to make sure there is water in the river. It’s really great, our partnerships in northwest Colorado.

But that partnership was a bit of a tough sell at first, Camblin said. Some Maybell Ditch irrigators were skeptical of a project led by an environmental group. Tensions can sometimes rise between irrigators, who take water from rivers, and environmental groups, who want to leave water in the rivers. Camblin said the district held several meetings between irrigators and the TNC to assure water users that their water rights or the way they run their ranch would not be jeopardized.

“One of our goals that we talked about when we started this was to show people that the farming community can work with groups that they don’t normally work with,” Camblin said. “We hope other farming communities will say, ‘Hey, you know what? Some of these things are possible. I may have to reach across the table to make this work, but it will be a beneficial project for so many people.

Rebuilding the head gate and diversion could come at a steep price and TNC continues to fundraise for what may end up costing more than originally thought due to supply chain disruptions and inflation. The project has secured nearly $3.5 million so far, with nearly $2 million coming from a grant from the Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has contributed about $1 million so far; the Colorado River Water Conservation District will donate $500,000; $40,000 will come from the Yampa River Fund and the Irrigation District is also contributing cash and in-kind. However, the total final price remains unknown and is likely to be higher than what has already been obtained. Wellman said some of the additional funding needed will also come from the National Resource Conservation Service.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in conjunction with The Aspen Times. This story appeared in the September 11 edition of The Aspen Times.

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