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Ranchers get help from unexpected source

Colorado Ag Water Alliance
“Ranchers involved in the project were skeptical at first of the help proposed by the watershed plan and the different values and perspectives of those involved in the project,” said Gretchen Rank, director of the Mancos Conservation District. “But as they saw the opportunities to improve their irrigation system, while also improving the environmental health of the river, they agreed to work together on the project.”
Courtesy photo

Agricultural producers in southwest Colorado, mostly cow-calf ranchers, expended less labor to access the same amount of water to irrigate their pastures since implementing improvements to their irrigation ditches as part of a community-wide project.

They also have seen improvement in riparian habitats. A new video, which can be viewed at https://www.coagwater.org/stream-management, portrays the impact to the community of these project improvements.

The improvements were implemented following development of the Mancos Watershed Plan in 2011. The community project was able to acquire $6 million along with Natural Resources Conservation Service cost share dollars to improve irrigation ditch diversion structures, install pipe irrigation systems and reduce ditch bank erosion in some of the 49 ditches that divert water off the Mancos River and its tributaries. The funding also allowed the watershed to improve the river’s fisheries.

“Ranchers involved in the project were skeptical at first of the help proposed by the watershed plan and the different values and perspectives of those involved in the project,” said Gretchen Rank, director of the Mancos Conservation District. “But as they saw the opportunities to improve their irrigation system, while also improving the environmental health of the river, they agreed to work together on the project.”

“We learned not to make assumptions based on personal views and knowledge,” Rank said. “Involvement in the stakeholder process enabled participants to recognize the diversity of opinions, needs and knowledge that are brought to the table. Throughout the process, participants gained respect for other perspectives, often changing the way they think about the watershed. Decisions made at the watershed level affect everyone within that watershed, so it is important that decisions are data driven and community informed for the best possible outcomes.”


Through the watershed planning process, several ditches were identified as being in dire need of better diversion structures that would require a lot less maintenance and upkeep, according to Ben Wolcott, Wolcott Ranch, Mancos, Colo., who also served on the Mancos Conservation District board of directors.

“Before any of this got upgraded, irrigation diversions were just push-up structures and anything cobbled together, sometimes tree trunks and whatever was in the river,” said Wolcott. “Most years we didn’t even get any water, but now with the new diversion structures and screens we have in place in front of piped ditches, we’ve seen leaps and bounds in (improved) efficiency. I go to each headgate once a week instead of daily, and that is mostly a five-minute maintenance check. The diversions can handle high water really well and then still divert water under low flows.”

Another rancher who has benefited from the project is Ryan Brown, Reddert Ranch, Mancos, Colo. “Over my 60 years, I’ve seen the river channel deepen, which makes it harder to dam up diversions. It was helpful when the Mancos Conservation District came to us and asked if it could help make those diversions more efficient.”

Tom Weaver, Ratliff Homestead, Mancos, Colo., said that before water piping was installed there was a lot of seepage and evaporation in his and his neighbor’s irrigation ditch. “There’s more (water) going down the river now due to increased efficiency.”

Rank added that the piping and diversion improvements have allowed fish to pass through upstream to reach their spawning grounds, while reducing soil erosion and the spread of noxious weeds.

“I think it is important for local landowners to stay involved with their communities and with the organizations that are helping facilitate the changes and improvements like this,” said Wolcott. “Their voice can be heard, and their values can be shared.”

The Mancos Watershed Plan is the second of three projects showcased in a video series. The series is produced by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and River Network with the goal of demonstrating how farmers, ranchers, ditch companies, conservation districts, environmental groups and other entities have come together to improve river health, irrigation efficiency and environmental and recreational use of Colorado’s limited water supplies.

To see a six-minute video of the Mancos Watershed Project, a fact sheet on this project and other resources, visit https://www.coagwater.org/stream-management. For more resources on funding for agricultural infrastructure improvements, contact Greg Peterson with the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance at coagwater@gmail.com.

Grants to help fund stream management planning, such as those used by the Mancos Watershed Project, are available through the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

For more information on stream management planning in your area, visit coloradosmp.org or contact Alyssa Clarida with the Colorado Department of Agriculture State Conservation Board at alyssa.clarida@state.co.us. ❖




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