San Luis Valley ditch project helps irrigators save time, access more water |

San Luis Valley ditch project helps irrigators save time, access more water

Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project

Irrigators in the San Luis Valley of Colorado along the Rio Grande are celebrating completion of the Five Ditches Project, a win-win program for all users of the river. The project incorporated improvements for the Consolidated Ditch, San Luis Valley Canal, Pace Ditch, Rio Grande #2 Ditch and Centennial Ditch.

“A lot of our diversions and structures were built in the 1940s,” said Greg Higel, Centennial Irrigating Ditch Company superintendent. “Over the years you end up taking straw bales, canvas tarps and posts to establish some pressure by putting anything in the river to back up that water. The river needed help, and we needed to make sure we did that right.”

Over the years, erosion had become a big problem, affecting water quality as well as hurting the habitat for fish and wildlife. The FDP, led by Rio Grande Headwater Restoration Project, a non-profit group working in the San Luis Valley to improve the health of the river for all water users, enabled irrigators to install diversion structures that function effectively and efficiently while also improving river health.

“The agricultural and environmental communities are so interconnected and really one could not exist without the other,” said Emma Reesor, Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project executive director. “This project brought together diverse stakeholders including five different ditch companies to address aging infrastructure and bank instability on the Rio Grande.”

Reesor said the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project helped secure funding, as the projects were not financially possible for ditch companies without grants and loans.

“One of the projects that I was involved in was the Rio Grande #2 structure,” said Rick Davie, rancher and Rio Grande #2 Ditch shareholder. “There’s only 4 cubic feet per second in there, but it (the water) covers 400 acres of ground that is right along the river corridor, and when that river got low, there would be many days, where you didn’t have water in the ditch.”

Davie noted that before the FDP diversion improvements, there was a big financial loss when the water was too low for irrigators to get water from the river.

“Now with this wonderful (new diversion) structure placed with the curvature of the river, it keeps the water clear, and we are able to get water out (for irrigation) even on a low year,” said Davie.

“I’ve been a ditch rider for 27 years,” said Higel. “Previously, I had to go to the diversion structure eight times a day just because you had so much manual change. Now I make the changes on my (cell) phone, and they are implemented within 20 minutes.”

Reesor noted that project organizers worked with River Bend Engineering and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to design the project to meet the needs of the ditch companies, ranchers and farmers as well as the needs of the fisheries. The improvements also supported wildlife habitat and river health.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife advised the FDP on the aquatic aspects of the project, because different sections of the Rio Grande are managed differently for different species of fish.

Reesor said the project’s success is a result of years of relationship building and conversations about what each of the ditches needed.

“What we got done is so far ahead of what we had,” said Davie.” I think we can be proud of what we’ve done.”

To view more on the Five Ditches Project:

For more resources on funding for agricultural water infrastructure improvements, contact Greg Peterson with the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance at

Learn more about grants to help fund stream management planning, including irrigation infrastructure, by contacting Alyssa Clarida with the Colorado Department of Agriculture State Conservation Board at For stream management planning information visit ❖