The story of irrigation in Colorado’s Grand Valley speaks volumes about the reciprocal relationship between land and community in the arid American West. Early white settlers of Colorado’s Western Slope espoused concepts of landscape and water control that physically transformed the landscape from salt brush desert to green garden. In turn, the metamorphosis of landscape fashioned the valley’s unique community.
Building irrigation ditches engendered a culture in which individuals valued both personal grit and collective action. The Grand Valley’s story of survival within the arid landscape reflects the process by which a culture interacts with nature, and how people shape and are shaped by their environment.
Location and Geology
The Grand Valley, named for the Colorado River—once known as the “Grand River”—that runs through it, is located on the Western Slope of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Averaging 4,700 feet in elevation and roughly twelve miles in width, the arid valley stretches some thirty miles between the towns of Palisade and Mack. The Colorado River meets the Gunnison River in the city of Grand Junction. On September 26, 1881, three men—James W. Bucklin, Richard D. Mobley, and George A. Crawford—saw the promise of a town at the confluence of the rivers. Like many settlers of the American West, water represented to them the hope of the future. The geology and hydrology of the Grand Valley allowed for individual farmers to stake their futures on water.
The physical realities of geology and hydrology, however, mandated that the settlers of the Grand Valley join to build irrigation systems. Shallow groundwater is not accessible in the region due to the Mancos Shale that underlies most of the Grand Valley. As a result, irrigation water must either come from drilling deep down to the Jurassic sandstone or from diverting water from the Colorado or Gunnison River. Both of these are expensive, difficult endeavors, which required early settlers to work cooperatively. The water used within the Grand Valley originates in the snowpack of the northern Front Range, Middle Park, Gore Range, Elk Mountains, Grand Mesa, and other smaller ranges in northern and central Colorado. Runoff from these distant mountains would provide life for the newly developing town.
A Community Rooted in Irrigation
The founders of Grand Junction recognized the agricultural potential of the area’s sunny climate and abundant runoff. On October 13, 1881, George Crawford officially established the Grand Junction Town Company for the purposes of obtaining water and establishing law. One year later, the company oversaw the building of the Pioneer Ditch and the Pacific Slope Ditch. In October 1882, the newly established Grand Junction News recognized the importance of ditches for the valley’s future and proclaimed, “All that is needed is more capital to ditch the valley and good farmers with good means to cultivate it.” Here, the newspaper reflected the desires of early white settlers across the American West: lay down roots within a good community, make the land into something productive, and prosper individually and collectively.
While settlers shaped the land, the land shaped their community. The building and maintenance of irrigation systems demanded both grit and teamwork. Virgil Hickman, an early settler of the Grand Valley, remembered as a young boy watching the construction of one of the early town dams and vividly recalled the backbreaking work required to build them.
The urgent need for dams across the valley resulted in group labor and use of horse teams and wagons to supply the town with water. For example, the building of Pioneer Ditch required the collaboration of twenty-two men, a considerable number for a small, new, and struggling community with few extra hands to spare. But their canal building eventually brought orchards to fruition and strengthened bonds within the developing community.
Water from these early irrigation projects provided for the growth of pears, peaches, and apples, and peaches soon became the fruit of choice in the Grand Valley. At the turn of the century, “Peach Day” became a yearly event that further served as a bonding agent for the growing town.
By 1886 the Grand Valley Canal was completed, watering about 45,000 acres. But by the early 1900s the valley’s rampant agricultural growth demanded even more water, prompting several additional irrigation projects.
From 1904 to 1906, five distinct irrigation districts were created that still serve the Grand Valley today. Furthermore, the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), established in 1902 as the Reclamation Service, collaborated with the newly created irrigation districts to build the Grand Valley Project. The project officially began in 1912 and involved the construction of several canals, a dam, and a power plant, constituting one of the region’s main water sources for the rest of the twentieth century.
Increased agricultural and population demands created high water use through open ditches and channels. In turn, the water resources of the Grand Valley began suffering from high levels of salinity. By the 1980s the USBR and Grand Valley irrigation districts started shifting open ditch canals to a lined or piped system with salinity control to improve water quality.
By the year 2000, the Grand Valley Project turned toward water resource management, which included improvements to existing canals in order to make water usage more efficient by limiting the amount of water diverted from the river.