Peter Shelton

Where the Water Comes From

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on September 11, 2009

Where we live in the Beaton Creek Valley, at the south end of Montrose County, there is no water.

That’s an exaggeration, obviously, but there is truly very little water in our high desert ecosystem. I am told the well water is hard to find and not much good. Beaton Creek itself might supply enough for a small community, but it is mostly spoken for by the one large ranch at the valley’s upper end. Most of us are on the high side of the Piñon Ditch, the first diversion off the Uncompahgre River where it emerges from its canyon at Colona.

So, how do we live? We live on Gunnison River water from out of the Black Canyon by way of the Gunnison Tunnel, which celebrates its 100th anniversary September 26.

Turns out, just about everyone in the Uncompahgre Valley from Colona to Pea Green shares the same fortune. Without the pioneering engineering feat of the tunnel and the concurrent development of canals and laterals by the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, we wouldn’t be here. Or at the very least, this part of the Western Slope would look different. It wouldn’t be nearly as green, or as prosperous, as it is today.

I went to a lecture at the Montrose Library a couple of weeks ago on the history of the tunnel. The speaker was the Water Users’ manager, Marc Catlin, and it’s hard to imagine a better story teller, or a better advocate for this particular story.

Catlin grew up in Montrose, part of a farming family. “But when I was 12, Dad said, ‘You’ll never be a farmer. You like people, you talk too much, you should go to town.’” He did go to town, and in 2002 was picked to head the Water Users.

Catlin’s humor is dry and self-deprecating, and he’s got the timing of a stand-up comic. He told the story of Francis “Frank” Lauzon, a one-time miner who in the 1890s was trying to make it as a farmer in Montrose. Montrose was a freight town then with Otto Mears and Dave Wood hauling freight back and forth to the mining districts of Ouray and Telluride. There wasn’t a lot of farming in the valley because the Uncompahgre River didn’t run consistently enough to guarantee widespread irrigation.

In a fever dream, Lauzon saw dependable Gunnison River water coming to Montrose despite the fact the Black Canyon hid the river behind 2,000-foot high walls. Lauzon stood at the intersection of what is now Main and Townsend (and here Catlin assumed the gestures of a man possessed) and shouted: “We need a tunnel! We need a canal!”

Other community leaders agreed, and the lobbying of President Theodore Roosevelt began in 1901. “I’m amazed,” Catlin said, “how these guys—the original Uncompahgre guys—got the attention and approval of a president. Going to D.C.—and I’ve done this—man, you’re tuckered out! I suspect they ambushed Roosevelt at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs during one of his hunting trips out West. If you really need something from a politician, mess up his day off!”

Roosevelt threw his support behind the National Reclamation Act of 1902, Congress passed it, and in one stroke created the new Bureau of Reclamation and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. The Act immediately funded five projects in five western states, including what was known as the Uncompahgre Project.

The tunnel presented myriad practical and engineering challenges. Digging from both ends simultaneously, shifts of 30 men each working 24/7 took four years to dig the six-mile long hole. And when they finally met in the middle, Catlin told us, “they were 18 inches off! Dug by hand! A hundred years ago! You go to Denver, you go in the Eisenhower Tunnel, which was built in the 1970s, you make that turn in the middle? . . They were off by 40 feet!”

While the tunnel was being dug, other crews were gouging canals into the west-side landscape, including the main artery, the 11-mile long South Canal. “Go out and look at the canals in winter,” Catlin said. “Imagine mules and Fresno scrapers—no bulldozers! They fed sheep in the canals in winter—all those little tiny feet packing that ‘dobe clay so that the canals wouldn’t leak!”

Today the Water Users take care of 575 miles of canals and lateral ditches supplying three communities, two counties, and irrigating 80,000 acres of cropland. Not to mention municipal water (by Tri County and other water districts in Project 7) delivered as far as the outskirts of Ouray. And the wilds of Beaton Creek.

“I’m proud of this place,” Catlin told his library audience with obvious emotion. He’s proud too of the farmers who paid back, through water fees, the $12 million the government spent on the original project.

“In my opinion,” he concluded, “without that tunnel, Montrose would not have survived.”

The 100th anniversary celebration happens all day, Saturday, September 26, in Montrose.

One Response

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  1. kellie said, on September 13, 2009 at 6:43 pm


    so great to find your writing on the web… so great to read about our area. thanks for moving your medium! (wink!) i’m impressed.


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