PITKIN COUNTY – The East Mesa Water Company is asking Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board for a $45,000 grant to help cover the $550,000 cost of installing 1,450 feet of new pipe in the 8.5-mile-long East Mesa Ditch.
The irrigation ditch can divert up to 42 cubic feet per second of water out of the Crystal River 9 miles above Carbondale, but it typically diverts about 32 cfs.
The proposed East Mesa Ditch project entails installing 48-inch plastic pipe on a failing section of the irrigation ditch that includes an 80-year-old, 650-foot-long tunnel and a hillside that often sheds rock and mud down toward the ditch.
The work will keep the ditch functioning but won’t result in more water being left in the Crystal River, which is a goal of the county river board.
“As a board, with our mission, we’d like to keep as much water in the river as we can,” Andre Wille, the chair of the county river board, said Nov. 20 during the review of the East Mesa application. “If we can improve the efficiency of that ditch, and leave the rest in the river, that would be in our interest.”
Dennis Davidson, a consultant for East Mesa Water Co. with more than 40 years experience at the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said there would be “minimal” water added to the river from the repair project, as it only included adding 1,450 feet of pipe to a 8.5-mile-long ditch.
But, he noted, if the ditch were fully piped, which he said would cost $20 million, there would be water savings.
“If we lined the East Mesa Ditch from beginning to end, we would probably get by diverting 50 percent of the water that we divert,” Davidson told the river board.
The ditch “loses as much as 35 percent of the water in the ditch due to seepage through the course and rocky soil,” according to a feasibility study from East Mesa submitted to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in a funding application.
The East Mesa Ditch typically runs the first two weeks of May until about mid-October. It sends water to 740 acres of land between 1 and 5 miles south of Carbondale, most if it with big views of Mount Sopris and some of it protected with conservation easements.
The water is used for cattle ranching, and growing nursery trees, forage crops and hay.
Down to 1 cfs
On paper, the East Mesa Ditch is the second biggest diversion on the lower Crystal.
The largest diversion on the river is the Sweet Jessup Canal, which can divert 75 cfs. It is located about a mile-and-a-half upstream from the East Mesa diversion structure.
When the Sweet Jessup, the East Mesa and the Lowline Ditch, which is just downstream of East Mesa, are all diverting, water levels in the Crystal River often drop well below the environmental minimum of 100 cfs set by the state.
According to a study done by consultant Seth Mason in 2012, the river below the diversions dropped to 4 cfs Sept. 4 and to 1 cfs Sept. 22, 2012.
“Near complete dewatering of the stream channel was observed through much of September at Thomas Road and near the Garfield/Pitkin County line,” Mason, with Lotic Hydrological, LLC, said in his 2012 report.
Need to divert all the water?
The East Mesa Ditch has a senior water right for 31.8 cfs that dates back to 1894 and a second water right for 10 cfs from 1942.
Davidson told the river board that in his experience in the Roaring Fork River Valley, 20 cfs is usually enough to irrigate 800 acres of land.
As the East Mesa Ditch typically diverts 32 cfs to irrigate 740 acres, does that mean there is as much as 12 cfs of water that could potentially be left in the river and still allow for adequate irrigation?
No, according to Marty Nieslanik, president of the East Mesa Water Co.
He said the full 32 cfs of water needs to be diverted today to act as “push water” to convey water to the end of the long irrigation ditch.
“We figure we lose two feet of water from our head gate to the last person who takes it out,” Nieslanik said.
He also said that some of the diverted water also returns to the river.
“After it dumps out at our ranch, it comes down the draw and drops in right below the fish hatchery,” Nieslanik said. “So that’s why you see the big difference as you drive down the Crystal, it’s almost dry and then all of a sudden there is a lot of water there.”
Nieslanik told the river board that the company was “trying to make our water go further.”
“If we can get that whole mesa irrigated with 25 feet of water, we may let six or eight of water go by to help the river maintain its levels,” he said.
“It would be good to understand the benefits,” river board member Lisa Tasker told Nieslanik about the project. “We are very interested in the natural hydrograph and trying to mimic that as best as possible.
“Speaking for myself, I would love to leave a little bit of water coming down the river to help the river out, if we could somehow make that happen,” Neislanik said after the meeting. “We need the water to maintain our lifestyle, but if there is any way that we can make that water more efficient, then maybe there is some way that we can leave some of it the river.”
Money for water
The East Mesa Water Company is on track to raise $410,000 toward its ditch-repair project, whether or not the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board agrees to a grant.
The company will receive a $300,000 grant from the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service when the work is complete.
It has secured a $60,000 grant from the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and a $25,000 grant from the Colorado River District. And it has requested a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Soil Conservation Board.
The company also has obtained a $375,000 loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is to serve as a bridge loan until the project is complete and grant funds come in, Davidson said.
There are 12 shareholders in the East Mesa Water Co., and 1,003 shares have been issued to them, based on the size of their land holdings. Owners are assessed an annual fee of $15 a share, which brings in $15,000 a year. The company has no debt.
“The East Mesa Water Co. operates on assessments of the water users,” according to the feasibility study given to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “For many years, the ditch company has kept the assessments as low as possible as many of the users are just getting by.”
The largest shareholders in the company include Paul Nieslanik, who owns 200 shares, John Nieslanik, who owns 185 shares, Tom Bailey, whose Iron Rose Ranch owns 185 shares and Richard McIntrye, who owns 168 shares.
Marty Nieslanik told the county the hay grown with water from the East Mesa ditch was worth about $500,000 a year under a calculation of four tons of hay per acre, on 740 acres, at $170 per ton.
At the end of Nieslanik’s presentation, the members of the Healthy Rivers and Stream Board agreed to meet in December to continue to review East Mesa’s application.
The Healthy Rivers and Streams Board will next consider the East Mesa application Thursday at 4 p.m. in Pitkin County’s Plaza 1 meeting room.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014.