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RBC | The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the persons of Tiffany Jehorek, Meeker District conservationist, and Scot Knutson, Glenwood Springs Field Office civil engineer, and the James Ritchie “R Lazy J Ranch” on Flag Creek hosted a tour July 19 of the ranch’s new-fangled, “big gun” irrigation system. The automated, gravity-powered installation incorporates 133 big gun sprinklers, powered by a minimum of 90 pounds per square inch of gravity pressure. Each gun can throw water for 200 feet providing a circular reach of 400 feet.
The top of the system is essentially Howey Reservoir on the Blanco District of White River National Forest, sitting at an elevation of about 8,800 feet, on the slopes of Big Mountain, the headwaters of Flag Creek. Coming down Flag Creek, onto Ritchie private property, there are two off-channel livestock-watering ponds that now double as intake points feeding into some nine miles of 6 to 15 inch largely high density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe on through the narrow, alluvial fields of what used to be part of the Port Franklin Hereford Ranch.
Follow-up work yet to be done includes treating erosion and ditch seepage issues at Howey Reservoir. A positive shut-off for the ditch system out of Howey and replacing nearly two miles of ditch with pipeline are planned for the near future in cooperation with the Forest Service. All of this will further improve the problems of erosion, nutrients, including selenium, entering the ground and surface water, and other sediment loading issues.
According to Jehorek, the irrigation project itself is replacing three open ditches, eliminating two miles of ditch, decreasing seepage and considerably reducing the discharge of irrigation flood water back into Flag Creek. Previously, these return flows have carried a heavy sediment and nutrient load into the creek. As designated under the Clean Water Act, Flag Creek has been one of two impaired waterways in the county, due to its selenium load.
Jehorek added that the project results in a significant reduction in the total irrigation water used, from 12 cfs to six cfs with irrigation efficiency going from 35 percent to 75 percent. Also, irrigation-induced soil erosion, especially bank sloughing, will be nearly eliminated. Return flows now will largely be through the alluvium and the newly constructed irrigation reservoirs.
As for fishery values, past practices have caused extreme, fluctuating water temperatures which have negative effects on fish populations. The new system will decrease current water temperatures allowing for better trout survival. To enhance these stream improvement effects, work continues now in planting buffer zones along Flag Creek using chokecherry, alders, willows, and lower down, cottonwoods and other riparian species to shade the stream.
Screened, largely self-cleaning (“Co-anda Effect”) intake boxes sit below each of the two ponds. The upper pond, which Ritchie calls the Bear Pond (elev. Approx. 7,700 feet), feeds into his A pipeline—design flow 2.4 cubic feet per second (cfs)—and the lower “Elk Pond” (elev. Approx. 7,430 feet) into Pipeline B—design flow 3.5 cfs. The tour group of some 40 people, having gathered at the Ritchie Ranch headquarters for a pre-tour briefing, started their system inspection at the Bear Pond by driving up in several 4WD pick-ups and ATVs.
The two primary pipes then run in parallel down to the old hay fields and into the irrigation equipment mainstem and laterals with the assistance of air release, pressure relief and pressure reducing valves. The fields are being irrigated now and have recently been plowed and seeded with a mix of grass, herbs, and legumes with oats for a cover crop. The seedlings are showing through in good order.
The system is totally wireless and pumpless. Operation of the system occurs via radio signal communication from two solar-powered controllers and signal repeaters. The irrigated fields themselves run for about two and one-half miles down the valley.
Using the new system, it takes the ranch as little as 27 irrigation hours (2-½ days) to cover the 200 acres being watered. Previously, in a labor intensive process, it took two weeks to cross the ground. The tour culminated in a fine luncheon spread for all provided by the Meeker Café, Meeker Hotel.
Funding sources for project costs provided to the tour group included $450,000 from NRCS, $75,000 from the Colorado River Water Conservancy District through the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, and $10,000 from Trout Unlimited. The project contractor was Shawn Bolton, Bolton Construction, Meeker. The pipe was supplied by Mark Sharp of Grand Junction Pipe. Nelson Irrigation of Walla Walla, Wash., was credited for technical support and service.