Century-plus-old Lower Yampa River diversion nearing funding for modernization

The antiquated headgates to the Maybell Ditch will be replaced with modern, remotely-operated headgates as the Maybell Diversion Project works to put together the $4.5 million needed to complete a modernization project.
Courtesy photo / Jenn Wellman

A series of river implements built in the late 1800s is still diverting water in the Lower Yampa River near Maybell. That is likely to change soon.

The Colorado River District has awarded $500,000 in funding for an improvement project on the river that will have multifaceted benefits for agriculture, fish habitat, wildlife and recreation.

The $4.5 million Maybell Diversion Restoration and Headgate Modernization Project is the product of a partnership between the Maybell Irrigation District, The Nature Conservancy, and Friends of the Yampa that has been in progress for several years.

The project, which hopes to break ground in the fall, will have a multitude of benefits for the entire Yampa Valley, advocates say. Located at the mouth of Juniper Canyon, the diversion was originally built as early as 1894. There is still-hand placed rock along the ditch from that time period that remains intact today.

“It was built using some really amazing engineering,” said Jennifer Wellman, Northwest Colorado Freshwater Project Director for The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Yampa Board Member.

Now well over 100 years old, the diversion has been a difficult passage for fish and riparian wildlife. Much-needed restoration will improve conditions for fish to travel through the diversion, and for other wildlife to maneuver across the river.

Mike Camblin, Maybell Irrigation District president, said many meetings have been held with wildlife and recreation experts to better understand the impact on fish habitat, wildlife, and boaters near the diversion.

“The Maybell diversion is particularly dangerous for boaters to pass, especially during low water season,” Camblin said.

Friends of The Yampa has been instrumental in providing feedback on boat passage through the diversion, offering letters of support, reviewing designs and providing feedback on the look and feel of the passage from a recreational standpoint.

“It’s a unique area of the Yampa, and not many people have the skills and knowledge to access the diversion. They know how hazardous and problematic the Yampa is in that reach,” Wellman said.

Josh Veenstra, owner of Good Vibes River Gear in Craig, has also been involved in the project, providing insight for the design of the diversion passageway.

Another key aspect of this project is repairing the headgate for the irrigation, which has been broken for a couple of decades. Camblin said the headgate was rebuilt in the 1980s and has not had much work done on it since then.

“On the agriculture side, it will allow us to get water to the agriculture community more efficiently and leave water in the river that isn’t needed for irrigation,” Camblin said.

Once the headgate has been modernized, the Maybell Irrigation District will be able to operate the headgate from home, rather than having to go out physically into the ditch, which can be difficult to access.

The equipment that operates the Maybell Diversion was built in the late 1800s and has only been lightly updated once since then. A new project is working to change that.
Courtesy photo / Jenn Wellman

“With modern technology, we have telemetry and these amazing systems that can operate gates from a remote location, saving time and being able to more efficiently irrigate water. That was the primary goal of this project,” Wellman said.

The project has received a wide variety of financial support and continues to pursue funding on a local, state and federal level.

From the local and regional level, the Yampa-White-Green-Basin Roundtable has been a major source of support for the effort. The Yampa River Fund, which is endowed funding for Yampa-specific projects, is supporting the project for its direct benefits on fish habitat protection, safe boat passage and irrigation infrastructure improvements.

On the state level, the project will receive funding from a Colorado Water Plan Grant through the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which supports projects that relate to the Colorado Water Plan.

Last year, The Nature Conservancy began applying for Colorado River District funding through the District’s funding arm, Community Funding Partnership, for the modernization project.

As the applicants got further into the application process, the Partnership wanted to see the project further into the design phase, with an itemized cost breakdown from engineers before considering funding. There was a rough project cost estimate, which was less robust, presented prior to COVID-19.

Over the last year, project partners continued to work diligently on planning and development. The project designs are now 60% complete, and engineers are working on construction plans. Evidently satisfied with the more detailed outline of the project, the $500,000 grant award is a major step toward garnering full funding.

The Maybell Irrigation District, as a water management entity, will be eligible to apply for up to $900,000 in federal funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Services grant for water management agencies. The amount of funding will be determined by availability and eligibility, and the Irrigation District is going through the eligibility process now.

The Nature Conservancy also applied for funding through the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program in December and will hear about a funding decision soon.

Wellman said additionally that this project wouldn’t be possible without the support of private donors, who have provided funding that allows the project to leverage state and federal funding sources.

“We have a lot of supporters who love the Yampa and want to see agriculture, wildlife and recreation continue into the future,” Wellman said.

The diversion project partners are also working with Megan Stetson from Moffat County Extension Office to involve Maybell 4-H in a youth education component. The goal is to educate youth about the diversion and how irrigation is controlled for local agriculture. Wellman said some youth even want to be involved in monitoring water flow.

“We want to make the next generation of irrigators aware of the new technology we are hoping to construct for water irrigation,” Wellman said.

The groups plan to hold tours over the summer for community members and youth school groups to help educate about the Maybell Diversion Project and raise awareness for the work being done along the Yampa River in Moffat County.

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