Liquid gold: Maybell Ditch makeover to reduce wasted water, help endangered fish

Sasha Nelson
Water from the Yampa River in Juniper Canyon is diverted into a ditch built between 1899 and 1903, taking water into the Maybell Valley west of Craig. A new measuring device and automated gate will increase the efficiency of the ditch resulting in less waste. Pictured are Ditch President Mike Camblin and his dog, Brass, at the head gate for the irrigation canal.
Sasha Nelson/staff

— Moseying across fertile valleys and tumbling through lonely canyons flows Colorado’s most precious resource — water.

Water from the Yampa River feeds our communities, our farms and our industry.

The ever-growing thirst for more water in the west is behind a renewed push to use this water wisely and that is creating challenges for many managers including the shareholders of the Maybell Irrigation Ditch located about 30 miles west of Craig.

“For 100 years this has been a quiet ditch. The sleepy days are over,” said Maybell Irrigation District President Mike Camblin.

Construction on the ditch started in 1899, 12 years before Moffat County was established from the western portion of Routt County.

The Routt County Sentinel reported on July 24, 1903, “all of the men are poor men and have already put three years in on the ditch, with the prospect of three more years on the ditch, but when they are finished they are heeled.”

The men knew that irrigation would allow the fertile soil to produce crops, feed livestock and bringing prosperity to the area.

“Without the ditch, Maybell would be a sagebrush flat,” Camblin said.

The first section of the gravity-fed ditch is located on the highest point of the river before it enters Maybell Valley that happens to be in Juniper Canyon on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

“The canyon is popular with kayakers for its Class III rapids over the diversion dam, also known as the Maybell Ditch,” states the BLM’s booklet “Journey 65 Million Years in 65 Miles.”

The first mile of the ditch flows over the top of hand laid stonewall between eight to 12 feet high.

In 1902 the Craig Courier reported, “never in the history of irrigation has an undertaking of such magnitude been launched and successfully carried out…”

Near the end of the wall, an iron flume built in 1964 directs ditch water across the river.

“I was told that the plan for the flume was designed on a napkin at the old Maybell Café,” Camblin said.

The ditch winds roughly 19 miles through the valley coming to an end near the unincorporated community of Sunbeam, about six miles northwest of Maybell. It irrigates about 9,000 acres of cultivated land owned by 24 current shareholders who produce hay and livestock.

Agriculture uses the largest amount of water in Colorado, according to the State Water Plan. The state plan was adopted in November 2015 and among its goals is to improve agricultural irrigation conservation and efficiency.

The Maybell Irrigation District has faced pressure to increase efficiency by reducing waste through a new system that will keep the flow of water in the ditch constant and will also assist the endangered fish recovery program.

When is water wasted?

Unused water in the Maybell Ditch finds its way back to the Yampa River, however when large quantities of water flow through the canal without benefiting water users, it is considered by engineers at the state Division of Water Resources to be wasted.

“It’s kind of like if you are taking more on your plate than you can eat, you are wasting your food,” said Kathy Bower, Colorado Division of Water Resources District 44 water commissioner.

Water commissioners are responsible for administering prior appropriations — a legal doctrine in Colorado that gives the first person to take a quantity of water for beneficial use — agricultural, industrial or household purposes — the right to continue to use that quantity of water for that purpose.

“We keep the records on water rights, and that’s what keeps a water right viable,” Bower said. “They don’t own the water, they own the right to use the water.”

When water runs short owners of the oldest water rights — senior rights holders — make a call, a literal phone call to the water commissioners requesting access to more of the water they have a right to use.

The commissioners may slow or shut off access to water by people with more junior rights thereby ensuring delivery of water to users based on priority.

Colorado Water Court documents show that water for the Maybell Ditch was appropriated in 1899 with a senior water right for 42.2 cubic feet per second (cfs). A second appropriation was made in 1946 with a junior right for 86.8 cfs that was adjudicated in 1972.

Even when there is plenty of water, if the water is not being put to beneficial use it can be deemed wasted and water commissioners can slow or shut off access.

In 2015 the division determined that more water than was needed was flowing through the canal and commissioners curtailed water to the Maybell Ditch.

During curtailment, “we are telling them they need to turn down. They were running too much through the ditch. We didn’t shut them off. We just turned them down. We warned them to put it to beneficial use and not run it,” Bower said.

In the past as long as the ditch was not keeping water from people with prior claims to use it, then water could run through the ditch and back into the river.

“Water from the ditch flows right back into the river, but there was concern we had too much tailwater that wasn’t going to beneficial use,” Camblin said.

Thinking of excess water in the ditch, as wasted water is a relatively new concept and requires management of the flow on the front end of the ditch rather than at the tail end.

“It is difficult for the old-timers on the ditch to understand why they have to change,” said Bower. “We all take a while to adjust to change.”

Water usually flows through the ditch from early April until late November, but this year the headgates aren’t set to open until May 1 to allow for canal improvements.

The irrigation district will spend just under $200,000 to repair a slough, mitigate invasive weeds, place a new measuring device about a quarter mile from the ditch headgates, install a new automatic outlet gate about a mile down from the headgates and install a series of new check gates, said Camblin.

Grant money for the improvements was raised from a number of sources including:

• $63,000 from the Endangered Fish Recovery Program

• $49,000 from the Colorado River District

• $48,000 from the Yampa-White-Green River Basin Round Table

Shareholders of ditch doubled their mill levy raising the annual tax collected from roughly from $12,000 a year to $22,000. They will also spend an additional $20,000 of reserves for a total of about $42,000.

In addition to improving the delivery of water through the ditch, these projects will also aid the effort to maintain flows needed for the recovery of endangered fish in the Yampa River.

Fishy business

There are four endangered fish species — humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow, and razorback sucker — depending on water in Northwestern Colorado for their survival.

“I pitched that green frog out there and this (Colorado pikeminnow) hit it, just about straight across, and he ran down that fast water, riffles, and took out about 200 feet of line before I turned him around. It was one of the most thrilling fish I ever caught if you want to know the truth,” stated Maybell, resident Gene Bittler in a historical account.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program works to increase populations of the endangered fish in the Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. works to increase populations of the endangered fish in the Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

The Maybell Ditch has the potential to reduce the water available to fish in a short section of the river between the diversion and the tailwater and to create readings causing unnecessary releases from water stored at Elkhead Reservoir.

“The big concern has been the release from Elkhead. If the canal is putting out more water it’s going out their tail. The fish gauge is at the Maybell Bridge, between the headgate and the tail,” Bower said.

This means the fish gauge might show low flow prompting a release of water from the reservoir when just downstream unused water from the canal increases the flow.

Reducing the canal tailwater would mean that “the fish people wouldn’t have to release from Elkhead,” Bower said.

Bower’s family used to own a ranch on the Green River. It was taken through federal condemnation when Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge was created. She understands irrigators’ needs, their concern about the Colorado Water Plan’s impact and appreciates the efforts of the Maybell Irrigation District.

“It’s one of the first ditches in our area that they are working on to improve efficiency so that people down the ditch can get the water that they need and conform with what we are trying to do,” Bower said.

A pioneer legacy

It’s not the first time that the Maybell Ditch has led the way.

In the Eighteenth Biennial Report of the Office of the State Engineer for the period from Dec. 1, 1914 to Nov. 30, 1916 State Engineer Adelbert Weiland wrote to Colorado Gov. George Carlson, “a third district known as the Maybell Irrigation District in Moffat County is in process of formation… to take over the Maybell Canal Company’s system… It is intended to issue $80,000 in bonds $60,000 of which will be used in the purchase of the system and $20,000 for expenses of organization and improvements.”

At the time three out of five ditches in Colorado were considered by Weiland to be in “bad order.”

He noted that improvements had already been made to the Maybell Ditch, but that “some of the water users who are favorably located and have all the water they want do not wish to be disturbed in their present methods but those who hold early rights but are not so favorably located but farther down the stream perhaps are beginning to see the necessity of division of water on a scientific basis.”

Efficient ditch management might be less about expensive equipment and more about communication.

“Sometimes the people down the ditch don’t communicate,” Bower said.

Closing or opening check gates can dramatically increase or decrease water through the ditch.

“If we need to lessen our tail water or increase our load, we’ve picked up the phone calls,” Camblin said. We’ve increased our workload.”

Demand for water is expected to continue to increase. Part of Colorado’s plan to meet the need is for all water users to more effectively and efficiently use this limited, most precious resource.

“Hopefully some of the other water users will be more mindful of their water,” Bower said.

Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or

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