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History of Irrigation in the Boulder Valley

The History of Irrigation in the Boulder Valley

Excerpted by permission of Anne Dyni, author of Pioneer Voices of Boulder County, published by the Boulder County Open Space Department and available for purchase at the Court House Annex.

Photograph by L.C. McClure circa 1925 copyright by the Denver Public Library.
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"Nature withholds her rains from the plains of Colorado and admonishes her people that they must strive to overcome this deficiency by artificial means."

Patent Office report titled "Agriculture," written in 1861 by Rocky Mountain News editor Edward Bliss

The ability of the Boulder Valley farmer to divert water onto his fields from the streams that flowed across the plains gave him a distinct advantage over eastern farmers. It assured him of a good crop, although as Ernest Pease lamented, " took about as much time to irrigate a field as it did to cut it." Irrigation began in the Boulder Valley as early as 1859.

The meadows and lowlands came under irrigation first because it was relatively simple to build a dam in the stream and divert water to adjoining land, requiring little or no ditching. However, irrigating land further from the streams required ditches. These were dug with teams of oxen or horses pulling plows or ditchers (V-shaped chisels that cut deep trenches in the soil). Many of the earliest ditches, such as the Holland Ditch near Altona, were dug with a team and walking plow. They were carefully designed to allow the water to flow gently across the entire field. Levels were attached to the plow, allowing a farmer to judge the proper angle so that the water did not flow too rapidly. A drop of one inch per twenty feet was common and that distance was often measured by tying a rag on the wagon wheel spoke. A predetermined number of revolutions of the wheel indicated the distance traveled.

According to a list of ditch decrees for District #6, which encompassed the southern half of Boulder County, the Lower Boulder Ditch was filed on October 1, 1859, for a fee of $25.00. Marinus Smith and William Pell are believed to have dug the first ditch in the valley, but they apparently did not file until the middle of November. By that time the filing fee had almost doubled to $44.30. Six streams drain onto the plains of Boulder County; North and South Boulder Creeks, Left Hand and St.Vrain creeks in the northern section, and Coal and Rock creeks in the southern part of the county. Water from Brainard Lake near Ward drains into South St. Vrain Creek but in about 1860, Samuel Arbuthnot and his mining partner diverted some of this water into James Creek as well. "They were gonna pan gold up there...sluice," explained Samuel's grandson Wayne Arbuthnot. "So they went over to [the South St. Vrain] and they put a dam in there, and they run water down across and through their sluice box. It came down Jim Creek, is what it did. The people down in the valley wondered what happened to their water so they came up and blew out the dam. And my granddad and this fella dammed it up again and sat on it with a rifle this time."

The first irrigation water diverted from South Boulder Creek ran through Abner Goodhue's ditch in the late 1860s. He neglected to register it at that time, however, and subsequent ditches took seniority for water rights. In this case, seniority was claimed by the South Boulder Canon and Davidson ditches dug in 1871 and 1872, respectively. In 1880, prior to the establishment of the State Water Commission, Governor Pitkin appointed Hiram Prince of Boulder County to oversee the division of the waters of Boulder Creek. He became water commissioner for District #6 when the state commission was formed in 1879. He remained at that post until 1885 whem he resigned to run for the state legislature. Subsequent commissioners included James Platt, a prominent Valmont resident who held the position until 1912 when his son, Tom Platt, took over.

The Left Hand Ditch Company, established in the 1860s, dug the first diversion channel in Colorado Territory, an event that had extensive legal ramifications. According to Andrew Steele, whose family has always been shareholders, "At an early day one summer, the Left Hand Creek went dry," he explained. "So the settlers ... discovered [that] by building a short ditch from the south fork of the St. Vrain, they could divert water from the St. Vrain into Left Hand, which they did. This action was contested and went to the Supreme Court (where it was upheld). So much of our water diversion law now is based on that court decree." Historically, Left Hand Ditch Company is unique among county irrigation ditches because it has never been under the jurisdiction of the State Water Commission. Also unmatched is its system allowing share holders equal priority for water use. Each shareholder is guaranteed equal access to the water flowing in the ditch. Disputes over water rights have accompanied ownership since the first irrigation ditches were dug, and such disagreements continue today.

A popular latterday motto stated, "You can fool around with my wife, but not my water rights," and for this reason early water commissioners were obliged to wear badges and carry guns. Bitter court battles were waged and some of those early decisions remain on the books today as precedents in water law disputes. Along Dry Creek-Little Davidson Ditch pitchforks became weapons, hatchets destroyed some headgates, weeds plugged others, and one imaginative farmer put a beehive on his headgate so no one would turn it off.


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Last Page Update - Tuesday December 27, 2005