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McElmo Flume Hailed For Bringing Water To Cortez

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The McElmo flume (credit: CBS)

The McElmo flume (credit: CBS)

CORTEZ, Colo. (CBS4) – On this year’s list of Colorado’s Endangered Places is an important part of the history of the city of Cortez — one of the remaining structures that brought a vital resource to the valley — water.

“If it wasn’t for irrigation, Montezuma Valley wouldn’t have come to be,” Charles Davidson with Montezuma Valley Irrigation said.

After the snow melts, sprinklers will once again prove their importance to the southwest corner of Colorado. Water is life, something the farmers and ranchers out there know all too well.

“They wouldn’t be able to survive. That’s their business. If they didn’t have the water, they couldn’t do it on dry land,” Davidson said.

Montezuma Valley Irrigation began developing an irrigation system for the area in 1885. They dug ditches, tunnels and built wooden flumes to carry water from the Dolores River to the arid lands nearby. The network of flumes and canals would extend over 150 miles.

“This is one of the original parts of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation system. This flume is, as far as I know, has been here since the beginning of the Highline Canal,” Less Nunn said.

Nunn surveys the last remaining wood flume from the old irrigation system.

“There was 104 flumes in the system in 1978, when I went to work for the irrigation company there was three left,” Nunn said.

One lasted until 1992, when the canal was re-routed to the south.

“They built it all out of wood,” Nunn said.

The flume was a half circle, built from specially tapered boards like those of a barrel.

“The only time they leaked very much was in the spring when you first turned it in to let everything get soaked up. Then it would seal real good and hold for the rest of the summer,” Nunn said.

The flume crosses McElmo Creek and had flood control gates on it to dump excess water into the creek during heavy rains. It had to be done all by hand.

“Yep, midnight, and probably 500 CFS of water running beneath you, about 10, 12 foot deep, it was a little spooky. It kind of vibrated and shook, and the water would roar and made you wonder what you was doing out there,” Nunn said. “But it did save our ditch down below and keep it from washing out.”

Today, the worry isn’t the water running through the flume, but the snows, wind and other elements that threaten to collapse the structure. Boards that once carried water over the creek now lie at the bottom.

“If it’s going to be saved, it needs to be done pretty quick, because it’s about ready to totally collapse,” Nunn said.

The machinery that built the original flumes still runs and spare parts still sit unused at Montezuma Valley Irrigation’s storage yards. The hope is to renovate the flume to serve as a monument to the importance of irrigation to the region.

“That one is at a place where many people can see it. It’s right off a main highway, and there’s already a turnout there,” Davidson said.

It makes it easy for passersby on the highway to appreciate the lifeblood that created the towns through which they’re driving.

“I was born and raised in the Montezuma Valley. I think it’s a great place and I think we need to preserve all of our history and let other people know what we’ve done and accomplished,” Nunn said.

Learn more about the McElmo flume and the other historical sites in on this year’s most endangered places list by going to coloradopreservation.org. If you’re planning to visit Cortez and the surrounding area, log on to mesaverdecountry.com for travel information about the region.

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