How a cellphone is helping water finally get to South St. Vrain Creek

SOUTH ST. VRAIN CREEK — Sometime this summer, certain parts of South St. Vrain Creek may, for the first time in over a century, have water flowing through them intermittently, thanks to technology most Coloradans take for granted but until recently has been out of reach for area water managers.

Gates used to divert water from the creek in the direction of thousands of customers on the Boulder County plains now can be controlled using cellphone technology, making sure deliveries to downstream municipal and agricultural uses are made with precision.

First and foremost, it will help people like Terry Plummer, superintendent of the Left Hand Ditch Company, monitor stream flows into a section of South St. Vrain Creek that has been mostly dry since the 1860s.

The location is historic because it’s where farmers on the plains around Longmont and Boulder obtained a water right in the 1860s to construct a hand-dug ditch to divert water from South St. Vrain Creek into James Creek and on to their fields, creating the first inter-basin water transfer in Colorado.

That diversion became problematic when another farmer, Reuben Coffin, watched South St. Vrain Creek through his land dry up and, upon investigation, discovered a dam the ditch company built at its diversion site that was preventing any water from reaching him. Coffin and crew breached the dam and installed armed guards.

Opting out of a gunfight, the Left Hand Ditch Company sued Coffin and his men for trespassing and sought damages. After the Boulder County District Court ruled in the ditch company’s favor, Coffin appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, which in 1882 upheld the ruling. The landmark case affirmed Colorado’s “first in time, first in right” water doctrine and allowed for the diversion and dam to remain, which is where Plummer enters the contemporary picture.

Water from the South St. Vrain Creek fills the original stream bed when the diversion gate opened several yards uphill, July 1, near Ward. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Water from the South St. Vrain Creek fills the original stream bed when the diversion gate opened several yards uphill, July 1, near Ward. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

For many of the years he has worked at the ditch company, he would drive to the remote location to manually adjust water flows for about 450 Left Hand Ditch Company accounts with around 1,600 shares, and for the Left Hand Water District, which supplies water to homes and businesses “from Longmont down to Erie and out to I-25,” said officials.

But the drive from the site, on a dirt road near Ward, to his office in Niwot takes three hours round trip and water flows are finicky. So, often, he or his predecessors would manually lower or raise the steel gate that releases or blocks river flows and head back to town only to find that cloud cover had caused water levels to rise or fall so they’d have to drive back up and do it again.

Now with simple cell service, he can connect a mobile device to the diversion system, see river flows in real time and tell the system what to do. That’s more exact monitoring than the state is doing at the site, because they’re using a satellite system that only updates once every two hours, Plummer said.

With his information and that of two state water gauges at the site, Plummer can monitor multiple water gauges, “do the math” to figure out if there’s water left over after prior appropriations have been fulfilled, remotely trigger a cable system that lowers the gate at the South St. Vrain diversion, and “send excess water down South St. Vrain Creek where somebody (other than the ditch company’s customers) can use it,” he said.

Officials Monday said the technology could have been deployed sooner, but there was no cell service in the mountains near Ward.

That changed in recent years when Nederland and Raymond built cell towers. Then, about a year ago, John Schlagel, Plummer’s boss and the president of the Left Hand Ditch Company, woke in the night with a vision to operate the diversion remotely.

Terry Plummer, superintendent of the Left Hand Ditch Company, speaks at the diversion site on South St. Vrain Creek near Ward. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

He contacted Plummer, who called Sean Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District. Cronin said the district was more than happy to help the ditch company with expertise and money because “at this remote location, the ability to get a skyline signal was really too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

The water conservancy district, which helps to manage St. Vrain River water resources, split the $24,000 cost with the Left Hand Water District. That covered two antennas it took several hours to place into the perfect position to receive a cell signal, a 60 watt solar panel powering an electric motor in a stainless steel box that lifts and lowers the diversion gate, and a touch screen display inside the box that allows those with the right credentials to log in locally and make changes manually, officials said.

The partners say the project signals a shift in the relationship between historical water management practices and environmental values, which have sometimes been at odds. “This project underscores our unwavering commitment to preserving Colorado’s waterways while ensuring sustainable agricultural practices,” Cronin said. The St. Vrain River is a major system in the larger South Platte River Basin on Colorado’s Front Range that supports fishing, recreation, municipal uses and agriculture.

Sean Cronin, left, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, discusses the cell phone tower technology with Christopher Smith, general manager of the Left Hand Water District, at the diversion site near Ward. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

When asked why it took managers so long to implement such a seemingly straightforward project, Cronin said, “I think there’s been a lot of interest at this specific location to try to find ways to manage water, to meet all the various needs. There were studies done in this area in the ’90s where solar technology to this degree wasn’t available. So I think technology opens new doors.”

Jenny McCarty, watershed program manager for St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, added the relationships among the groups involved were also key to realizing the project.

“As Terry said, they had an idea and they wanted to get it done,” McCarty said. “There’s so much great relationship and trust built up between the different organizations that we could come together very quickly to meet a lot of different community needs.”

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