$6.8 million upgrade to century-old ditch unites agricultural, environmental interests on the Yampa River

MAYBELL — About 2 miles south of U.S. 40 near Maybell in northwestern Colorado — down a steep, dirt road and a mile along the bank of an irrigation ditch — sits the 126-year-old Maybell headgate.

The headgate opens to divert water from the Lower Yampa River into the Maybell Ditch for farmers and ranchers in Moffat County. But for decades, its remote location and aging structure caused problems for boaters, fish and irrigators alike. This spring, a long-planned, $6.8 million facelift for the Maybell diversion wrapped up just before the start of the irrigation season.

The project brought together unlikely bedfellows — recreation, agriculture and environmental groups — who say this type of multibenefit partnership is the path forward as Colorado and other Western states grapple with a hotter future in the Colorado River Basin.

“It kind of opens the door for a lot of people — especially the ag community and the environmental communities — to realize they can work together to solve some of these problems we have,” said Mike Camblin, a Colorado rancher and president of the Maybell Irrigation District. “Everybody wins.”

Mike Camblin checks on the monitor for the soil moisture levels, May 20, on his ranch. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Juniper Canyon rises high above the Lower Yampa River, a tributary of the Colorado River, where the now-modernized diversion structure siphons water into the irrigation canal.

Originally built in 1896, the diversion is now the largest agricultural diverter on the Yampa. It provides water to 18 agricultural producers and about 2,300 acres of irrigated land.

The stretch of the Yampa River is home to wildlife, including four threatened or endangered fish species whose free movement depends on healthy river flows.

Rafters, anglers and other boaters put into the river upstream from the diversion and float through the rapids created by a dam that helps raise water to flow through the headgate and into the canal.

But the antiquated diversion needed to be upgraded. The century-old headgate was hard to open and close, and the long trek to the remote location caused delays when the irrigation district needed to adjust the headgate and the amount of water flowing to farms and ranches.

The old structure also posed a challenge for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Officials can release water from Elkhead Reservoir to boost levels along the Yampa River between Craig and Dinosaur National Monument near the Colorado-Utah border. The boosted flows help fish swim upriver and find places to eat, grow and reproduce.

But in the past, the officials were concerned that because of the inoperable headgates some of that water — designated solely for environmental purposes — would end up in the Maybell ditch instead of the river.

Recreators had a hard time navigating around boulders, some of which were the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, placed in the river as part of the diversion structure. They created big waves that could flip boats and cause a difficult, pinball effect for boaters passing by the diversion.

Fully repairing the diversion seemed like a pipe dream, Camblin said, until a round of beers in the 2010s with The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Yampa, an environmental and recreation nonprofit.

“We knew it was going to be a million dollars to do, and the district just didn’t have it,” he said. “They said, ‘Hey, we think we can help you guys do a new headgate.’ … Over that beer was kind of the start of this project.”

The heart of Maybell

The Maybell Ditch is central to the founding of Maybell, an unincorporated community of less than 100 people in Moffat County.

“The Maybell Ditch is actually the heart of the community,” Camblin said.

The people who homesteaded in the valley had a tent camp at the bottom of Juniper Canyon and spent the winters working on the ditch with horses and carts. They moved rocks that are the size of a pickup truck, said Darryl Steele, a Colorado rancher who traces his family roots back to those homesteaders.

Their closely fitted stonework forms the bank of the ditch and is a marvel of engineering that is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Over time, the irrigation district — which depends on volunteers — and local agricultural producers helped widen and improve the canal. They built roads and repaired it after an “ungodly” winter in the 1980s led to flooding that washed out the dam and headgate, Steele said. They repaired it again the next year after a big ice jam came down the river and wiped out their work. Boulders they placed in the river rolled during the high runoff each spring — so they placed the rocks again and again.

“We continued that upgrade all these years,” Steele said. “We have continued to make the ditch bigger and better and more reliable.”

The Maybell Ditch flows through the agricultural lands, including Mike Camblin’s ranch, along the Yampa River, May 20, near Maybell. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

In recent years, the irrigators were able to get their water, but the headgate was hard to maneuver when they needed to open and close it. The boulders in the river made it difficult for boaters, said Steele, who was a boatman for the National Park Service after college.

“I had run that. It wasn’t a dangerous run, but it was hard to maneuver, and this will make it a lot easier,” he said. “You won’t have to be a really professional boatman to navigate it.”

Six years of planning, six months of work

The locals say nothing put in that canyon is permanent, but the partners hope the new upgrades will last for decades to come.

“I mean, I think we’re hoping that it lasts another 100 years,” said Jennifer Wellman, The Nature Conservancy’s freshwater project director for northwestern Colorado, while walking along the thin strip of land between the ditch and the Yampa River on the way to the headgate in mid-May.

Fundraising was an early challenge: The project ended up costing more than initial estimates, and after learning that the historic rock work could not be disturbed, the partners had to get permits and build new, expensive roads to access the construction site. The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and the Bureau of Reclamation provided the bulk of the funds.

Some of the remaining work on the project includes reworking the landscape to return it to its original state as much as possible, Wellman said. There are so many mountain lions, elk, beavers, great blue herons, ducks and more that live in the area.

“We wanted this area to remain as pristine as we could,” she said.

The partners worked carefully with the local community to make sure their concerns were addressed during the planning process, Wellman and Camblin said.

Camblin, with his dog Brass in front of a sprinkler system, runs 30,000 acres of ranching land around Maybell. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“We went into it very delicately, knowing that there was going to be some people that might not be happy with some of the partners we put in place,” Camblin said. “TNC has been great for us. They really have. I mean, they pretty much did all the work on this.”

Working with JHL Constructors, the irrigation district and its partners upgraded the headgate and re-engineered the dam so debris could flow past without getting caught. They laid boulders, locatable by GPS, in the river to create eddies for fish to rest as they travel upstream during high flows. They removed hazardous boulders to allow easier navigation for boaters — opening up more recreational opportunities in the future.

The partners added in new solar panels, cameras and a radio-controlled telemetry system to allow the district to remotely open and close the headgate for the first time in 126 years.

In the future, when water managers need to send water downstream to increase flows for fish habitat, the irrigation district will be able to quickly and remotely close the headgate to ensure the water flows past.

For the local community, the project offered an opportunity to bridge a gap, Camblin said. It set a precedent that they could build on going forward, and it’s a model for other water managers in Colorado who are trying to do multipurpose projects that bring together different groups.

“The ag community and the environmental community have basically got the same goals, but there’s been a divide there,” Camblin said. “We crossed that divide with TNC. … We wanted the same thing; it was just a matter of sitting down and having that conversation.”

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