Last week, I wrote about water rights in Western Colorado, so this week, I wanted to talk about irrigation water and irrigation methods in Western Colorado that enable you to make the most of your land. This blog post will cover ditch easements, popular irrigation methods, and how to handle tailwater to keep your land property irrigated.

What are the Most Popular Irrigation Methods?

Understanding different irrigation methods will help you implement one that will work best for you, given your water rights and what you need from your land. There are several different methods to distribute water across the irrigated ground, but the two main types of irrigation fall under two categories: flood or sprinkler irrigation.

Flood Irrigation

Flood irrigation is a simple and primitive method of irrigation. It is typically less expensive to install than sprinkler irrigation but much more labor-intensive. The following irrigation methods are all different types of flood irrigation.

Tarp and Dam

The tarp and dam method is one of the most primitive methods of flood irrigation. This method involves stretching a plastic or fabric tarp across the ditch, creating a dam.

Open ditches are the most common way of transporting water. Many of these open ditches run along property lines. Therefore, as the tarp creates a dam, the dammed water backs up and flows over the top of the ditch and onto the land.

Typically there are secondary ditches that allow the overflowing water to stretch across a section of land. Marks (lines) are scratched in the ground, allowing the flooding water to follow the marked lines across the land and distribute the water.

When the water reaches the end of the pasture, the property owner will release the dam and create a new one farther down the ditch.

Gated Pipe

A gated pipe is another flood irrigation method. Here, you line a plastic pipe along a property line, and water from a ditch enters the plastic pipe by way of a headgate or valve.

Plastic gates are installed along the pipe every 18 inches or so. A series of gates are opened, allowing water to spill out of the pipe and into the marks or lines in the ground. This allows the water to flow evenly.

As the water reaches the end of the pasture, the open gates are closed, and the next series of gates are opened.

Siphon Tubes

Siphon tubes can also take water from a ditch and distribute it across the land. Typically, these ditches are concrete ditches that run along a property line. Aluminum tubes are placed every 18 inches or so along the ditch. A siphon is created that allows water to flow from the ditch through the tubes and into the field marks.

When the water has saturated the ground, the tubes are reset and moved farther down the ditch.

Sprinkler Irrigation

Sprinklers require water pressure, through gravity or a pump, but are a much more efficient way to deliver water to the land than the flood irrigation methods mentioned above. While the upfront cost can be high, a sprinkled pasture is typically more productive and requires less labor to operate. Sprinklers also eliminate the need for placing marks in the ground as is required for most flood irrigation methods. The following are different types of sprinkler systems used for sprinkler irrigation.

Big Gun Sprinklers

Big gun sprinklers are mobile sprinklers with wheels that help them move to places that need water. A hose connects these sprinklers to a valve. The valves are strategically placed to shoot the water and saturate an area of the property before moving on to the next.

Side Rolls

Side roll sprinklers consist of an elevated water pipe supported by large wheels with sprinklers mounted along it. Side roll sprinklers must be moved manually along a path. They typically have a small gasoline engine and gears that move the giant side roll to and fro along a path.

A hose connects the side roll to a pressurized water pipe with valves, and the hose must be disconnected and reconnected every time the side roll is moved to a new location along its path.

Center Pivots

Center pivots are a type of sprinkler in which the water comes up through a pipe in the center and runs out to various sprinklers located along a giant arm. The center pivot moves in a circular pattern, and giant wheels allow the arm to move around the center pivot until the full or half-circle pattern is completed.

Drip Irrigation

Many orchards and vineyards utilize drip irrigation to water rows of fruit trees or grapevines. This eliminates the unnecessary waste of water. By putting the water at the base of each tree or vine where it is needed, drip irrigation eliminates unnecessary water waste.

What Happens When the Water Reaches the End of My Pasture? 

Tailwater is the water that has reached the end of the pasture. In addition to having ditches at the uphill side of the pasture to deliver water, it is also necessary to have ditches at the downhill end to catch the water as it reaches the end of the pasture. Water users are responsible for their “tail” or “waste” water, and it must be collected and transported back to the main ditch or distributed in such a way that it is not destructive to neighboring properties that would otherwise be flooded by the water. It is always good practice to maintain your ditches and make sure your water is not creating a problem for neighboring properties.

What is a Ditch Easement? 

Another aspect of water rights that property owners need to know is about the ditch easement on their property.

In Western Colorado, ditch companies and water users have a right to access private property to check water, clean ditches, check on headgates, and otherwise maintain the waterway.

Even though you own your property, you must be aware of these rights, and you cannot prevent these water users from accessing your property to check their water. This means you cannot construct a fence or install landscaping that might block the water users from bringing in equipment to clean the irrigation ditches. Water users have the right to remove fences or trees that are installed or planted too close to an irrigation ditch.

It is also important to notify the ditch company of any pipes or culverts you wish to install under driveways or other areas. The pipe or culvert must be sized according to the amount of water that could potentially flow through it. An undersized pipe or culvert could be grounds for a legal dispute.

You must not impede or otherwise store water (ponds) that flows through your property. In Western Colorado, animals are allowed to drink water from a creek or ditch, but unless you have water rights of your own you are not allowed to utilize or store the water that flows through your property. Pumping water from a ditch is also not allowed even if you have water rights, as a pump is not a legally recognized way to measure water (if you own water rights and have a legal “take out” you can then pump water after it has been measured). One sure way to create a legal dispute is to place a pump or pipe in a ditch or construct a pond to hold water to which you do not have rights.

What This Means for Property Owners

If you’ve been looking at land for sale in Western Colorado, think twice about the water rights and irrigation system that comes with it. Irrigation can be labor-intensive or costly if you opt for a sprinkler system rather than manual labor. Not to mention, you’ll want to fully understand how much water you’re allowed to use to ensure you use your land at its highest potential.

Whether you’re a client or just curious about water rights and irrigation systems in Western Colorado, feel free to reach out with more questions.