A look at San Luis Valley Reservoirs: Part 1

VALLEY — Reservoirs are a part of the very fabric of the San Luis Valley. Not only are they a significant piece of Valley history, but they remain the gateways to the vital waters of the Rio Grande Basin. Their locations span almost the entire southwestern edge of the Valley and ending along the eastern edge. The eastern end is where Mountain Home, Smith, Sanchez Reservoirs are located, and Platoro Reservoir lies on the western edge. Each has its own story.

Reservoirs are key players in the San Luis Valley’s water delivery system. Each of them is strategically located to help meet the water needs of the communities they serve. Located on the east- central edge on the San Luis Valley Mountain Home and Smith Reservoirs sit on the original Sangre de Cristo Spanish Land Grant. Prior to 1863, irrigators had diverted water from several creeks that drained from Mt. Blanca as well as other portions of the southern Sangre de Cristo range. As settlers moved in land transactions began to increase, and this led to the formation of the San Luis Valley Land and the Trinchera Land Companies.

In August of 1908, a lottery instigated a land grab. Soon, it became apparent that consolidation of the tracts was needed in order to ensure viable farm tracts. As a result, the Trinchera Canal Company was under obligation to provide two inches of water for every five-acre tract over the course of the irrigation season. Eventually, the company found the costs for reservoir and canal construction were too high and they were soon wanting a way out of the deal. This was the beginning of the Trinchera Irrigation Company. Those involved in the formation of the company included W.S. Miller, J.A. Stephenson, A.R. O’Neil, I.B. Melville, V.R. Liggett, Orvill Miller, M.C. Cluster, C.L. Osborn, A.M. Weaver, T.D. Keown, T.D. Nash, John R. Williams, G.G. Moorhead, and Ira E. Francis.

The first meeting was held on July 25th, 1910. Members of the newly formed company soon passed a $500,000 bond issue for the purpose of paying the Trinchera Canal Company for the already existing water rights and irrigation systems as well as the completion of two reservoirs, along with canals and ditches for the distribution of water.

However, this created a serious problem. Landowners soon brought a lawsuit against the new district to make them provide water under the old contract. In turn, the district sued the canal company to force them to complete their obligations. Eventually, an agreement was reached and the canal company surrendered district bonds and construction proceeded. By June of 1912, the contractor Phillips and O’Gara was hired to build Smith Reservoir and complete the construction of Mountain Home Reservoir. Each dam was built with scrapers and the material was hauled in by wagons. By 1913, both reservoirs were storing water. The capacity of Mountain Home Reservoir is 19,500 acre feet and Smith Reservoir holds 5,000 acre feet. Both are located on Trinchera Creek. Smith also takes in water from both Sangre de Cristo and Ute Creeks.

Although the reservoirs were built, the sale of small tracts of land continued to be a problem for the district. Many of the transactions were not recorded in Costilla County, buyers were not found, taxes went unpaid, and the lands went unproductive. By 1919, Blanca Farming and Land Company had acquired all outstanding tax sale certificates aiding the district in their financial difficulties for a time. But, cash flow was still a problem. Soon, the value of district bonds decreased dramatically and in 1944 the Trinchera Irrigation Company was dissolved and taken over by the Trinchera Mutual Irrigation Company.

Today, Mountain Home Reservoir is an active recreation site for the eastern San Luis Valley. Trinchera Irrigation Company is now looking to make needed structural improvements to the reservoir. In early 2017, funding for a feasibility study to upgrade the outlet structures of the dam was approved by the Rio Grande Roundtable.

Sanchez Reservoir can also be traced back to the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. The portion of the grant the dam was built on was originally under the control of William Gilpin, former Colorado governor. Due to decades of land transactions and the railroad arriving in the San Luis Valley, the landscape had changed drastically. The Sanchez Reservoir project began in 1910 under the direction of the Costilla Estates Development Corporation. The reservoir is fed directly by  Ventero Creek, along with large amounts of water that come from diversion canals along Culebra Creek. Much like the other reservoirs, Sanchez was constructed by the use of steam shovels, scrapers, and teams of wagons. By 1913, the dam was complete. Sanchez is the largest reservoir that services the San Luis Valley with a capacity of 100,000 acre feet. However, it has never been full.

Platoro Reservoir was part of the San Luis Valley Project. The original proposal of this project was to build four separate diversions which were the Wagon Wheel Gap Dam, Closed Basin Project, Platoro Reservoir, and the Weminuche Pass Diversion. Out of the four, only the Platoro and Closed Basin became reality. Built by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1951, the first contract between the Bureau and the Conejos Water Conservancy District (CWCD) called for $2,327,729 to be paid over a period of 40 years as well as the cost of operations and maintenance. In 1960, the contract was revised to a variable payment that depended on the amount of water that was delivered. In 1991, CWCD purchased the exclusive operation and maintenance of Platoro. Many improvements have been made to the reservoir since that time.

Nathan Coombs, manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District, pointed out that the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable has helped to fund two projects at Platoro. The first project was a valve replacement in 2009 for which the Roundtable provided approximately $200,000. In 2012, the Roundtable provided another $200,000 grant for the rehabilitation of the crest of the dam. Coombs also pointed out that the Conejos Water Conservancy District is looking to develop policy that will help to make Platoro Reservoir more of an asset to the entire Rio Grande Basin. CWCD is now looking to the future and looking to maximize their resources to best meet the needs of those who depend on the water that Platoro provides.

This is just a portion of the history and efforts that have been put toward the preservation of water, property and the way of life that has made the San Luis Valley.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable holds their monthly meetings on the second Tuesday of each month at San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 4th Street, Alamosa. To learn more visit www.rgbrt.org 

 Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.

Caption: Mountain Home Reservoir provides irrigation water as well as recreational opportunities such as boating./Courier file photo by Ruth Heide