Above, President Taft spoke at the opening of the Gunnison Tunnel, then the world’s longest irrigation tunnel, in Montrose in 1909. Photo courtesy Denver Library digital collection.

Above, President Taft spoke at the opening of the Gunnison Tunnel, then the world’s longest irrigation tunnel, in Montrose in 1909. Photo courtesy Denver Library digital collection.

MONTROSE—(November 6, 2013)  The vision that shaped today’s thriving community began a century ago, with the creation of the Gunnison Tunnel, a project that brought water from the Upper Gunnison  to the Uncompahgre Valley during the hottest months and allowed withering crops to reach harvest. Now, it is time to apply that same innovative thought process to water storage on the Western Slope, Marc Catlin told an interested crowd at the Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli Forum Oct. 23.

A former manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association and member of countless water-related committees, Catlin didn’t pull punches.

“The faces have changed, but none of the issues have,” he said. “We’re still on the point of the spear; we are growing, while Las Vegas and Los Angeles are still demanding more of something they think we have too much of. Denver is on that course too.”

Mentioning the dire possibility of trans-mountain diversion of Western Slope water, Catlin added, “there are people working all the time to get what we have—but WE are not working all the time to keep it…if the tunnel were to close, we would have enough water for 21 days.”

Though the economic downturn has been tough on Montrose, it may have been a blessing in disguise, he noted.

“Before the downturn, we were seeing 20 subdivision applications a month,” he said. “That stopped; now, we have the opportunity to decide what kind of community we want to be. Is agriculture a priority? It makes up a third of the economy of our community, and provides a renewable resource—row crops alone are worth $30 million per year.

“Every third dollar in this valley came from a farm.”

Those who planned the Aspinall (water storage) Unit had the forethought to consider future generations, he noted.

“We are the future they were planning for, but WE have not planned for the future we have coming,” Catlin said. “They knew back then that this community was going to grow, and provided 200,000 acre-feet of water for us to grow into. But when the Eastern Slope gets in a jam, they start talking about water as a “statewide” resource.

“The Governor is creating a statewide water plan,” Catlin said. “Now is the time for us to decide what we want to put in that plan. And if we are going to be a right-to-farm community, then let’s zone for it.

“Agriculture does other things for us,” he added. “Imagine the landscape completely brown—and remember that there is not a lot of tourism in the ‘dobies between Grand Junction and Delta. And remember how far out into the country Main Street runs.

“When we give up farm ground for houses, it’s a one-time crop.”

After citing the example of the Project 7 Water Authority, which brought together all seven local water providers in a cooperative organization, Catlin discussed the possibility of building water storage capacity by fixing the outdated reservoirs on Grand Mesa.

“We are fortunate that here the water is tied to the land,” Catlin said. “I would suggest that Fort Collins and Denver come here and take a look, and help us retrofit some of our old facilities. That way, when the Colorado River is called, the reservoirs can release to meet the requirement.”

The idea is to bank water during wet years, for use during times of drought.

“If we can fix our older reservoirs, it shows willingness and ability,” he said. “There are more than 100 small reservoirs on Grand Mesa, and more than half cannot be used because of dam safety issues.

“Ridgway took the initiative to have their reservoir supply their domestic needs,” Catlin said. “I suggest we start banking water in our old reservoirs. This is the kind of thing we need to think of as a community if our kids are going to live here.

“Water’s not that important, until you’re thirsty,” he said, and took a long drink.