By Kelsea Macilroy

Here in Colorado, we all know where the best peaches come from: the Grand Valley. Enjoying some of the most temperate weather in Colorado, the Grand Valley of Western Colorado is one of the few places peaches and grapes can be grown reliably in abundance. For over a century viticulture has been practiced in the Grand Valley and the impressive variety of wines has been growing steadily with 80 percent of Colorado’s grapes grown here. Integral to the growth and continued vitality of both industries are the irrigation companies and management partnerships that deliver Colorado River water to support crop production.

Straight off, I should offer a disclaimer: I love wine and I love peaches. From the moment the announcement of CFWE’s Vine to Wine Tour arrived in my inbox, I knew I needed to attend. What could be better than learning about the various ways Colorado water is managed to bring people together around tasty, delicious things? Not only did this tour combine two of my favorite things, it also explored the intersections between managing water for multiple uses, irrigation efficiency, local agriculture and how they support our wine and orchard industry in Colorado.

Managing Water for Multiple Needs

Dale Ryden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teaches tour participants about the endangered fish species native to this reach of the Colorado River.
Dale Ryden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teaches tour participants about the endangered fish species native to this reach of the Colorado River.

Sitting under the outside pavilion at the Wine Country Inn with the sun warm on our backs and the promise of a beautiful day ahead of us, Dale Ryden of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started off educating us about the endangered fish species native to this reach of the Colorado River. Armed with a 6 foot long life-size cutout of a Colorado pikeminnow he was joined by Brent Uilenberg of the Bureau of Reclamation. Together they explained how, due to decreased river flows in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River outside of Palisade, four native fish species—the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow, and razorback sucker—were identified as endangered. With some historic collaboration among key water interest groups, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program has assisted multiple projects designed to improve fish habitat and instream flows through the 15-Mile Reach, all while continuing to support local agricultural production. This includes modernizing the Government Highline Canal to reduce water diversions, installation of fish passages at dams and fish screens at turnouts. Acquisition of floodplain habitat has also been instrumental in providing fish nursery areas.

The Orchard Mesa Check Structure
The Orchard Mesa Check Structure

Guided by Max Schmidt of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Mark Harris of Grand Valley Water Users Association, our next stop was a tour of some of the infrastructure that makes irrigation and fish recovery possible. In a massive coordinated effort among the reservoirs upstream of the 15-Mile Reach—called the Coordinated Reservoirs Operations—flow releases are timed to provide optimal flows for both fish and humans. These coordinated releases and “checks” in irrigation canal systems provide additional support of the Recovery Program and intentionally create surplus from the Historic Users Pool. In operation informally since 1926 and adjudicated in 1996, the Orchard Mesa Check Structure is part of a complex arrangement that dictates when and how the check is operated as well as other contingencies involving the Historic Users Pool in Green Mountain Reservoir. Orchard Mesa Irrigation District consumptively uses only 170 cubic feet per second of water, but withdraws more in order to operate their power plant. In order to most efficiently use water, the check structure diverts water that runs through the power plant to be released upstream of the Grand Valley Irrigation Company diversion, which is senior to the power plant.

Irrigation Efficiency & Local Economy

Over 18,000 people receive water to irrigate around 81,000 acres from one of six irrigation companies or districts in the Grand Valley. Riding through Palisade in our horse drawn carriage, the stark contrast between the lush, fertile valley floor and the dry, high mesas of the area made it clear how heavily the local economy and community depend on water. Perry Cabot and Horst Caspari both work for the Colorado State University Experiment Station in the Grand Valley searching for ways to increase irrigation efficiency and crop production—improvements in these areas mean a more efficient use of water and a better crop for producers.

During the tour, we had the privilege of visiting two farms. With peach harvest season just getting started, the Talbott Farms processing plant was humming with activity. Here, Bruce Talbott shared with us the importance of agriculture for the local economy as well as the large amount of peaches that go to waste because they are considered “imperfect.” Up to 40 percent of food grown in the United States never gets eaten. Much of that is due to marketplace demands that require food to be a certain size or weight and a particular appearance. The peaches that are culled never see the market, and Talbott Farms takes a hit as they still invested water, land, and time to those peaches. Fortunately, many of the tour participants were able to help prevent a few peaches from going to waste.

Red Fox Vineyard
Red Fox Vineyard

The day concluded with a stop at Red Fox Cellars, a family owned vineyard with a tasting room, where Scott and Sherrie Hamilton guided us through a selection of their delicious wines. Part of what makes Colorado wine unique is its terrior—the environmental effects of the place where it is produced. The way the sun shines on the valley; the quality and quantity of water applied to the plants; the particular composition of the soil; and the fact that Colorado wines are grown at the highest elevations in North America. All of these things come together to shape the particular taste of the wine.

After learning about all the passion and effort expended to support agricultural operations, endangered species habitat, and improvements in crop production and irrigation efficiency all I wanted was a glass of wine—I highly recommend Red Fox Cellars Bourbon Barrel Merlot. Here’s to Colorado water and all the people who work hard to meet the many demands for it. Cheers!

Kelsea is a PhD student studying Natural Resource and Environmental Sociology at Colorado State University where she prefers to read and write while sampling one of Colorado’s many delightful foods or beverages. She is currently working with the Colorado Water Institute on a project that engages with agricultural water use and the opportunities and barriers for conservation in the Colorado River Basin. Growing up in southern Arizona, attending Gordon College in Massachusetts where she studied history, and living in Alamosa for six years, gave Kelsea an interest in the ways water has been historically managed and how that has shaped its use today. In her free time Kelsea enjoys exploring parts of Colorado new to her with her husband and cross-eyed dog. She also really likes peaches.

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