Water project improves scenery, crop production on historic ranch

The 389-acre Kelly Ranch was placed under a conservation easement in 2011, protecting it from development in perpetuity.

One of Chaffee County’s most beautiful, iconic ranches will be greener for years to come as nearly a mile of irrigation pipe is installed underground to improve agricultural operations at the ranch.

The Kelly Ranch is located at the base of Mount Princeton, seen here from Trout Creek Pass.

The Kelly Ranch is located at the base of Mount Princeton in the center of the valley — the first view visitors get as they come down Trout Creek Pass into Chaffee County. The entire 389-acre ranch was placed under a conservation easement in 2011, protecting it from development in perpetuity. The land is admired by residents and visitors alike for its beauty and the elk, mule deer and antelope that live or migrate there. 

The land was homesteaded in 1873 by Chaffee County ranching pioneer Charles Nachtrieb, who raised cattle and grew hay until 1932. A frame house on the property was built in the late 1880s, and water rights date back to 1874. The Kellys purchased the ranch in 1951. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.

The irrigation project helps keep the ranch productive and the land healthy by allowing for up to 80 additional tons of hay production. Improved irrigation supports one of the state’s largest natural fen wetlands at this altitude and encourages populations of Richardson’s ground squirrels, prairie dogs and burrowing owls, which are a threatened species in Colorado.

The project is funded by a National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) EQUIP grant with matching funds provided by a Chaffee Common Ground Sustainable Agriculture Enhancement Grant. These grants are for projects that enhance conservation values on qualified properties, with a strong preference to those with conservation agreements in place. 

Nearly a mile of pipeline installed at the Kelly Ranch prevents water from escaping the ditch, resulting in more efficient water use. The family will remove rocks and level the fields before growing hay.

The new pipeline transports water onto a portion of the ranch that has been historically difficult to irrigate. Installation involved digging a 3-foot trench and burying 4,360 feet of pipeline from the point of water diversion to fields on the northern side of the property. The Kelly family will level the fields and remove rocks before planting seed and growing hay.

The ranch is served by a hand-dug, century-old open ditch that runs through sandy soils before reaching the fields. The new pipeline prevents water from escaping the ditch, resulting in more efficient water use. Common Ground investments in the irrigation improvement project equal $40,000, about one-third of the total cost.

Chaffee County’s intricate system of century-old ditches are relied on today to support the green open spaces stretching across the valley floor. The annual effort of diverting water to irrigate land provides diversity to the economy and a direct tie to the valley’s heritage. In addition to growing crops, successful county agriculture delivers ground water recharge, long-term preservation of local water resources and critical wildlife habitat, in addition to the open space and vistas.

An additional irrigation system investment of $8,000 by Common Ground made in 2020 allows the Sunnyside Park ditch company to explore repair options for the ditch serving ranches on both sides of Highway 291 north of Salida.

Read more Stories of Impact from Chaffee Common Ground.

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Protecting our best views

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