Common Ground invests in irrigation system to help keep the valley green

Bowen Ditch, dug in 1868, to receive important repairs to keep water flowing

By Tara Flanagan
Bowen Ditch Company Secretary

With its origins in a tight and somewhat remote canyon on Chalk Creek, the Bowen Ditch meanders 17 miles east toward the Arkansas River, feeding local agriculture and creating green meadows between Centerville and Hecla Junction along the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway on US Highway 285.

In addition to meeting the agricultural needs of its membership that holds 16 shares, the ditch enhances habitat and its sub-irrigation helps recharge wells and groundwater. Without the Bowen and the network of ditches throughout Chaffee County, agriculture would be a considerably more challenged venture. And the county’s famed, long mountain vistas that are anchored by lush meadows would be something else entirely.

The Bowen Ditch creates green fields when it runs, adding to the mountain backdrop in Chaffee County. Greg Wright surveys his field on Highway 285.

Construction on the ditch began in 1868, and the Bowen Ditch Company officially filed with the State of Colorado 20 years later. In those days a trip to Denver wasn’t an everyday event; paperwork often waited a long time.

At well beyond 100 years old, the ditch has seen repair after repair from the hands of its membership, who typically set out in the spring to clear sticks and other debris from the waterways, remove boulders and fix whatever needs attention for the upcoming water season.

“We rely on that volunteer effort from our members,” says Bowen president Tom McConaghy. “Without that we simply couldn’t afford to operate the ditch.”

A heavy summer rain in 2021 blew out an aging aqueduct on the Bowen Ditch, making the system inoperable until repairs are made.

In May of 2021, it became abundantly clear that the Bowen’s headgate, a mostly wooden structure that had been nursed back to health for multiple season openings, might not make it another year. Not only were the boards and surrounding structure failing, but the headgate was becoming increasingly dangerous to operate.

Replacement would not be inexpensive. Due to the need for new concrete to be poured in a remote location, and the engineering and materials required to hold back a charging waterway, the project would easily hit tens of thousands of dollars. The membership simply did not have the readily available resources to do the project well.

Based on what the Bowen provides to the Chaffee County community as well as the urgent need to fund the gate project, McConaghy applied for a Chaffee Common Ground Grant in June 2021. 

Funded through a 0.25% sales tax that local voters approved in 2018, the grants support local agricultural lands and rural landscapes. The program is administered through the Common Ground Citizens Advisory Committee. The grant program also supports efforts toward wildfire prevention and healthy forest initiatives, as well as mitigating the impacts of growth in outdoor recreation.

“We were beyond grateful when we were told we were among the recipients,” McConaghy said. “And it’s something that will not only help the Bowen Ditch well into the future, but it will help ensure that an incredible piece of Chaffee County stays green.”

That includes the Centerville Ranch and its an iconic meadow on the east side of Highway 285, and a conservation easement that receives several shares of Bowen water.

The ditch company received a grant of $42,500, which will cover the costs of the headgate along with major repairs to an aqueduct that suffered catastrophic damage in 2021’s springtime floods.

Water on Chalk Creek roars through the Bowen Ditch headgate in early June. The gate controls the annual flows and holds back the waters when the ditch is out of priority. A Common Ground grant is funding a new metal gate to replace the aging wooden structure.

A new headgate is being manufactured and is slated for delivery in late 2021. The ditch company’s contractor will work on the aqueduct project throughout the winter months as well as prepare the site on Chalk Creek for the new gate. The plan is to have the new structures in place and ready for the 2022 ditch season – which, depending on calls that are based on the seniority of water rights – typically begins in late May or the first week in June.

“There is a lot of pressure to keep the agricultural lands going in this county,” McConaghy said. “And over the years we have lost some ditches – they’ve been abandoned. With grants such as this we can keep them from disappearing.”