VALLEY — There are hidden treasures in the San Luis Valley, and most of them have something to do with water. Santa Maria, Continental and Rio Grande Reservoirs are among these gems. They are a reminder of the timeless importance of water for all who call the San Luis Valley home.
The site of Santa Maria Reservoir is a natural volcanic crater known as Mirror Lake. In 1910, the Rio Grande Reservoir and Ditch Company began the construction of a dam. This effort was organized under the banner of the Travelers Insurance Company. The company also had a need for supplemental water for lands in the system of canals recently acquired from T.C. Henry. The result was that Travelers Insurance was eventually able to claim a site that had been abandoned by the Famer’s Union Irrigation Company.
When work began under the supervision of an engineer by the name of Jaycox, the original plans included a pipeline connected to Bennet Creek. Later, the high cost of maintenance resulted in the pipe being abandoned. There was also a continuous wooden stave pipe that was 8,000 ft. long which provided high pressure water needed for hydraulic washing of material to the construction site and later became a large source of reservoir water. Workers in moveable carpenter shops cut each piece of lumber for this structure. The pipe was eventually replaced in 1934. While the pipe was being built, the outlet canal and tunnel were in the process of being excavated. On October 26, 1911, monitors began sluicing material to the site of the dam and operated 24 hours a day. The outlet works include a 600 ft. long tunnel that was excavated underneath the dam to return water to North Clear Creek. The site also had large amounts of suitable material, which made construction much easier. The results of this effort are still standing.
Continental Reservoir is located at the highest elevation of all San Luis Valley reservoirs sitting at 10,290 ft. North Clear Creek is the sole source of water. The site was first surveyed in 1901 and the first filing on the land came on September 24th, 1902 from Theodore J. Lukeman. The initial design for Continental came in 1911. It was later redesigned and built between 1925 and 1928. Eventually, the property was acquired by Santa Maria Reservoir Company (SMRC).
The Santa Maria Reservoir Company was established in 1946 and is the owner of both Santa Maria and Continental. The company supplies irrigation water to four San Luis Valley counties including Rio Grande, Saguache, Costilla and Alamosa for Irrigation Division No. 3. In addition both reservoirs store water for the Rio Grande Compact, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Trans Mountain diversions for Sub-district No. 1. Altogether, Santa Maria Reservoir Company services nearly 70,000 acres of San Luis Valley farmland.
In 2007, SMRC established the Santa Maria Reservoir Company Rehabilitation Initiative as age had generated the need for repairs to both reservoirs. Funding was obtained from the Water Supply Reserve Fund for the purpose of hydraulic and hydrologic analysis. The URS Corporation was contracted to conduct the study. The studies soon identified deficiencies in the Continental dam and spillway as well as the Santa Maria conveyance system. Solutions to these issues were also addressed. Furthermore, URS evaluated potential dam safety issues at Continental. There had been seepage occurring at the dams’ left abutment. The issue caused restrictions to be placed on the reservoir resulting in a storage deficiency of nearly 12,000 acre ft. In 2014 and 2015, reconstruction took place at Continental and Santa Maria conveyance system. The work is now complete and each system should be able to function at full capacity. SMRC celebrated its accomplishments in August of 2016 and looks forward to many more years of service.
A discussion of San Luis Valley water can hardly be held without mention of Rio Grande Reservoir. Built in 1912, this dam is owned by the San Luis Valley Irrigation District and is over 100 years old. A great deal of renovation has taken place over the past seven years including the complete resurfacing of the face of the dam in 2013 thanks in part to the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Water Supply Reserve Funds provided through the Rio Grande Roundtable. The story of Rio Grande Reservoir continues to unfold.
This is just a small portion of the history that is the water of the San Luis Valley. The incredible work that has been mentioned was recently summarized quite well by San Luis Valley historian, Melvin Getz at the 2016 SMRC celebration. As a long- time advocate for “fixing our reservoirs,” Getz commended each of the water entities of the Valley that own reservoirs. Getz went on to point out that their successful efforts have been a part of preserving a way of life in the Valley and the heritage that goes along with it.
The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month at 623 East 4th. Street, Alamosa. For more information please visit www.rgbrt.org