Pondmountain—the Dutch Ditch Digger
Ditches: Lifeblood of the West
[SW Colorado | March 2020 | By Mary Menz]
Water law and water rights are very complicated topics in western states, especially here in Colorado where the Rocky Mountain runoff and its waterways provide water to seven states in the Colorado Basin region. Before they leave Colorado, however, Colorado’s rivers irrigate and serve their own water users in many different ways. Think recreation, household and industrial use, and agriculture.
Western Slope agriculture—including hay, corn, fruit, and hemp crops, to name a few—uses irrigation water. Excess irrigation water runs off into tailwater ditches where it meets the needs of other downstream users. A maze-like network of more than 750 miles of canals, lateral ditches, and other drainages in the Uncompahgre Valley alone brings valuable water to users here in Southwest Colorado and beyond.
Along with rights to use the water come rights to conserve the water, so that none of it is wasted. That’s what makes ditch maintenance so important. It’s not only a personal responsibility to conserve water, but it’s also a legal responsibility to keep the ditches clean of debris and flowing properly.
A Ditch Dichotomy
If you’re from western Colorado, channeling water to the land is a way of life. If you’re from the Netherlands, channeling water away from the land is another way of life. The dichotomy lies in geography.
Much of the Netherlands is comprised of rivers with channeling ditches and canals built on a water-logged delta. “The primary purpose of its multiple waterways is to move water away from the land so that the land is stable and viable for building,” said Harvey Vijverberg, also known as the “Dutch Ditch Digger” of Montrose.
In stark contrast, Western Slope canals and ditches were developed to bring water to the land. That’s where Vijverberg’s experience becomes invaluable. He brings to his ditch-digging business years of experience working in Dutch agriculture. His company, Pondmountain, helps ditch owners and other water users keep the waterways clean of the winter flotsam and jetsam that blows in, such as trash and leaf debris, but also keeps them clean of the annual regrowth of thirsty noxious weeds and other plants. Just as important, regular ditch maintenance also prevents unwanted flooding.
Colorado water users are allowed only a certain amount of water per year, based on their deeds of ownership and senior or junior rights. That means conserving every bit of it as necessary to get through the season. Ditch owners typically perform an annual and sometimes biannual ditch clean-out to keep the water flowing efficiently.
Traditional ditch maintenance includes an annual burning of the ditch interior and its edges. This practice is often followed by the occasional dredging of ditches, which pulls out soil buildup from collapsed ditch banks. Timing is often limited to the short season between snowmelt, spring showers, and the annual water release date, which falls on April 1 this year.
Vijverberg prefers his method of ditch digging and maintenance to traditional methods, finding it more efficient and ecologically sound. He works with a custom-built V-shaped bucket that cuts a deep V trench. “A deep V trench helps prevent erosion, because the sides are less likely to cave in during the season,” said Vijverberg. He also uses a wide mowing blade that can clear ditches of fast-growing weeds and other water-choking plant growth. “The ditch doesn’t need to be dry at all. It can be full of water when I maintain the ditch in the spring or summer.”
Vijverberg explained that his method has been used in the Netherlands for half a century. Because of the high moisture content of vegetation and soil in that region, there’s never an opportunity to burn or maintain a dry ditch.
Pondmountain doesn’t limit the use of its V-bucket to just ditch maintenance. “Word is getting around that it digs great holes for trees,” joked Vijverberg. “It’s a lot less time-consuming for me to trailer it to a client site and dig the perfect holes than for them to rent the equipment, get it home, and try to operate it. Turns out, it’s cheaper for them, too.”
Watch the V-bucket and mowing blade in action on the Pondmountain website at pondmountainco.com. You can also follow Pondmountain LLC on Facebook.