Montrose County Ditch Systems

[July 2019 | San Juan Silver Stage] By Deb Barr

MONTROSE COUNTY DITCH SYSTEMS are the lifeblood of local agriculture and critical to the regional economy. With our arid, high-desert climate, rain falling from the sky is typically not sufficient for intensive agriculture, so our extensive ditch systems, such as Nucla’s Colorado Cooperative Company (CCC) ditch system, which distributes water from the San Miguel River, are key to our economic well being.

The Silver Panic of 1893 delivered a devastating blow to the American economy, hitting Colorado’s farming communities particularly hard. With the nation headed into severe recession, there were many who, in their financial panic, sought the security of community-run ventures to ensure personal survival. Such were those who joined together to establish the CCC.

The CCC was formed in 1894 under the principle that “man can never enjoy his highest freedom, individuality, intelligence and refinement, unless it be through a system of cooperation…in strict obedience to laws conceived in kindness and based upon equity.” Pretty high standards for a newly formed communal organization, and worth noting the CCC’s original 10-member board included a woman.

Its members found suitable land in Montrose County’s West End for homesteading, set up a camp on the banks of the San Miguel River and named it Pinon. The first few years were difficult. The residents had trouble raising enough food on the dry land to sustain themselves and digging an irrigation ditch to divert water from the river to their fields became a community priority. The goal was to deliver water, via a system of culverts and wooden trestles and using gravity, to the area known as “First Park” (formerly Tabeguache Park, now the location of Nucla) and northwest to “Second Park” and beyond, although the system never made it past Second Park.

By 1896, a rift in the community had erupted over the ditch’s construction and management, and the project faltered. When a group of Denver shareholders attempted a takeover of the ditch construction, community members were successful in their opposition and eventually hired an outside company to finish the job.

The 17-mile-long CCC ditch was completed in 1904, five years before the Gunnison Tunnel would bring irrigation water to the Uncompahgre Valley. With water flowing, the construction camp at Pinon shut down, and the residents pretty much moved the entire town up the hill to present-day Nucla. A few remnants of Pinon remain, including its cemetery. Sharon Johannsen of the Rimrocker Historical Society says most of those buried there are children.

To this day, the CCC holds senior water rights to the waters of the San Miguel. In extreme droughty years, the CCC has authority to issue a “call” on the river, and if a call is issued, any water that flows must fulfill the CCC’s water rights before any others.

Unlike the Gunnison Tunnel, which was built by the Bureau of Reclamation, the CCC ditch system was a product of vision and determination and the fruit of a community’s joint efforts. The CCC is still communally owned, and its office, located at the corner of East 5th & Main in Nucla is an original building from the Pinon camp. It’s a historical reminder of the CCC’s rich and important history in the West End.

Building such an extensive ditch system with today’s dollars would break the proverbial bank, but with vision and wherewithal, our West End pioneers, more than 115 years ago, managed. The ditches of Montrose County provide us with more than water; they provide us with hope for a more secure future. For that, we are very grateful.

Those interested in learning more about the CC Company and the history of the West End can visit the Rimrocker Museum, located 411 West 2nd Avenue in Naturita, Colorado. Each fall, the society sponsors an ATV tour of the CCC ditch from Nucla up to the head gate on the San Miguel. For more information, visit

Sources: Rimrocker Historical Society website, Denver Public Library website, Jocknick’s Early Days on the Western Slope of Colorado, and personal interview with Sharon Johannsen.

Pinon “Sawmill Gang”, CCC Ditch Workers & the Lucifer Tunnel. (Both courtesy of Rimrocker Historical Society)

CCC’s Office in Nucla, Colorado. Relocated to Main Street from the Pinon camp. (Photo by Jim Womeldorf)