Key Water Terms: Canals and Laterals

Moving water away from the Cache la Poudre River and into nearby fields requires a series of man-made conveyance channels. Structures that divert directly from the river are called canals or ditches. Most early irrigators in Colorado considered pumping water upward to be too expensive, and they diverted water at high points in valleys and allowed gravity to pull water through ditches constructed to follow the contours of the land. As a result, the ditches along the Cache la Poudre do not follow straight lines but wind through the landscape to take advantage of gravity. Smaller channels, called laterals, take water out of canals and distribute water into sub-laterals or into fields.1 Pipelines, flumes, and other conveyance structures complete the system.

In 1860, G. R. Sanderson built the first ditch (the Yeager Ditch) to take water out of the Cache la Poudre River north of Bellvue to irrigate farmland. The number of ditches quickly expanded. By 1882 when Water District No. 3 priorities were adjudicated, fifty-three canals and ditches diverted water away from the Cache la Poudre, and in 1910, the Cache la Poudre Basin supported several hundred ditches and laterals.2 As the number of people living in the Cache la Poudre Basin grew in the twentieth century, Fort Collins, Greeley, and other municipalities began purchasing rights to water flowing through these ditches, and now many canals serve more than one type of user. Today, twenty-three major diversions and hundreds of laterals carry water from the Cache la Poudre to locations in Larimer and Weld County.3

  1. Frederick Haynes Newell, Irrigation in the United States (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1906), 103; Mark Fiege, Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 17, 19; Lila Knight, A Field Guide to Irrigation in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, “Character Defining Features of Irrigation Structures,” Historical Studies Report no. 2009-01 (Prepared for Texas Department of Transportation by Knight & Associates, Buda, Texas, 2009), 129-131,
  2. Victor Elliott, Decree in the Matter of Priorities of Water Rights in Water District No. 3 (Fort Collins: Evening Courier Printing House, 1882); Rose Laughlin, Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River, Colorado Water Resources Research Institute Special Report No. 15 (Colorado State University, 2005), 26.
  3. Mark Simpson, District 3 Water Commissioner, email message to author, April 30, 2014; U.S. Census of Agriculture, 1910. Forty-one ditches draw water from the Cache la Poudre according to CDOT (a total of 134.6 miles), but the State Engineer’s database shows 88 results for ditches that divert from the Cache la Poudre, though not all are active.

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