Irrigation Companies or Irrigation Districts

Irrigation companies and irrigation districts are two types of entities which distribute water in Colorado. People sometimes confuse the two. Both companies and districts own water rights and distribute water, but the two are very different in structure.

Mutual Ditch Companies Reservoir Companies Irrigation Districts
  • Private, voluntary
  • Water allocated by share
  • Length of ditches and number of ditches vary
  • Private, voluntary
  • Water allocated by share
  • Size of reservoirs and number of reservoirs vary
  • Public, involuntary
  • Water allocated by acre
  • Formed to finance large irrigation projects

Irrigation companies in Colorado are usually ditch companies or reservoir companies and are the oldest type of water organization in the state. Mutual ditch companies are the most common kind of irrigation company. A mutual ditch company is a private, voluntary, non-profit, fee-collecting entity. The company holds water rights, and members purchase shares in the company. Water is allocated annually by share, and shareholders pay assessments for company upkeep.  The size and number of ditches administered by a ditch company vary. For example, the Pleasant Valley and Lake Canal Company controls the Pleasant Valley and Lake Canal, but the North Poudre Irrigation Company operates more than ten ditches and laterals. Mutual ditch companies appoint boards of directors, and larger companies may employ several people.  Reservoir companies, such as the Warren Lake Reservoir Company, are set up like mutual ditch companies, but they own the rights to collect and store water in reservoirs. Sometimes irrigation companies are set up to administer both ditches and reservoirs, such as the Windsor Reservoir and Canal Company.1

Irrigation districts also hold water rights. They are public, involuntary, semi-municipal fee-collecting entities controlled by local landowners, but they are much less common than irrigation companies. Currently, there are sixteen in Colorado. Districts are formed to raise money for large irrigation and drainage projects that may not be feasible for individual irrigators or private investors. Enabled by the Irrigation District Law of 1905, water in irrigation districts is allocated by acre. Originally, water could only be used within the district’s boundaries, but today, irrigation districts may lease surplus water to other entities. Irrigation districts share some characteristics with conservancy districts, which are also public, taxing entities created to raise money for large water supply projects. Conservancy districts are much more common than irrigation districts. Many contract with the federal government, and they concern themselves with a range of matters that may include but often exceed irrigation. The Cache la Poudre River is part of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.2

The now defunct Greeley-Poudre Irrigation District was the only irrigation district on the Cache la Poudre River. It formed in 1909. The district’s members hoped to take water from the Laramie River through the Laramie-Poudre Tunnel to the Cache la Poudre River and then to canals and reservoirs in Weld County, north of Greeley, Colorado. Instead, the district found itself at the center of interstate litigation. Unhappy with the loss of water from the Laramie River, Wyoming sued Colorado in 1911 to halt the transbasin diversion. Wyoming v. Colorado dragged on until the Supreme Court decided against Colorado in 1922. The Greeley-Poudre Irrigation District had little water to give its constituents, and its bonds went into default when it could not sell unirrigated land. The district dissolved in 1945, and the Tunnel Water Company, part of the Water Supply and Storage Company, purchased the Laramie-Poudre Tunnel in 1938.3

  1. P. Andrew Jones and Tom Cech, Colorado Water Law for Non-Lawyers (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2009), 208-210; Patricia J. Rettig, “Tracing the Source of Irrigation: An Examination of Colorado Ditch Company Collections in Archival Repositories,” Journal of Western Archives 3, no. 1 (2012): 4-5.
  2. Jones and Cech, 210-212; Rettig, 5.
  3. William R. Kelly, The Laramie-Poudre Irrigation Company, The Poudre Valley Canal, The Greeley-Poudre Irrigation District (Greeley, Colo.: (s.n.), 1964), 12-20; Daniel Tyler, Silver Fox of the Rockies: Delphus E. Carpenter and the Western Water Compacts (University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), 88-122; “History reference,” Water Supply and Storage Company Collection, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University.

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