Urban-Industrial Water Use in Fort Collins

The Cache La Poudre River and its tributaries have shaped the agricultural and urban landscapes of Fort Collins and its surroundings. On June 9, 1864, a flood damaged the original site of Camp Collins causing the Army to look for a new post location. Joseph Mason—a homesteader who is considered to be the father of Fort Collins—proposed a more protected location on a higher riverbank near his landholdings south of Laporte. This site, approved by Colonel William Collins in August 1864, became the new location for Camp Collins, which would later become the town of Fort Collins. The original purpose of the Camp was to protect the route of the Overland Stage Company. In the wake of the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859, however, miners who had failed to strike it rich began to move northward in search of farmland. Settling along the Poudre, these farmers constructed irrigation ditches to redirect water onto their dusty farms and enable the land to sustain their agricultural practices and livestock. Initially, settlers along the Poudre dug short and sometimes unreliable irrigation ditches to redirect water from the river onto their dry farms. These early ditches were essential to Poudre valley homesteaders; they enabled the land to sustain their crops along with their livestock. 1

The establishment of Camp Collins also brought small business to the region. Within its first year the Camp became home to a general store run by Joseph Mason, a mess hall and hotel run by Elizabeth “Auntie” Stone and her husband Lewis, and a gunsmithery operated by Henry C. Peterson. In 1867, Camp Collins closed, and settlers founded the town of Fort Collins as an agricultural colony. Within the next decade, the region’s inhabitants, such as Benjamin Eaton and Franklin Avery, constructed buildings within the town. Buildings of this period included an opera house, a college, and a bank. Elizabeth Stone and Henry Peterson built the Mason and Hottel Mill Race to power the town’s first flour mill in 1869. Eaton, Avery, and others also dug irrigation ditches, including the Arthur Ditch in 1873, and founded cooperative companies, such as the Larimer County Ditch Company, to support agricultural endeavors in the area. 2

The growth of the town, from a population of 772 in 1870 to 2,011 in 1890, meant that municipal needs soon joined the area’s agricultural need for water. Early Fort Collins residents obtained water for daily use from the river, irrigation canals, or local water vendors, who sold river water from horse-drawn water wagons. Lack of water for municipal purposes meant disaster in the dry climate. On February 3, 1880, a Fort Collins fire on Welch Block killed two people. Newspapers speculated that much of the damage resulted from a lack of water for the fire hose. In 1882 after another fire in the Keystone block, taxpayers voted to establish a water works three-and-a-half miles from town next to the Larimer County Canal No. 2. The decided upon location allowed access for both firefighting and filtered water from the Poudre. Unfortunately, the late diversion date of the supply canal left Fort Collins without legal right to adequate water during a dry summer in 1889. To fix this, the city made its first water right purchase, the John R. Brown Ditch, priority fourteen on the river, and transferred the water to the water works supply ditch. When health concerns and demand exceeded the plant’s ability to supply water only a few years later, the city built a new water works at the confluence of the Cache la Poudre River and the North Fork Cache la Poudre River in 1905.3

The river, while necessary to sustain the town, also brought the threat of floods. On June 9, 1891, high levels of snowmelt runoff caused the dam at Chambers Lake to burst and sent a wall of water rushing toward Fort Collins. The water also dislodged massive boulders and sent them careening down the canyon. The extremity of the flood ultimately caused the Larimer County Ditch Company to disband and reform as Water Supply and Storage. Just over a decade later, the Chambers Lake dam burst once again, hitting Fort Collins with one of its most devastating floods. The water flooded all of the homes in the town of Laporte, and brought five feet of water coursing down College Avenue washing away many of the bridges over the Cache la Poudre River. Furthermore, the influx of water tore headgates out of some irrigation ditches. 4

As agriculture developed in Fort Collins, the value of water increased. By 1882, fifty-three canals and ditches diverted water from the Poudre traversing the city’s landscape, as irrigators worked to expand the river’s possibilities, which had several consequences for farmers. First, the construction of canals and the cultivation of water-intensive crops, such as sugar beets, fruit trees, and wheat all contributed to increased demand and higher water prices. In conjunction with this, farmers found that the changes made to the arid environment caused a proliferation in unwanted weeds and trees. This vegetation not only slowed the current but also absorbed some of the water meant for crops. Finally, the inability to completely control irrigation caused problems for farmers. Irrigation water seeped into the ground, evaporated, or collected in low lying areas, which prompted farmers to dig drainage ditches to remove excess water from oversaturated fields. Many townspeople in Fort Collins experienced similar flooding issues since the city developed around the town’s existing and extensive irrigation system. Complaints about flooding eventually prompted the City of Fort Collins to construct a drainage system to remove water from resident’s property. 5

Along with agricultural and business ventures, the Colorado Agricultural College, founded in 1870, attracted researchers hoping to formally study irrigation. Because the college was considered “a leading institution in the West for water-related matters,” it attracted prominent water specialists. Because they could access water from the Poudre, the college’s researchers constructed laboratories that allowed instructors and students to test hypotheses and conduct research. In the early twentieth century one of the researchers at the college, Ralph Parshall, brought fame to Fort Collins by perfecting a measuring flume that improved irrigation worldwide. 6

By the turn of the twentieth century, it appeared that Fort Collins was here to stay. In 1902, the Great Western Sugar Company opened a sugar beet plant in Fort Collins. The daily operations of the sugar beet factory required vast quantities of water to process the beets into sugar. The Great Western Sugar Company acquired its water from a variety of different sources: the City of Fort Collins, the Josh Ames Ditch Company, a small reservoir, and directly from the Cache la Poudre River. In addition to needing large amounts of water, the new industry brought an influx of immigrant laborers. Many German-Russian laborers migrated to the area to work the beet fields. In order to provide housing for these workers, Great Western Sugar constructed the Buckingham settlement in 1902 and Andersonville settlement in 1903. As these immigrants began to leave the beet fields in search of farmland of their own, the void they left was filled with Japanese laborers who eventually gave way to Mexican workers in the years surrounding World War One. Hispanic settlement occurred predominantly in the Alta Vista neighborhood, constructed around 1923 on the north end of Fort Collins near present-day Vine Drive and Lemay Avenue. The construction of immigrant neighborhoods on the northeast side of the Cache la Poudre River served as a geographic and social barrier that effectively isolated these laborers from the rest of Fort Collins and the advantages, such as domestic water use, that residents had. This was due in part to the neighborhoods’ locations next to industrial operations, which were on the opposite side of the river from the rest of the town. 7

Those who migrated to the Cache la Poudre Valley after 1900 found a very different landscape than the arid plains on which Camp Collins was first established. Rather than a wilderness inhabited by Native Americans, the Cache La Poudre River supported an array of farms, towns, and industries through its well-established water delivery system. Around this time, the city’s residents complained about the irrigation ditches flowing through Fort Collins and condemned them as trash receptacles that were unsafe for children. The ditches attracted insects and at times failed to contain the water that flowed through them, which resulted in the flooding of basements in residential areas. Historian Rose Laflin states, “As early as 1929, the Fort Collins Courier declared the Arthur Canal, the former Fort Collins ‘town ditch,’ a ‘constant menace to life and property.’” In the 1930s, hundreds of citizens signed a petition that ultimately led the Water Works Administration to divert the water into pipes and enclose much of Arthur Ditch. 8

After an agricultural boom in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the valley, along with the rest of the nation, plunged into a major drought in the 1930s. Although it was a natural phenomenon, human demand for water exceeded the available supply, which significantly increased the drought’s effects. Farmers who remained in the agricultural business during the Great Depression of the 1930s adjusted their traditional practices by planting half their land with water intensive crops and the other half with alfalfa or other crops that required less water.As a result of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the New Deal, a plan geared toward providing jobs and infrastructure to bring the United States out of the economic crisis. 9

For those who resided along the Poudre River, New Deal reforms manifested themselves in the form of the Colorado-Big Thompson project, which directed water from the Colorado River all over the Front Range. Some of this water was directed under the Continental Divide into Larimer County. Construction on the project began in 1938. Although the project wasn’t finished until 1956, the completion of the thirteen-mile Alva Adams Tunnel in 1947 marked the dawning of a new era in Colorado water usage. After passing through the tunnel, water was moved through a series of canals into Front Range reservoirs, one of which, Horsetooth Reservoir, stored 156,000 acre-feet of water. 10 Although the original intent for the redirected water was agricultural, urban needs increasingly laid claim to Colorado Big-Thompson water. For example, Horsetooth Reservoir now also provides municipal water to Fort Collins residents along with serving agricultural and industrial purposes.

By the time the Colorado-Big Thompson project was complete, a decade had passed since soldiers returning from World War II had flooded Fort Collins and taken up jobs in manufacturing, industry, education, and service. The population of Larimer County had reached 43,554 by 1950. In the wake of the war, industries such as Martin Marietta, IBM, Honeywell, Ball Aerospace, Beech Aircraft, Kodak, and Hewlett Packard located in Colorado’s Front Range. In 1955, the Ideal Cement Company expanded its operations into Northern Colorado, and Woodward Governor, a fuel-control-systems manufacturer, opened its door. By the mid-1960s, these two companies were among Fort Collins’ leading employers. The 1960s also brought Aqua Tech (which later changed its name to WaterPik, Inc.) and Kodak to the greater Fort Collins area, further turning the economy and water use towards manufacture and industry. Although interest in agriculture appeared to be dwindling, the value of agricultural products had risen, and Colorado continued to lead the nation in production of sugar beets, onions, barley, wheat, potatoes, peaches, lambs, and cattle. In Larimer County the number of farmers decreased; the average acreage of farms, however, went up—indicating that the remaining farmers owned more land. Competition between industrial and agricultural access to water resulted in increased consumption of the area’s scarce water resources. 11

Veterans returning from World War II attended the recently renamed Colorado A&M on the G.I. Bill. Many of these students pursued careers in manufacturing and industry. Ultimately the growth of the college reflected growth in the larger Fort Collins area. In 1957 the college changed names once again when it became Colorado State University. While the change to Colorado A&M alluded to Fort Collins transition from a largely agricultural to an industrial town, the change to Colorado State University mirrored a growing population that demanded more municipal water and called for an end to industrial pollution. To accommodate population growth, Fort Collins began annexing large tracts of land for suburban development. Many of the area’s historic ditches and irrigation systems, such as the Coy Ditch, became suppliers of both agricultural and municipal water systems, which then provided water to newly developed homes and businesses. As the rate of development increased, many local farmers decided that it was more profitable to sell their land and water rights, lowering overall agricultural output and increasing the Front Range’s reliance on imported foods. 12

By the 1960s and 1970s, the Front Range’s growing urban populations increasingly called for protection of the Cache La Poudre River from pollution as part of a larger concern with environmentalism. Although irrigators in Larimer County addressed some environmental problems by adopting water conservation techniques, agricultural practices still resulted in alarming amounts of pesticides and fertilizers finding their way into the Cache La Poudre River. Conflict broke out between farmers and urban dwellers who wanted to use the Cache la Poudre for recreational purposes.

Along with increased demand for recreational use, environmentalists called for a reduction in river pollution. The environmental movement reflected changing American values and the increased appreciation of “ecological integrity, the beauty of nature, and open space.” Environmentalism came to a head when a group known as Friends of the Poudre protested Cache la Poudre River storage projects by tossing Kentucky bluegrass clippings into Horsetooth Reservoir in April of 1989. In this throwback to the Boston Tea Party, protestors called for an end to “taxation without representation” and felt that they had the right to directly elect the board members for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. 13 This instance provides yet another example of Fort Collins’ urban population demanding some control over the ways in which water that flowed through their city and into their taps was used. It also represented a shift in how the local community viewed its relationship to water use and the Cache La Poudre River. With the introduction of the environmentalist movement that advocated for the river as a recreational space, individuals began to question how society viewed and utilized the resources that rivers provided. In turn, they staked a new claim to the Cache la Poudre River, one that was based on recreational rather than agricultural or industrial uses. Environmentalists found that fishing and rafting in a seemingly unaltered wilderness could be economically beneficial and began to criticize damming, storing, and redirecting water for agricultural, municipal, and industrial purposes. Concerns had also arisen regarding flooding in Fort Collins and the consequent need for removal of excess water. In addition to recreational uses, some residents have returned portions of Fort Collins to intensive urban agriculture.

The transformation of Fort Collins from an agricultural colony to an urban city is represented through residents’ demands for increased power over water rights. Throughout its history, the Cache La Poudre has mirrored the demands of the society that lives along it. The river, like Fort Collins, has adapted to fit residents’ views of how water should be used as new technologies and influxes in population demanded more water and an increasingly more complex irrigation system. In the wake of the World War II, Fort Collins shifted from a predominantly agricultural society to an urbanite city concerned with environmental preservation and recreational use for Cache la Poudre water. Environmentalists came to believe that the Cache la Poudre could provide an economic boost as a result of tourist activities such as fishing. Alongside recreational purposes the Cache la Poudre continued to serve as a source for industrial and municipal water; today it serves over 148,000 Fort Collins citizens. 14 None of this would have been possible, however, if 1860s settlers had not tapped into the Poudre for personal purposes and consequently turned an arid environment into a region of green fields. Although the Fort Collins irrigation system originated as an agricultural endeavor, it has come to serve the people’s demand for municipal water and companies’ need of water for industrial purposes.

  1. Evadene Burris Swanson, Fort Collins Yesterdays (Fort Collins: Evadene Burris Swanson, 1993), 6-7; Hannah Braun, “Urban Growth & Development Along the Cache la Poudre River,” Unpublished, 2. The author would like to thank Hannah Braun for her extensive research and compilation of materials, which have contributed to this essay.
  2. Braun, 2, 8; Jay Trask, “Irrigation and Water-Related Structures in the Cache la Poudre River Corridor” (unpublished manuscript, 1993), 72; Victor Elliott, Decree in the Matter of Priorities of Water Rights in Water District No. 3, Entered by the Hon. Victor A. Elliott, Judge of the Second Judicial District, April 11, 1882 (Fort Collins: Evening Courier Printing House, 1882), 25; Gaylord V. Skogerboe, Gaylord V., George E. Radosevich, and Evan C. Vlachos, Consolidation of Irrigation Systems: Phase 1. Engineering, Legal, and Sociological Constraints and/or Facilitators, Completion Report Series No. 52 (Fort Collins: Environmental Resources Center, Colorado State University, 1973), 14-15.
  3. U.S. Federal Census; Wayne C. Sundberg, Fort Collins’ First Water Works (Fort Collins: Poudre Landmarks Foundation, Inc., 2004), 15, 20, 25, 27, 37, 47, 72; Braun, 10; Christy Dickinson and Maren Thompson Bzdek, “Growing Water: Fort Collins Water Utilities 1882-2012,” unpublished, 12, 19; Ward Fischer, “History of Fort Collins Water” (lecture, Fort Collins Historical Society, Fort Collins, CO, 1988) in Fort Collins Historic Connection, http://history.poudrelibraries.org/cgi-bin/showfile.exe?CISOROOT=/oh&CISOPTR=617&filename=618.pdf#search=%22ward%20fischer%20water%22, (accessed June 3, 2014); Molly Nortier and Mike Smith, From Bucket to Basin: 100 Years of Water Service (Fort Collins Water Utilities, 1982),15; G.H. Palmes and S.R. Case, Water: Past, Present, and Future (Fort Collins, 1963), 5.
  4. Stanley R. Case, The Poudre: A Photo History (Fort Collins: Stanley R. Case, 1995), 214-215; Russell N. Bradt, “Foreign Water in the Cache la Poudre Valley,” (Master of Arts Thesis, Colorado State College of Education, 1948); Alfred Augustus Edwards, “An Autobiography of A.A. Edwards, 1928,” available at Colorado State University Archives; Swanson, 59; Braun, 11.
  5. Elliott, Decree in the Matter of Priorities of Water Rights in Water District No. 3 (Fort Collins: Evening Courier Printing House, 1882); Elwood Mead, Bulletin No. 157:Water Rights on Interstate Streams: The Platte River and Tributaries (Water Rights Within the States) (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, Department of Agriculture, 1905), 98; Rose Laflin, Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River (Fort Collins: Colorado Water Resources Research Institute, Colorado State University, 2005), 19; Mark Fiege, Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 31.
  6. Laflin, 38-39.
  7. Ron Sladack, “Great Western Sugar Company Historic Nomination,” (City of Fort Collins Preservation Office, 2013), 19-22; Swanson, 50, 54-55, 57-63; Braun, 13.
  8. Laflin, 54, 84, 79-80.
  9. Thomas B. McKee, Nolan J. Doesken, John Kleist, Catherine J. Shrier, an William P. Stanton, A History of Drought in Colorado: Lessons Learned and What Lies Ahead (Fort Collins: Colorado Climate Center, Colorado Resources Research Institute in collaboration with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, 2000); William Daven Farr, interview by Sally Mier, December 21, 1999, interview 1, page 9, transcript, City of Greeley.
  10. Laflin, 69-74.
  11. U.S. Federal Census; Economic Base Study: Fort Collins, Colorado, Prepared for the City of Fort Collins and The Economic Base Study Committee of the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce (San Francisco: Larry Smith & Company, Inc., 1967), B-1, B-3; James E. Hansen II, Democracy’s College in the Centennial State: A History of Colorado State University, (Fort Collins: Colorado State University, 1977), 373-374; Laflin, 77; Carl McWilliams and Karen McWilliams, Agriculture in the Fort Collins Urban Growth Area 1862-1994. Historic Contexts and Survey Report, Presented to the City of Fort Collins Planning Department (Fort Collins: Carl McWilliams and Karen McWilliams, Cultural Resource Historians, 1995), 28-29; Swanson, 276-280; Braun, 19.
  12. Braun, 17-19; Raymond L. Anderson, Expansion of Water Delivery by Municipalities and Special Water Districts in the Northern Front Range, Colorado 1972-1982, (Fort Collins: Colorado State University, Colorado Water Resources Research Institute, Technical Report No. 48, October 1984), 16-17; Colorado Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Land Conversion in Colorado, Volume One: Analysis (Colorado Department of Agriculture, Resource Analysis Section, 1979), 44; Colorado Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Land Conversion in Colorado, Volume Three: Recommendations, (Colorado Department of Agriculture, Resource Analysis Section, 1981), 1-3.
  13. Laflin, 86, 99.
  14. U.S. Federal Census.

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