Maybell Project Restores Hope for Irrigators and Endangered Fish
The Colorado River, for all its complex policies and deep-rooted history, represents a contemporary conundrum: too much demand and too little water.
As our climate changes, rising temperatures and drought conditions have intensified across the Colorado River Basin. This overstretched river system is also seeing rapid growth in the population that relies on it. Overuse has impacted agricultural water availability, native fish and many birds and plants that rely on streamside habitat and the river itself.
Problems like these can seem daunting from a bird’s eye view. Solutions must come from within the communities themselves—and through many innovative, thoughtful collaborations along the way.
That's where the Maybell diversion comes in. Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. The diversion structure, built in 1896, channels water through a broken, antiquated headgate into the Maybell Ditch, an 18-mile canal that flows roughly in line with the river and irrigates hay pasture and ranchlands.
The Maybell Diversion
The Maybell reach of the Yampa is home to abundant wildlife, including four threatened or endangered fish species, whose free movement depends on healthy river flows. While boaters enjoy paddling through Juniper Canyon, the reach of river with the Maybell diversion is known for hazardous conditions at high and low flows. Landslides and large boulders block the river, creating challenges for inexperienced boaters. Drought conditions exacerbate low flows and create awkward conditions for passage of boats and fish alike.
“Maybell is the largest diversion on the Yampa and it was a high priority for the community to address the need for infrastructure improvements,” explains Diana Lane, director of Colorado’s Sustainable Food and Water program at TNC.
In partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, The Nature Conservancy is working to rehabilitate the diversion and modernize the headgate, ensuring that the diversion provides water to the users who need it. At the same time, TNC is coordinating with the recreation community to ensure safe passage of watercraft through the new diversion. As a result of this project, we hope that the Yampa will see increased ecological connectivity and resilience to climate change and that the irrigators will have improved control of their irrigation system.
Upgrading the Ditch, Headgate and Diversion
The three parts of the project—lining the ditch, replacing the headgate and rehabilitating the diversion—will improve efficiency, water flow and habitat for native fish. Ditch lining, completed in November of 2020, repaired a section that was previously unstable, erosive and leaky.
The next two steps occur together. Replacing the headgate with a new, remotely operated one will allow more flexibility for adjusting flows based on irrigators’ needs and local flow conditions. For example, when supplemental water is released from Elkhead Reservoir upstream for the benefit of endangered fish, the new headgate can be adjusted to ensure the water stays in the critical habitat reach. At the same time, diversion rehabilitation will repair the damage that’s been done by historic erosion and improve passage for boats and fish.
“This is an exemplary multi-benefit project with agricultural, environmental and recreational elements that were brought to our attention by the community,” notes Jennifer Wellman, TNC’s project manager. “Working directly with the water users, we have an opportunity to rectify the diversion while paying attention to what the river needs. Drought conditions highlight that everyone benefits from flows in the river.”
Through our partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, these projects create a better future for the diversion. Partnerships like these are crucial to cementing a better future for the Yampa River.
This project is supported by strong local partnerships with Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, Moffat County and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program and potential grants from other agencies help support the multi-benefit project overall. The mosaic of public and private funds contribute to much-needed improvements to the Yampa River that mesh with community-driven solutions to drought and river protection. By modernizing the Maybell diversion and ditch operations, the Yampa River will see improved flows and function for years to come.
One Piece of a Larger Puzzle
The success of this project is tied to the larger story of the Colorado River Basin. As rivers throughout the basin are being stretched to a breaking point, the 30 native fish species that are found nowhere else in the world face an increasingly uncertain future. These waters also feed habitat that supports an amazing array of the West’s wildlife.
While one ditch in northwest Colorado may seem like a drop in the bucket, its story provides hope for the whole system. Bringing together agricultural, recreational and environmental interests is necessary if we hope to see positive change for this river system.
“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve. I think if we all work together, we can come to a solution. If we don’t do that, then the next generation might not have the water they need,” says Camblin, of the Maybell Irrigation District.
As work continues on the Maybell Ditch, it represents a win for agriculture, recreation and the environment that the economy relies on, and for the fish that have called this river home for thousands of years.