The project is the culmination of a three-year local effort to stabilize the wooden flume and create a highway pullout, parking lot and paved trail leading to an educational overlook.
It was made possible by $375,000 in state historical and federal highway grants and $100,000 in local fundraising. The flume is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Experts explained the flume’s significance during a ceremony Monday that included a blessing by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.
The McElmo Flume was built in 1890, said retired water manager Les Nunn, and is the only one still standing out of 104 wooden flumes built by early water companies to irrigate the Montezuma Valley.
“It was part of a canal system that delivered water to the valley from the Dolores River through a milelong tunnel built in 1886,” he said.
The No. 6 McElmo Flume was one of 33 on the Highline Canal that delivered water to southern Montezuma Valley farms and the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.
Wooden flumes were the technology of the day to cross canyons and arroyos, Nunn said. The suspended troughs carried water over drainages and were supported by pillars that keep the water flowing downslope.
“They always built a flume, because the water companies did not have the equipment to move dirt to fill in arroyos,” Nunn said. “They were built with lumber from the McPhee saw mill.”
Workers added and removed spill boards to the McElmo flume depending on flows. There was a gate in the middle to spill into McElmo Creek, which could cause flooding downstream. The flumes would become water-tight as the wood swelled.
Armed with heavy equipment, in the 1950s the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. began to replace the wooden flumes with underground culverts and pipes that required less maintenance.
The McElmo Flume remained in operation until 1991, when it was replaced by an inverted siphon that runs under the highway and delivers water to the Ute Mountain Ute farms as part of the Dolores Project. A flash flood in 2006 nearly wiped out flumes the foundation, but it has since been repaired.
“It’s a wonder it has lasted this long, and represents the people who had the vision in 1885 to irrigate this valley,” Nunn said.
Cortez is bornCortez was built because of the early irrigation system represented by the McElmo Flume, said Linda Towle, of the Cortez Historic Preservation Board.
James Hanna, a water engineer who worked on the Dolores Tunnel, plotted Cortez in 1886 with an eye toward growth.
“He had a vision when irrigation system was finished, there needed to be a commercial center because ranching and farming was going to grow,” she said.
The median on Montezuma Avenue was built for a canal that delivered water for 20 years from a flume on the east end of town.
Utes played key roleLongtime water manager John Porter reflected on the flume’s importance and the influence that the Ute Mountain Tribe had on the creation of the modern Dolores Project, which built McPhee dam and modern infrastructure that replaced the flumes.
When the federal government built Jackson lake by diverting the Mancos River, they did not recognize the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which relied on the Mancos River farther downstream, Porter said.
But under the Winters Doctrine, Native American tribes are legally guaranteed water.
“Water to the tribe delivered from McPhee reservoir is in lieu of water they lost from the Mancos River,” he said. “Construction on the Dolores Project would not have started without the Utes.”
Terry Knight, of the Ute Mountain Preservation Office, gave the historic flume a blessing in Ute language. He recalled the early days of farming on the Mancos River near the New Mexico border.
“We had a community there, with a farm and a trading post,” he said. “When McPhee got built, we got a treated water line into our homes from Cortez and an irrigation canal for our modern farm and ranch operations.”
Final restoration While the foundation of the flume has been stabilized, the flume itself still needs to be rehabilitated. In August, the Colorado Historical Society awarded the project $181,000 for final restoration, which will use at least 30 percent of the original wood. A match of $60,000 is needed before work can begin, of which $15,000 has been raised.
The McElmo Flume restoration project was a collaborative effort between Trail of the Ancients Byways, Cortez Historic Preservation Board, Montezuma County, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., Ballantine Family Fund, Ute Mountain Tribe, Colorado State Historical Fund, CDOT, Federal Highway Administration, Mesa Verde Country, Montezuma County Historical Society, Southwestern Water Conservation District, and Southwest Basin Roundtable.