by Dalton Carver
Inspired by the reemergence of history at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County, the Plaindealer was interested to know what may sleep beneath the pool of our local water reserve, Ridgway Reservoir. This story, focusing on the history of the reservoir and dam, is the second of three that will revisit the reservoir’s impact and history on Ouray County.
Ask anyone on the Western Slope about water and they’ll tell you its worth is greater than gold. It’s the lifeblood of agricultural operations and recreational opportunities and the nourishment of the region’s natural beauty. For Ouray and its neighboring counties, that liquid gold is stored and protected in an earth and water treasury known as the Ridgway Reservoir.
The reservoir, then known as the Dallas Creek Project, was constructed on the Uncompahgre River to create a consistent pool for irrigation and industrial purposes. Jack Rairden, a local historian and Ouray County resident, compared the federally-funded infrastructure to a common household appliance.
“I kind of think of it as a faucet on the Uncompahgre River,” he said. “It’s basically a faucet.”
The dam also provides flood control for the lower Uncompahgre Valley, but that function wasn’t proposed in the project’s original purpose and intent, according to Jack and his wife, Barbara. The Rairdens said only the Army Corps of Engineers is authorized to take care of flood control, but the dam indeed provides that benefit.
“The Uncompahgre River is only a big river for those few months during the spring when the snow melts,” said Jack. “They don’t call it a flood control dam, although that is one of its main purposes as it controls the flood in the spring.”
Information on the dam from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation website (usbr.gov) confirms the Rairdens’ perspective on the dam’s role in flood control.
“Although the reservoir is not operated specifically for rain floods, it aids in control as storage space is available in the reservoir in late summer when such floods normally occur,” notes a brief on the dam’s construction.
The dam, located about six miles north of the Town of Ridgway, is about 332 feet tall, 2,465 feet wide and has a capacity of about 84,410 acre feet of water. When snow begins to melt in April and the runoff season begins, water rushes down to Ridgway Reservoir for collection.
“It’s nice, because it builds up this water supply that if they need downstream can be released,” said Jack. “During the latter part of the summer and early fall, they can let that water go down and it’s useful for the irrigation downstream, as requested by the water users.”
About 11,200 acre feet is reserved in the pool for...