McElmo Creek Flume

The Montezuma Valley is naturally arid, but by the early 1880s had become a place of great promise for settlers in Southwestern Colorado who saw an opportunity for 200,000 acres of irrigated crop land, if only water could be diverted from the Dolores River. In 1878 a ditch company was formed, and by the next year more than a hundred men began work digging a mile-long tunnel under the Dolores Divide. Though the first ditch company went bankrupt, the effort continued – canals were dug, flumes were built, and by 1889 the tunnel was complete. In April of 1888, the Montezuma Journal called the system, “…one of the greatest irrigation enterprises, not only in the state, but in the West.” By 1920, when the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company was formed, the system included more than 100 wooden flumes and 150 miles of canals.

Today, only a single flume remains of the 104 originally constructed. It serves as a reminder of the spectacular engineering feat that was instrumental in developing Southwestern Colorado. The McElmo Creek Flume, which bridges a natural arroyo east of Cortez near Highway 160, was b
uilt in the 1880s. It was a marvel of engineering, delivering water to Towaoc and area ranches. It operated until 1992 but was replaced by the concrete canals of the McPhee Project and has since fallen into disrepair. The flume will likely collapse and be lost forever unless immediate action is taken to preserve this significant historic resource. In continuous use for more than 100 years, the flume was seriously damaged by flash floods in 2006, and again by heavy winds in 2010. The history of Colorado is inextricably linked with the availability of water for mining, agriculture, and community development. The loss of the McElmo Creek Flume would mean the loss of an irreplaceable opportunity to tell the story of water and settlement in the Montezuma Valley.
The McElmo Flume Restoration Project gained some traction recently when the Southwestern Water Conservation District board agreed to contribute $15,000 in matching funds pending approval of a grant. Montezuma County has applied for a $122,700 grant from the Colorado State Historic Fund to repair the flume’s foundation. If approved, a 25 percent match of $41,000 is required by May. The county has agreed to pitch in $2,500 toward the match if awarded the funds. “We’re looking for another $24,000 in matching funds,” said Linda Towle, a historic-site advocate and volunteer. “We will continue our fundraising efforts.” Funding will go to stabilizing the flume’s foundation and steel support structure.