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Vaunted Ditch Riders keep Pueblo's water flowing

May 5, 2021
Pueblo Water heavy equipment operator Joel C. clears the Wurtz ditch of snow on April 9, 2021 near Leadville, Colo. Pueblo Water "ditch riders" clear the 14-mile waterway each spring.
Photo by Mike Sweeney/©2021

Driving along the snow-packed dirt road known as Forest Road 705 northwest Leadville, high in the Rocky Mountains, Ed Perko turns onto a short bridge. That bridge, he said while pausing in the middle, crosses the Wurtz Ditch. It also marks the Continental Divide.

“Water that goes that way,” Perko pointed to the east, “ends up in the Arkansas River. Water that goes the other way ends up in the Colorado River.”

Each spring, Pueblo Water plows its two ditches so that the melting snow may freely flow  into Tennessee Creek, and then into the Arkansas River as it makes its way downstream to our homes and businesses. While many water providers also need to perform such seasonal maintenance, Pueblo Water is one of the few municipalities (if not the only one) to do it themselves. Not only does plowing ensure that as much water as possible is captured, it also prevents washouts from damaging National Forest Service roads.

“It’s something that needs to be done. And if you’re going to work for Pueblo Water, it’s going to be done right,” said Perko, Pueblo Water’s Water Resources Supervisor, who has been working on the snow plowing project since he started back in 1989. “We’ve always done it for ourselves. It’s important that we get the ditches cleared and maintain the roads. And the guys love it.”

The Wurtz Ditch was constructed in 1929 near Tennessee Pass. It was 6 miles long. Pueblo Water purchased the Wurtz in 1938 – in a special city election, voters approved the purchase (the vote was 507-8 in favor of the purchase) – and then extended the ditch another 6.5 miles in 1953 along the south flank of the Eagle River valley.

Pueblo Water heavy equipment operator Joel C. clears the Wurtz ditch of snow on April 9, 2021 near Leadville, Colo. Pueblo Water "ditch riders" clear the 14-mile waterway each spring. Photo by Mike Sweeney/©2021

Pueblo Water also clears the Ewing Ditch, which was constructed in 1880 making it the oldest transmountain diversion in Colorado that is still in use. It transfers water from Piney Creek east of Tennessee Pass over the pass into the Tennessee Creek, which feeds into the Arkansas River. Pueblo Water bought the Ewing Ditch in 1955 as part of the purchase of Clear Creek Reservoir from the Otero Canal Company.

Operator Brandon Herrera is a veteran of plowing season. This year, he was tasked with clearing the roads that run parallel to the ditches. Those are as snow-packed as the ditches themselves. Perko said local, state, and federal officials appreciate when Pueblo Water crews clear the roads because they do a masterful job.

This was the first season for Operator Joel Cvar. His seniority allowed him to bid for the job he’s always coveted. Cvar’s excellent skills were evident has he looked like a seasoned ditch-riding pro just minutes into his first day in the high country. He operated a bulldozer with a 14-foot V-shaped blade that pushed snow several feet deep to each side of the ditches. The Wurtz is 12-feet deep (or deeper) in some places.

David Curtis is the Ditch Rider. Curtis lives on Pueblo Water’s Clear Creek Reservoir property with his family from about April through October each year and then works as a Service Worker II Floater during the winter.

Pueblo Water heavy equipment operator Brandon H. clears the roadway adjacent to the Wurtz Ditch near Leadville. Pueblo Water "ditch riders" clear the 14-mile waterway each spring.
Photo by Mike Sweeney/©2021

“We’ve plowed those ditches for as long as I’ve been here and way before that,” Perko said. “There have been a few crazy things that have happened, but most of it is legend more than anything. Story goes that way before Pueblo Water owned the ditches, guys used to clear them by hand with shovels. And the owners were so cheap that they wouldn’t let them leave the shovels up there every year; they had to hike up there every year with the shovels.”

The Pueblo Water plowing team: David, Joel, Ed, and Brandon.
Photo by Mike Sweeney/©2021

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