Shall We Gather at the (Gunnison) Ditches?

Article by Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd

Local Festivals – May 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

For the past century or more, the Gunnison Valley — in one way or another — has drowned in water issues. From its infancy, Gunnison provided a paradise for those who recognized the value of the region’s resources — especially water.

Even eastern Colorado interests made early bids for Western Slope water, and the water wars have continued, mostly in court, ever since.

In the early 1880s, the Gunnison founding fathers jumped on the water bandwagon; they secured built a system of ditches, flanking the wide streets, throughout their new community.

The March 19, 1881, Gunnison Review commented on this brilliant idea: “The ditches running down our streets from the Gunnison [River], with a never-failing supply of sparkling water, will furnish for irrigation all that is needed.”

However, as the years passed, not everyone continued to share this sentiment. In the post-war 1950s, people’s lives began to shift from national and community welfare to personal comfort. A petition to discontinue the ditch system was circulated by a few citizens who had become fed up with the cost of maintenance and just plain “tired of water all over the place.”

The city responded by distributing a questionnaire that not only called for a vote of sorts, but also requested additional comments. The attitudes toward the ditch system varied.

Those who wanted to see it end made such comments as:

• “Ditches are as obsolete as outdoor toilets.”

• “The dang stuff won’t run up hill.”

• “How in the heck do you get the front wheel of your car out of the ditch?”

• “The ditches are definitely a joke.”

But others saw value in the system:

• The ditches provided water “so people can have gardens to feed their children.”

• “We think the cost is very reasonable for keeping up the ditches in comparison for what we received for raising gardens for the war effort.”

• “The irrigation system of Gunnison is a bright earmark of the town. Few other places have it — we should be proud of it and perpetuate it.”

Proponents for the ditch system won out, and today more than 80 miles of ditches still run along boulevards, front yards, and sidewalks.

Recent water disputes have inundated the valley’s people with a new awareness of the value of community water. The city’s 1994 master plan notes that “utilization and extension of the system would serve to further protect the water rights of the city.”

George Sibley, a local tributary in the river of community awareness, thinks that Gunnison shouldn’t wait for a crisis. “If water is important, then we should make an effort to incorporate that importance into our lives. Acknowledging water can help us build a stronger sense of community.”

His enthusiasm has spread like a flood to bring together organizations such as the City Community Development, the City Public Works, the Chamber of Commerce, the Gunnison Arts Center, Western State College and the Art Education Equity Network.

As a result of this confluence, from May 8 through 14, Gunnison will celebrate a “Return of the Water” Festival. During that week, the county will gather at the ditches to pay homage to the watery force that anoints all their lives.

The events will include an opening water blessing, followed by games, poetry and songs “owed to water,” as well as a ditch queen contest (“Witch of the Ditches” may win out as the title). Tentative plans also include a kayak-bike biathlon.

Midweek, the annual infamous Sonofagunn production will take on the theme, “A Ditch Runs Through It,” with performances May 11-14.

“This is not just celebration but awareness-raising for water resources in the Valley,” Sibley said. “It should be fun, but it should also be educational.”

The festival organizers have worked with the Soil Conservation Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Park Service and Forest Service to develop creative water-resource teaching within local school district classrooms.

“We’ve discovered a group in California who has a program called ‘Adopt a Watershed’ for K-12,” Sibley said. “We need something like that here, so our children will understand the importance of water for the community of the future.”

City planners would agree. The master plan states, “The city is conducting an inventory and study of the [ditch] system in order to plan for its extension….[The ditches] make Gunnison a more attractive place by allowing vegetation and landscaping to grow where it otherwise would not thrive.”

Maryo Ewell, a festival planner from the Colorado Council for the Arts, remarked she has noticed how the ditches also offer ways to recreate that could be unique to Gunnison “The first time I came to Gunnison, I remember seeing people sitting in lawn chairs by their ditches on a Saturday afternoon.

“The ditches seem to be a symbol of living in Gunnison.”

Mark Todd teaches writing at Western State College, and Kym O’Connell-Todd usually does all the work when he gets a writing assignment.