“My family’s been ranching here for five generations on my mom’s side and four generations on my dad’s side,” says Burt Guerrieri of Mill Creek Ranch. “In fact, my dad started diverting water out of this ditch when he was about twenty, and he just turned ninety.”
The situation facing the Esty Ranch and Mill Creek Ranch in Fall of 2020 is not unlike the ones faced by countless landowners across the West right now. With increasing annual average temperatures due to climate change, resulting stream flows are lower, and yet irrigation needs are even greater. High temperatures in the summer bake the moisture out of the soil, then lower than average snowpack in the headwaters states like Colorado must meet that deficit when it melts. Thirsty soils, earlier summers and higher than average highs create a cycle of just plain bad hydrology. Recent studies have shown that for every one-degree increase in average annual temperature, streamflow decreased by between 3% and 9%. A diversion structure designed for hydrology of the past was no longer adequate to meet the irrigation needs of the two properties and was negatively impacting the aquatic ecosystem and recreation opportunities on that stretch of the Gunnison River.
“Well, really, this project started 27 years ago when I was talking to the neighbors about it,” said Allen Roper, manager of the Esty Ranch, a hay operation in Gunnison County owned by Cheryl Hill. “But it took the right timing to get all these people and these resources together to do it.”
For Roper and Guerrieri, gathering financial resources to support a major project like this meant gathering a team of perhaps unlikely supporters, which they found in Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Water Conservation Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and our own Community Funding Partnership.
This video is the first in a series of vignettes designed to tell the stories of the people behind the water projects which represent the innovation, community and resilience which abounds across the Western Slope of Colorado.