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The Paonia Project, in west-central Colorado, provides full and supplemental irrigation water supplies for 15,300 acres of land in the vicinity of Paonia and Hotchkiss.
Project construction includes Paonia Dam and Reservoir and enlargement and extension of Fire Mountain Canal. Paonia Dam controls and regulates the runoff of Muddy Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. No new irrigation laterals have been provided by the project.
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Paonia Reservoir stores the flows of Muddy Creek upstream of its confluence with the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Downstream, the Fire Mountain Diversion Dam and Canal divert flows from the river for delivery to project lands in the Fire Mountain Division. Leroux Creek Division water, used downstream of the Fire Mountain Canal extension, is exchanged with the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Company. These shares are used as project water by the Leroux Creek Water Users Association for irrigation of Leroux Division lands above the Fire Mountain Canal. Fire Mountain Division water is then used by the Leroux Division lands on Rogers Mesa downstream of the Fire Mountain Canal system. Improvement of existing small reservoirs in the Leroux Creek Division was accomplished independently by water users.
Paonia Dam is on Muddy Creek about 1 mile upstream of its junction with Anthracite Creek, which in turn forms the North Fork of the Gunnison River. The dam is an earthfill structure containing 1,302,000 cubic yards of embankment with an interior impervious zone, blanketed upstream and downstream by zones of sand, gravel, and cobbles. The upstream face is protected by a layer of riprap and the downstream face by a layer of rockfill. The crest of the dam is 35 feet wide and 770 feet long; the structure stands 199 feet above foundation.
The outlet works on the right abutment of the dam consists of a concrete intake tower, concrete-lined tunnel, gate chamber near the dam axis, and a combination stilling basin for both the outlet works and spillway. The outlet works also includes a concrete shaft house and concrete-lined shaft and add it between the gate chamber and access shaft. The capacity of the outlet works is 1,250 cubic feet per second at maximum water surface elevation.
The spillway, also on the right abutment, consists of an uncontrolled ogee crest and open chute having a design capacity of 12,500 cubic feet per second. The chute joins the combined outlet works-spillway stilling basin.
Paonia Reservoir has a surface area of 334 acres with a total capacity of 20,950 acre-feet and an active capacity of 18,150 acre-feet.
Fire Mountain Diversion Dam, located on the North Fork of the Gunnison River near Somerset, is a timber sheet-piling, rockfill structure. It has a height above streambed of 11 feet. Fire Mountain Canal extends 34.7 miles along the north side of the valley. It has an initial capacity of 200 cubic feet per second, reducing to 100 cubic feet per second at the Leroux Creek crossing.
Operation and maintenance was assumed by the North Fork Water Conservancy District on June 1, 1962. By contract, the district transferred the physical operation and maintenance of the project to the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Company.
Mining led to the early settlement of western Colorado and brought the area`s first railroad service. The Ute Indians originally occupied west-central Colorado, including the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Early efforts to penetrate the area were resisted by the Utes until a compromise agreement with the Government was reached on September 4, 1881, and the Utes were moved to the Uintah Reservation in the Territory of Utah.
Water rights in the valley date from 1882. The development of irrigation facilities proceeded rapidly until, by the turn of the century, the late summer natural flow of the river had become heavily appropriated. Settlement and population growth were rapid in early years, but development of the area slowed by 1920. Agricultural settlement has remained more or less static since that time, although the population has increased.
In 1934, the State of Colorado began investigating a number of reservoir sites, including five in the North Fork watershed. As a result of these investigations and activities of the local water users, the Bureau of Reclamation commenced investigation of storage possibilities in the North Fork Valley in 1936.
A report issued by the Bureau of Reclamation in August 1938 suggested development of a reservoir at the Horse Ranch site on Anthracite Creek to serve lands of the Fire Mountain Canal and also of a reservoir at the Beaver damsite on the East Fork of Minnesota Creek to supplement the water supply for ditches diverting from Minnesota Creek. Anthracite Creek and Minnesota Creek are tributaries of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. On the strength of this report, the Paonia Project was authorized on March 18, 1939, by Presidential approval of the findings of feasibility of the Secretary of the Interior, dated March 16, 1939.
Subsequent findings prompted issuance of a revised report in 1940 dealing only with the Fire Mountain Division. This report proposed that the Spring Creek Reservoir site on East Muddy Creek, another tributary of the North Fork, be developed by the Bureau of Reclamation and that the Fire Mountain Canal be enlarged by the water users in a 10-year development period during which no payments would be required for the storage dam. Funds for the canal enlargement were to be derived from charges made for the use of Spring Creek Reservoir water and from revenues from the sale of Leroux Creek water rights in the area to be served by an extension of the Fire Mountain Canal. This plan, however, was not favored by water users and authorization was not requested.
In 1946, the project plan was further revised to include a total of 14,750 acres of land to be benefited, to provide 4,000 acre-feet of surplus reservoir capacity, to provide for enlargement and improvement of the Overland and Fire Mountain Canals, and to provide for transfer of the use of water to upstream lands on Leroux Creek under two alternative plans. The project was authorized on June 25, 1947, by the 80th Congress. When bids for construction of Spring Creek Dam were opened on August 3, 1948, the low bid was 54 percent above the engineer`s estimate and exceeded the total expenditure authorized for all features. No justification could be found for such high bids, and all bids were rejected. It was determined, however, that enlargement and extension of the Fire Mountain and Overland Canals were feasible undertakings independent of the storage feature. Because repayment contracts had been executed between the Government and the water users, construction of the Fire Mountain Canal was commenced.
In a February 1951 report, the project plan was revised to include an 18,000 acre-foot reservoir at the Paonia site, additional extension of the Fire Mountain Canal, enlargement of Overland Ditch, and construction of a siphon and pumping plant to convey irrigation water from the Fire Mountain Canal to 2,010 acres of land along Minnesota Creek. This plan would have provided irrigation service for 14,830 acres of irrigated land and 2,210 acres of unirrigated land. Development was authorized in 1956 as a participating project with the Colorado River Storage Project.
Since the 1956 authorization, water users in the Minnesota Creek area have withdrawn from the project in favor of private development of a reservoir on that stream. Therefore, the Minnesota Siphon and Pumping Plant and service to the Minnesota Creek lands were eliminated from the plan. It also was determined that existing ditches from Leroux Creek were adequate to convey usable flows of that stream, and enlargement of Overland Ditch was deleted from the plan. In the definite plan studies, it was determined that the total reservoir capacity should be increased to 21,000 acre-feet to provide more space for sediment retention. Irrigable acreages were reduced to 15,300.
Construction under the 1938 plan was authorized by the President under Reclamation law on March 18, 1939.
The revised plan was authorized by the Congress on June 25, 1947. The project was reauthorized as a participating project under the Colorado River Storage Project by the act of April 11, 1956 (70 Stat. 105). The primary purpose of the project was for agriculture.
The contract for the construction of Paonia Dam was awarded January 7, 1959, and work was completed in January 1962. Contracts for extension and lining of Fire Mountain Canal were awarded in 1959 and 1960, and work was completed in 1962.
The project assures a full supply of water for irrigated lands. The general type of farming formerly practiced in the area has been continued with project development, but the additional irrigation supplies make possible more intensive crop production. Livestock feed and apples, peaches, and cherries are the major crops grown. Dairy and beef cattle are the principal livestock of the area.
Fishing, hunting, picnicking, and water sports are available at Paonia Reservoir. Recreation facilities are administered by the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. Visitor days totaled 8,345 in 1996. For specific information about recreational opportunities at Paonia Reservoir click on the name below.
Flood dangers on North Fork River are reduced by emptying the reservoir each year and by reserving storage space through forecasts of snowmelt runoff, and regulation of floodflows. The Paonia Reservoir has 2,280 acre feet of capacity assigned to flood control. The Paonia Project has provided an accumulated $253,000 in flood control benefits from 1950 to 1999.