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General Description| Plan| Development| Benefits


General Description

The Pine River Project consists of Vallecito Dam and Reservoir, constructed to furnish supplemental water to 63,873 acres of project lands and Southern Ute lands.

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The project stores spring floodwaters to provide a supplemental water supply to about 13,000 acres of the Southern Ute lands and to about 41,000 acres of land outside the Southern Ute Reservation. Irrigation water is distributed through privately owned systems or through systems under jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Facility Descriptions

Vallecito Dam

Storage for the project is impounded by this 162-foot-high earthfill structure, which contains 3,738,000 cubic yards of material. Vallecito Dam is on the Pine River, 18 miles northeast of Durango. The reservoir has a total capacity of 129,700 acre-feet. The spillway is a gate-controlled, concrete-lined open channel, 2,300 feet long at the right abutment. The outlet works is a twin section concrete conduit through the right abutment of the dam.

Operating Agencies

Features constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation are operated by the Pine River Irrigation District.

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Settlement of the San Juan Basin was incidental to the discovery of gold and the rapid expansion of mining in the San Juan Mountains. This territory was located on the Southern Ute Reservation. Persistent invasions by the miners led to so much friction that open warfare existed throughout the region except for the area around Parrott City where a private treaty was negotiated in 1873. Temporary peace was established in 1874 when the United States bought 3 million acres from the Southern Utes. The territory purchased included the main body of the mountains and all of the prospective mineral land. The south boundary of this tract, called the Ute Ceded Lands, runs across the project just below Bayfield.

Farming was practiced on a small scale along the Mancos, La Plata, and Animas Rivers before the ceded lands were purchased from the Southern Utes. After the purchase and the cessation of open warfare, these developments soon grew to their present size. Settlement along the Pine and Florida Rivers was not as rapid, because there was little desirable land outside the reservation. It was not until the reservation was opened for homesteading on May 4, 1899, that settlement really began. At this opening, the Southern Utes accepted 375 allotments of land, with a total area of 60,000 acres. Most of the remaining 636,000 acres were soon settled by farmers.

In 1938, there remained some 200,000 acres of this public domain (mostly grazing land) not taken up by settlers. By congressional action, this land was returned to Southern Ute Indian tribal ownership.


The beginning of irrigation from Pine River dates back to about 1877 when small irrigation ditches were first constructed along the Pine River for the Indian agencies and for a few small farm tracts. Water filings covering estimated water requirements for approximately 18,000 acres belonging to the Southern Utes were made with the State Engineer in 1895. These claims were contested by the farmers, many of whom had made earlier filings, and an adjudication suit was filed in 1901. On October 25, 1930, the Federal court granted a priority to the Southern Utes, as of July 25, 1868, of 212 cubic feet per second of water from the Pine River and 1 cubic foot per second from Dry Creek for irrigating 16,966 acres. This primary right of the Southern Utes to the waters of the Pine River (Los Pinos) caused an acute shortage of water for other lands in the region since, in many years, the natural flow of the river during irrigation seasons was insufficient to meet the irrigation requirements of the Southern Utes.

The possibility of storing flood and snowmelt waters for irrigation led to the Pine River investigation, which was included among a number of studies conducted by the Bureau of Reclamation during 1924 and 1925. As a result of a report on these surveys, the Secretary of the Interior appointed a committee to conduct irrigation investigations. The committee report was submitted to the Secretary in June 1928. Because of the importance of Southern Ute lands in irrigation investigations, the Office of Indian Affairs handled investigations until 1934, when the Pine River Project was turned over to the Bureau of Reclamation for planning and construction. Funds were made available for starting construction of the project in the Interior Department appropriation act of 1937. Distribution facilities were not included as a part of the original project.


The Pine River Project was approved for construction by the President on June 17, 1937, under the provisions of section 4 of the act of June 25, 1910 (36 Stat. 835), subsection B, section 4 of the act of December 5, 1924 (43 Stat. 701).

An extension of the Pine River Project was authorized by Public Law 485, 84th Congress, April 11, 1956, as a participating project of the Colorado River Storage Project. The extension was later found to be infeasible and was deleted from the plan (Colorado River Basin Act, September 30, 1968, Public Law 90-537).


Construction of Vallecito Dam commenced May 14, 1938, and was completed in early 1941.

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From the beginning of irrigation along the Pine River in 1877, there had been a shortage of water until the Vallecito Dam was completed in 1941. This storage facility has made possible an increase in potential irrigation from less than 17,000 to about 54,000 acres, with the added assurance of attaining crop maturity. Improved pasture, alfalfa, wheat, oats, and barley are the principal crops grown on project lands.


In a beautiful setting in the San Juan National forest, the Vallecito Reservoir area has facilities for camping, swimming, picnicking, boating, and good fishing for brown, rainbow, and brook trout. Recreation facilities are administered by the Forest Service and the Pine River Irrigation district.

Flood Control

Vallecito Dam prevents the flooding of crops, farmland, and structures along the river during spring runoff by storing the floodwater for controlled releases to benefit irrigation. The Vallecito Reservoir has 125,500 acre-feet of specific reservoir capacity assigned for flood control. The Pine River Project has provided an accumulated $444,000 in flood control benefits from 1950 to 1999.

Hydroelectric Power

Vallecito Powerplant, with a capacity of 5,844 kW, is operated by Ptarmigan Resources and Energy, Inc. under FERC license number 3174.

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Last updated: May 11, 2011