You can’t talk about snow in the mountains without eventually coming around to the subject of water, water rights, ditches and trans-mountain diversions. There are four main ditches that you might run across, literally, at Cameron Pass – Cameron Pass Ditch, Michigan Ditch, Skyline Ditch and the Grant Ditch.
Cameron Pass Ditch – the oldest ditch at Cameron Pass may be the least well known. In fact, I’ve talked to many skiers who didn’t even know it existed, even though they had actually skied over it many times. At the base of South Diamond Peak, near the current “Welcome to Jackson County” sign, a small ditch empties into a culvert that goes under the road and towards the Fort Collins side of the pass. If this follow this small ditch back up hill, it turns southeast and contours the hillside towards Nokhu Crags, pulling water from the middle fork of the Michigan River over to the Poudre. Once it goes under the road it comes to the simplest of all ditch mechanisms – a 4 way concrete structure with wood slats to direct the water. There is truly beauty in this simplicity. With the slats in one configuration, the water flows to the Poudre River. Pick them up and move them to another slot, and the water all flows back into the Michigan River. This not-so-impressive ditch flexes its muscles only in the fact that it is the second oldest trans-mountain diversion in Colorado with the water rights decreed in 1882. The only one built before it was the Ewing Ditch near Leadville. The Cameron Pass Ditch was originally built by the Larimer County Ditch Company, which went bankrupt and reformed in 1891 as the Water Supply and Storage Company (WSSC), who still manages it today.
Michigan Ditch – With the original decree for water in 1902, the Michigan Ditch is youngest trans-mountain diversion at Cameron Pass. It is prominently viewed from many angles around the mountains near the pass, and serves as an access route to Iron Mountain, American Lakes and Paradise Basins. This ditch was built in stages over the years, extending first to the Michigan River (American Lakes Basin exit), then to Paradise Basin (sometimes called Snow Basin, formerly Sawtooth Mtn Basin in the 1930’s), then to Lake Agnes.
The portion from the Michigan River to Lake Agnes was oringinally built with wood stave pipe, of which, approximately 1,200 feet still remain directly off Lake Agnes. The lake was partially dammed and the water line lifted to capture and divert more water. Overall, this diversion moves about 2,000 acre feet (one acre foot = 1/3 of a million gallons) per year from the North Platte Basin (North Park) to the South Platte Basin (Poudre River).
The system was previously owned by ditch companies, but sold to the City of Fort Collins in the 1970’s to create a system for the growing city. Along with the ditch came Joe Wright Reservoir to hold the water and release throughout the year, which was expanded after Fort Collins to its present day size. Although there are many reservoirs in the Poudre Basin, Joe Wright is the only one that Fort Collins owns and stores water in. Many of the other reservoirs are owned by Greeley or other local ditch companies.
In 2016 a significant landslide was bypassed with a tunnel through the bedrock, approximately 1.5 miles from Cameron Pass up the Michigan Ditch. This required 16 hours per day of drilling with a huge machine to complete the project within one summer season. Although this may have spoiled a summer hike for you in that year, the result is a much more stable ditch.
Skyline Ditch – Skyline Ditch is another trans-mountain diversion, located at the base of the Rawah Wilderness, again bringing water from the North Platte (Laramie River) to the South Platte (Poudre River). This system snakes along the hillside, dumping the water into Chambers Lake, which releases into the Poudre River. The water was first decreed in 1891, and was the predecessor to the Laramie-Poudre Tunnel which was built in the early 1900’s to transfer water between the same two river systems.
Grand Ditch – The Grand Ditch is named after the Grand River, which congress wonderfully renamed to the Colorado River in 1921 (even though naming it the Green River would have made for a longer river system). This monumental effort began in 1890 with the first water decree and ended with its completion in 1936. This system brings trans-mountain water from the Colorado River to the South Platte Basin (Poudre River) and is the only true trans-continental diversion at Cameron Pass. Trans-continental refers to ditches that actually move water across the continental divide, as opposed to another basin that still leads to the same ocean. The next closest trans-continental system is the Colorado-Big Thompson project that moves water from Grand Lake to Estes Park underneath Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).
The Grand Ditch is easy to see from Trail Ridge Road in RMNP, and skiers and hikers know it as an easy path to and from the heart of the Never Summer Mountains. It also suffers from occasional landslides and is maintained on a frequent basis by WSSC in order to keep the water flowing.