San Juan County Commission asks state for help with rock slide

Lower Valley Water Users pumping water from San Juan River

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
  • A portion of the Harper Hill bluffs fell into the ditch on Oct. 9.
  • Officials say a pipeline is needed to prevent rock slides from blocking the ditch.
  • Pumping water from the San Juan River is more expensive for the Lower Valley Water Users.

FARMINGTON — Rocks the size of large cars and small houses have blocked the Farmers Mutual Ditch near Kirtland, cutting off irrigation water to about 680 customers.

The San Juan County Commission ratified a declaration of disaster for the ditch during its Tuesday meeting. The county is asking for state assistance repairing the ditch.

In addition to the irrigation water, the rocks that fell off the Harper Hill bluffs early Oct. 9 blocked one of the sources of drinking water for Lower Valley Water Users. Lower Valley provides the town of Kirtland and surrounding communities with drinking water.

"It helps us a bunch when the ditch is in service, but we have a backup plan, and we will be fine," said Keith Lee, the manager of the Lower Valley Water Users.

During the winter months, Lower Valley pumps water from the river. The ditch usually provides the utility with water through the end of November.

More:County may request state aid after rock slide damages ditch

Farmers Mutual Ditch president Danene Sherwood, left, iiná bá Inc. president Duane Aspaas and construction manager Joseph Roberts inspect the area where a landslide has blocked the Farmers Mutual Ditch during a tour on Monday near Kirtland.

Lee said Lower Valley has already started pumping water from the San Juan River. He said pumping from the river is more expensive because of the elevation of the river compared to the ditch. Lee said the San Juan River water has more sediment in it than the ditch water, which is pulled out of the Animas River above the confluence with the San Juan.

"For the irrigators, it's a huge catastrophe," Kirtland Mayor Mark Duncan said.

He said some farmers recently planted new crops while others are hoping to get a fourth cut of hay.

More:Irrigation water shortages impact Crawford Mesa

Duncan said the ditch needs to be cleaned out, and a long-term solution is needed to prevent rock slides from blocking it in the future.

Danene Sherwood, the ditch president, said each year the ditch company spends $30,000 to $90,000 on ditch repairs due to rock slides.

"Every year we have the slides, but not every year is that bad," Sherwood said.

Consultants inspect a blocked section of the Farmers Mutual Ditch with ditch president Danene Sherwood Monday.

In 2007, the state provided $750,000 in emergency funding to clean out the ditch after a rock slide. In 2012, the San Juan County Commission loaned the Farmers Mutual Ditch $62,500 to help pay for a $250,000 cleanup, according to The Daily Times archives. The state provided the rest of the money, according to archives. While the state paid 95 percent of the cleanup costs in 2007, it only paid 75 percent in 2012.

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County emergency management director Mike Mestas said the state caps its emergency funding at $800,000.

The cost of cleaning up this year's slide is unknown. During the County Commission meeting on Tuesday, Sherwood said this year's slide likely will be more expensive because it is in a remote location. The only access to the blocked area is through a narrow, overgrown path along the bank of the ditch.

Duane Aspaas, president of iiná bá Inc., an environmental consulting firm, inspects a section of the Farmers Mutual Ditch Monday.

Looking up at the cliff face Monday morning, Sherwood pointed to two sections with visible fissures. She said those two portions of Harper Hill could come down at any time.

She said the only way to stop the rock slides from blocking the ditch is to install an underground pipeline to transport the ditch water.

During a Tuesday meeting, county operations officer Mike Stark said a preliminary engineering report was done on the ditch in 2013. He said the report estimated it would cost $9 million to install the pipe.

2016:Bloomfied district asks for aid with ditch repair

"It's really a tough situation," Stark said. 

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

Farmers Mutual Ditch president Danene Sherwood talks about needed repairs Monday on the Farmers Mutual Ditch.