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Oldest irrigation system gets upgrade

The granddaddy of irrigation in southwest Kansas is getting a facelift.

The ditch system that diverts surface irrigation water from the Arkansas River into six canals — the Amazon, Great Eastern, Southside, Farmers, Frontier and Garden City ditches — is getting upgrades, thanks to funds paid to Kansas by Colorado as the result of victory in a lawsuit over water use filed in 1985.

Kansas sued Colorado for violation of the Ark River Water Compact of 1949, which specified stream flows coming out of Colorado to Kansas. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Kansas, awarding $34 million in damages. That money was deposited into three funds, with some of it earmarked specifically for projects to help the farmers who sustained losses from being deprived of water.

The latest project to be completed provides new headgates for the diversion point of the Amazon Ditch, which also feeds the Great Eastern. Past projects have included improvements to the Southside Ditch and to Lake McKinley, which is fed by the Great Eastern.

The ditch system in western Kansas was first constructed in 1880-81. Four diversion points along the Arkansas River from the Colorado border to about two miles east of Deerfield feed the ditches. The Amazon and Great Eastern share headgates, as do the Farmers and Garden City ditches. The Southside and Frontier each have their own headgates.

Key Points

• The oldest irrigation system in the state gets an upgrade.

• The Amazon Ditch has new headgates, thanks to a lawsuit victory.

• Sand deposits create concern for ditch associations.


Kearny County farmer Hal Scheuerman is president of the Amazon Canal association. He says work was done largely by local farmers, with some paid design help from professional engineering firms.

Thanks to the prolonged drought of the last decade, there is no water currently flowing in the ditch, which worked out well in terms of getting concrete poured and controls installed for the new headgate system, he says.

Water flows in the system when it released from impoundment in the John Martin reservoir in Colorado, either by request from ditch associations, or when release from the lake is needed to reduce levels from heavy rains.

Among the biggest concerns of the ditch companies currently is how to slow the infiltration of fine sand scoured from the riverbed and deposited in the canals, he says.

“We clean it out and a couple of months later, it’s filling in again,” he says.

The sand creates an issue for the computerized stream-flow monitoring equipment along the Amazon, resulting in incorrect readings.

“It’s too bad we can’t find somebody who wants sand and sell it to them,” Scheuerman says. “But even if we did, getting equipment in here to mine it and trucks to haul it out would be a challenge.”

The shoestring budget of the ditch companies does not provide for the almost continuous cleanout needed to keep the sand from accumulating, he says. Nor do most of the ditch association members have time to devote to cleanouts.

He says he also has some concerns about the erosion of the riverbanks that has taken place as a result of the drought, and what that might mean if there is another flooding event of the magnitude of the 1995 floods along the Arkansas River.

“I think we’d see the river cut a whole new channel,” he says. “I don’t think the existing channel would hold.”

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NEW HEADGATE: Amazon Canal association President Hal Scheuerman looks over the new headgate system that was completed this summer. The gates divert water from the Arkansas River into the irrigation canal that provides surface water irrigation for farmers in Kearny County.

This article published in the November, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.