The El Paso Canal: The water the Westside couldn’t use
Arguably, the most interesting Westside water project in the 19th century did nothing for the Westside.
The 1871 El Paso Canal, one of William Palmer's first major efforts for his new town, diverted Fountain Creek water upstream from Colorado City (near where 33rd Street is now). The six-foot-wide, 2 ˝-foot-deep canal followed a circuitous 11 ˝-mile route, slightly downhill all the way, for the purpose of bringing irrigation water to Palmer's Fountain Colony (later Colorado Springs), explained Gary Bostrom, regional projects manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, in a presentation Feb. 10 at the Old Colorado City History Center.
“There was no benefit to Colorado City,” Bostrom said. “The water was going to the Springs.”
Even worse for Colorado City, the diversion deprived the then-12-year-old town of a key water source. According to Jay Lowery, a member of Bostrom's audience, Colorado City's town fathers had failed to obtain the creek water rights that Palmer later secured for the canal.
Local historian Mel McFarland substantiated Lowery's account afterward, but noted that Palmer eventually worked out a Fountain Creek sharing agreement with Colorado City - although this became less helpful when Manitou Springs began to grow, with upstream water rights of its own. By 1917, when Colorado City was annexed to Colorado Springs, it was already on that city's water system, he added.
In laying out the 1871 canal, Palmer's engineers carefully located it just outside what was then Colorado City's city limits, which then did not even go north as far as what is now Pikes Peak Avenue. “The closest they (Palmer's engineers) came to it (the town limit) was when they went around the hill at 26th Street,” McFarland said.
For Colorado Springs, the canal played a key role in greening the largely barren town. The conveyance was built between August and November of 1871. The next year, Palmer bought 6,000 cottonwood trees from the Canon City area. “This would not have been possible without the canal,” Bostrom noted.
The canal lasted until 1956, when it was covered over, but as early as 1901 it was being frowned upon by city water engineers. A handwritten report that was part of a city time capsule (opened 100 years later) criticizes the canal for “the spreading of noxious weeds upon the lawns, the deposit of mud held in suspension in the flowing water, and the unsightly and unsanitary ditch boxes in the streets, which also prevent the proper crowning and drainage of the streets.”
Bostrom added his own observations on the canal's inefficiencies, noting that “it only went to a few,” and the city had no control over usage because there was no metering capability.
He wasn't sure how people paid for the service.
Using slides, Bostrom took his History Center audience on a pictorial tour of the canal, showing several parts of it that can still be seen. The city still uses the same diversion near 33rd Street - only now it is for a pipe that takes the raw water from Fountain Creek to the treatment plant on the mesa, near Fillmore Street and Mesa Road.
(The treatment of water is not as longstanding a practice as might be thought. Bostrom said the city drank raw water until the 1940s.)
From just north of the original Colorado City, the canal went due east, close to present-day Uintah Street, before angling southeast and around the mesa east of what is now Uintah Gardens. Staying high enough to retain a gravity “head,” the canal then went north again. Part of the route took it along the hill behind what is now Bristol School. From there, it continued through what is now Sondermann Park, which is “the best place to see remnants of the canal,” Bostrom said.
He also showed pictures of a flume that once carried the canal water over Monument Creek (east of the present-day Mesa Springs neighborhood) and of its passage through Monument Valley Park.
Reaching the main part of the city, the canal split to bring water to different streets. A close look at the concrete covering the old canal still reveals the notches where people would put boards out to stop the flow and let the ditch water flood their yards, Bostrom pointed out.
Prospect Lake was the storage place for any water left in the canal after passing through town.
As for the Westside, at least no one these days can say the diversion at 33rd Street provides it no benefit. According to Bostrom, most of the drinking water for the Westside now comes from the Mesa treatment plant.
Westside Pioneer article