Porter recalls tough times
John Porter was raised on a farm. His grandfather moved to the Lewis area west of Cortez in 1909 and worked a 310-acre farm. Through the years, the Porter family raised cattle and sheep, and grew alfalfa, dry land beans, barley and wheat.
Water has always flowed through John Porter’s consciousness.
“I was always interested in water because we never had enough of it,” Porter says with a chuckle.
That was just the way it was in Montezuma County and the surrounding area for about a century.
With more than 70,000 acres of irrigated agriculture land, water has always been the region’s life blood.
No water, no crops.
“Barley,” Porter says, “we grew mostly barley for Coors beer. That was our cash crop.”
But less water resulted in low crop production and that meant less income.
Finding a good water storage solution for Montezuma County was discussed as far back as the 1880s.
Today, looking at the massive McPhee Reservoir, it’s impossible to comprehend a lack of water.
But Porter remembers.
The 78-year-old Lewis native spent 23 years as the Dolores Water Conservancy general manager, retiring in 2002.
“Everyone was looking for more water but there was never enough,” he says. “Every time there was a drought, all people would talk about was we need a dependable supply of water.”
The Dolores Project, and various other plans were discussed over the years, but the Dolores River was always viewed as the best solution.
“The concept was always there,” Porter says about building a dam on the Dolores River. “It was just a matter of finding the money. Everybody thought that the Dolores Project was the best idea.”
Even though a dam on the Dolores was thought to be the solution, Porter wasn’t surprised it took so long to complete.
“Anything you do with water, it takes time. There’s regular time and there’s water time. Water time goes very slow,” he says.
Looking back today, Porter can see how much McPhee Reservoir has changed the region. (More online at cortezjounral.com).
All the early struggles and torment of drought and fleeting irrigation supplies have long passed.
“It’s a dependable supply of water,” Porter says flatly. “You can plan. If you know you have enough water it makes things easier.”
There was nothing easy about farming and ranching in the region for more than 90 years.
The Dolores River has always been the water supply for the agriculture lands of Montezuma County and the Dove Creek area.
As early as 1884, plans were made and projects developed to take water from the Dolores, Porter explains.
A tunnel was bored and canals were used to get water to the south, while the Great Cut Dike and canals were developed to flow water to the west.
And they sucked the river nearly dry.
“Back then, the Dolores River was basically a dry river during the summer,” Porter says.
To store water in the early days, three small reservoirs were dug: Groundhog, Totten and Narraguinnep. A number of other reservoirs were discussed, some even making it onto planning maps like Dawson Draw Reservoir and the Monument Creek Reservoir. But most reservoir plans were shelved and hopes returned to the Dolores Project.
Remnants of old wooden flumes, which were used to transport water around the region, can still be spotted around the area.
Most of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company canal system are still used today, Porter says.
Porter actually moved into his position on the Dolores Water Conservancy when construction of the Dolores Project was well underway.
He admits that he missed much of frustrating bureaucratic and political shell games that came with a project of that size. President Jimmy Carter nearly halted the venture in 1977, putting the Dolores Project on a “hit list” of 19 water projects in the West.
Porter says he thinks the water rights of the Ute Mountain tribe helped save the project. The tribe needed water and made the argument that future development was dependent on water from the Dolores Project.
Porter says his time with the Dolores Water Conservancy started as a temporary job and went full time after a family tragedy.
Porter was filling in for his father, Charles Porter, who was on vacation.
“There was really just one employee at that time,” Porter says.
The elder Porter, who was also a state senator at one time, returned from vacation and went back to ranching, but was killed when he was struck by lightning.
“I was really the only one who had a working knowledge at that time since I had filled in for him. I told them that I would help them for a month, then I stayed for 23 years,” he says. “It was a really good job. I really enjoyed it was challenging and rewarding.”
Today, when Porter cruises by McPhee he is filled with pride. The massive reservoir is the second largest in Colorado, only Blue Mesa near Gunnison is larger.
“There’s a huge feeling of satisfaction,” Porter says. “I’m really thankful to have been part of it. It was the chance of a lifetime.”
As the former farmer, Porter still remembers the struggles that came with a limited water supply.
Now, thanks to the Dolores River Project, those struggles are a distant memory for every farmer and rancher who needed water to make a living.