Artesian wells were essential to the Grand Valley’s successFeb 22, 2021 04:04PM ● By Eileen O'Toole
Our founding Grand Valley settlers built all kinds of canals to advance agriculture. But what about drinking water?
Obviously, there were the Grand (Colorado) and Gunnison Rivers. Despite the muddy silt, people drank these waters since municipal water systems didn’t yet exist. But one of the most successful sources of water proved to be artesian wells.
In 1881, Grand Junction residents first built water wheels, which delivered water into canals running up and down the streets. Domestic water—mostly hauled and sold in barrels—barely qualified as potable. Ida Slocum Ault remembered her mother settled the silt in 1882 by dropping cactus apples into the water.
In 1891, after the Fifth Street Bridge was built, enterprising men hauled water from Kannah Creek to sell. According to the late Betty Brach, people acquired holding tanks or built cisterns to fill with spring runoff while the rivers had some fresh mountain water mixed in. Still, less mud didn’t make mountain streams as pristine as people believed at the time.
This was due partly to humans dumping waste into rivers and streams. Cows, pigs, chickens and horses also ranged over the streets and backyards of Grand Junction as well as every settlement along the streams. Manure, animal carcasses and any unwanted item went into the waters. Drinking the water caused numerous ailments.
Consequently, springs and wells were prized, especially from artesian sources. If drilled, they didn’t need pumps to pull the water to the surface. Drilling in Denver was successful in 1883 with the Rocky Mountain News promising a “well on every street.” That didn’t happen, but Montrose had two successful wells built between 1883 and 1890. Grand Junction and the surrounding area eventually also found extensive wells.
The first City of Grand Junction well on record was dug in 1903-1904 in the municipal cemetery on Orchard Mesa. It wasn’t strong enough to pipe through town, but the city sold water to residents at 10 gallons for 25 cents. When geologist Stanley Lohman began his survey of artesian wells 40 years later, this was the earliest well still producing.
By 1912, the City of Grand Junction had built the reservoirs above Kannah Creek and began supplying piped water to residents. At the same time, they passed laws restricting outhouses. Plumbers flourished.
Artesian wells today
Lohman’s survey, which started in 1946, originated due to conflicts over interference between wells, which caused aquifers to lose pressure as water levels declined.
According to Lohman, some may have originated from gas exploration which found water instead. One recorded well discovered methane gas, and blew up. Other wells contained hydrogen sulfide gas, which resulted in the water smelling and tasting like rotten eggs. Though safe to drink, it wasn’t saleable, so it was often used for livestock.
For surrounding farms, artesian wells were vital. By the end of Lohman’s study in 1960, there were four active wells of the 48 listed. Two wells were on Orchard Mesa located near the cemetery. One on the Mesa College Farm piped water to 15 houses and hauled 18 loads per day. The other was drilled by J. Lewis Ford which supplied his house and swimming pool, and hauled 25-30 loads per day.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, a 1,100-gallon truckload sold for $2-$3 a load—a high price compared to city water. It required every house to have a cistern. Before electricity and electric pumps, a hand pump above the cistern gave residents the ability to draw water.
From 1946 to 1959, 34 more wells were drilled (not including private wells of owners who refused to be part of the study). This included four wells drilled north of town, 19 drilled on the east end of the Redlands—including one for the Devil’s Kitchen picnic area on the Colorado National Monument—and 13 wells drilled on the west end of the Redlands. Humphrey’s well along highway 340 hauled truckloads to residents and supplied water to houses on Mockingbird Lane.
Valley farmers and ranchers petitioned their congressional representatives to work out a new water system, which became the Ute Water System. Today, it’s the largest domestic water supplier in the Grand Valley.