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Westminster’s Historic Irrigation Canals and Ditches

From the earliest days of settlement by the pioneers to the present day, the availability of water has shaped development patterns in arid Colorado. Present day Westminster was mostly covered by short grass prairie punctualized by narrow bands of willow trees and cottonwoods along a few creeks most of which dried up by summer. None of the creeks filled with mountain snow melt such as Clear Creek flowed through Westminster leaving would be farmers and ranchers literally high and dry. So how to bring water from the few sources of year around water to the thirsty plains?

In the mid to late 1800s, enterprising farmers and Denver entrepreneurs developed a series of irrigation canals, or ditches to divert water from streams to farms and ranches located many miles from the stream. The complex laws regulating the ownership use of water spawned several ditched companies to fund the construction and ongoing operation and maintenance of the canals. The companies sold shares of stock in the company to raise the needed funds.

During the heyday of ditch construction, several canals were built across what is now Westminster. Most of the ditch water is diverted from Clear Creek in the City of Golden. The headwaters of Clear Creek are the Loveland ski area and the east side of the continental divide. This is the same water source used by Coors Brewery in Golden. These irrigation ditches enabled landowners in what is now Westminster to irrigate crops and grasslands. Farmers and ranchers built many ponds to store this water. Most of Westminster’s existing ponds and lakes were built for agricultural purposes and fed with water from irrigation canals. Most of these ponds are now on city-owned open space and park land.

Ditch water must "gravity flow" from the head gates on Clear Creek in Golden to Westminster. To maximize the distance the canal could flow, the canals have very limited slopes, and must follow the contours of the land. That is why the irrigational canals meander so much in hilly Westminster. It does look odd to see a canal, which resembles a creek, flowing on the side of a hill, as opposed to a low lying area.

These irrigation canals provided a unique moist environment in an otherwise arid landscape. As a result trees and shrubs became established in these favorable growing environments. Huge cottonwoods over 100 years old are a common site along Westminster’s ditches and canals along with willows and other native shrubs. 

To celebrate the role that irrigation ditches and canals have played in the settlement of Westminster, the city hired historian Ron Sladek of Tatanka Historical Associates Inc. to prepare historical information on several Westminster ditches and canals, some of which have been abandoned. Several of the canals can be enjoyed from city trails such as Big Dry Creek Trail, Farmers’ High Line Canal Trail, Niver Canal Trail and Allen Ditch Trail. The ditches are also connected to the many lakes located throughout the city.

Enjoy learning about these unique historical treasures.

The following is a list of the ditches and canals for which historic information has been compiled:

Allen Ditch

Big Dry Creek and the Bull Canal

Calkins Ditch

Church Ditch

Croke Canal

Dry Creek Valley Ditch

Equity Ditch

Farmers' High Line Canal

Harris Park Ditch

Kershaw Ditch

Kinnear Ditch and Pipeline

Last Chance Ditch

Manhart Ditch

Mower Ditch

Niver Canal

Smart Ditch

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