Irrigation patterns evolving in Strawberry Park

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Wayne Kakela, dressed in blue overalls and a straw hat, presides over a small corner of Routt County that serves as a microcosm for the changing use of water in a mountain resort town.

Kakela is the ditch rider for the Soda Creek Ditch in Strawberry Park. His job is to ensure that everyone who holds water rights in the small valley gets the irrigation water to which they are entitled. But the job isn't what it used to be.

Strawberry Park is a long, glaciated meadow just north of Steamboat Springs city limits. In the first 15 years of the 20th century, farmers here reaped profits of $500 an acre by growing giant Remington strawberries. The berries were freighted by horse-drawn wagon to the railhead at Wolcott and shipped to Denver, where they were served at fine establishments such as the Brown Palace Hotel.

But competition stiffened, and the boom ended when early frosts in 1915 and 1916 killed the crop. Strawberry Park ranchers shifted to hay production nourished by irrigation water from Soda Creek.

The west fork of the Soda Creek Ditch cuts through Kakela's property. During the first week of June, the ditch is reminiscent of a mountain stream, twisting and churning through the cottonwoods that have grown up around it.

"Look at that water. The quality is wonderful. It isn't as though it's been recycled over the land several times," Kakela said. "When I first came here, I would dip a bucket in the ditch to get my drinking water. Every night I go to sleep to the sound of Soda Creek (Ditch) in my room."

Strawberry Park is now home to an eclectic mix of structures -- from humble cabins to multi-million dollar estates. Throughout time, the water rights to the Soda Creek Ditch have been split up. Now there are 53 water rights owners. Some lay claim to only a tiny share -- 0.03 cubic feet per second, 0.08 cfs and 0.1 cfs. One of the biggest shares goes to absentee owner Terri Huffington, who owns the rights to 3.19 cfs. Kakela is grateful she has kept her land in hay production.

Soda Creek Ditch rights were appropriated in 1888 and formally adjudicated in 1892. The owners originally were granted a total of 6.31 cfs. Another 8 cfs were acquired, but 2 cfs were transferred to the Woodchuck Ditch.

At first glance, it might seem that measuring the flow of water each owner is entitled to would be as cut and dried as a hay crop. But as a practical matter, Kakela said, it's about neighbors communicating effectively with one another and being willing to bend.

Strawberry Park has resisted as many as 20 proposals for developments and subdivisions throughout the years, Kakela said. The preservation efforts of local property owners have helped maintain a pastoral landscape in a small valley with a hodgepodge of historical zoning changes.

"We all have a share in a common resource. A lot of new people don't understand," Kakela said.

A new neighbor across the county road from Kakela has built a handsome home and an elaborate horse barn. The beginning of a riding arena is taking shape, but the fill dirt and rock used to level the arena already have caused a minor irrigation problem. A shallow depression in the new owner's 12-acre parcel formerly carried water, by an informal arrangement, to his neighbor's cattle pasture. Now, the flow has been interrupted, and the neighbors need to find a way to work things out.

New arrivals in Strawberry Park have varying views about how water can best be used. Kakela fields calls from people concerned they aren't getting their share of water.

"My pond is drying up, and my fish are dying," one caller told Kakela.

The difficult truth he must deliver is that ponds tend to dry up in September, when they are fed by just a few tenths of an acre-foot of water.

Land-use patterns have evolved, and there are plenty of Strawberry Park residents who aren't full-time farmers or ranchers but who care enough to maintain their ditches and flood their hay meadows. They include surgeon Eric Verploeg, state Sen. Jack Taylor, retired physician Gene Cook, petroleum distributor Terry Weston and retired schoolteacher John Whittum.

Kakela used to harvest 85 acres of hay, including his own 20 acres and some on his neighbors' property. He used a tractor that dated to the 1930s. Some people kept all of their hay and paid him cash, others paid only in hay.

"The tractor and I have both gotten too old for that now," he said.

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