History of Water in the West

The story of living in the West—from the earliest Native populations to more recent Spanish, European, and American colonists and settlers in Wyoming and Colorado—is not complete without a consideration of water. Hunter-gatherers would set up camps near water sources, the first farmers in the West some 1500 years ago relied on water to irrigate their fields, and cattle companies, ranches, and major towns first set up and expanded in well-watered areas—later devising elaborate water-management systems as populations grew and expanded. There is virtually no story of life in the West that does not include water.

The History of Water in the West page on ORCA provides historical assessments of how water has shaped the West, with a specific focus on Wyoming and Colorado. Projects listed on this page cover a wide range of topics that were developed collaboratively by the Wyoming and Colorado State Historic Preservation Offices and the Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Over time, archaeologists and historians will contribute pieces of this story that will build a dynamic and evolving narrative of water in the West.

Contributions to this page come in a variety of media, all tackling one piece of a larger outline. Content is presented using several formats, including ArcGIS StoryMaps, more traditional report documents, and even audio or video pieces. These projects are designed for a general audience and are freely accessible by all. You can use the filters below to search by different variables such as geography, theme, or content type. Or you can continue scrolling to see all the projects currently available. New projects will be added regularly.

All Projects


Red Top Valley Ditch (5GA.2773) was determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 2007.


This 2005 context document by Dr. Michael Holleran is a comprehensive overview of the history of water supply systems in Colorado.


Irrigation Ditches and Canals: Historic Water Management in Colorado is an ArcGIS StoryMap detailing the statewide history of ditch irrigation in Colorado.


The Grand Tunnel Ditch (5GF.2913) was originally built in 1882 to irrigate approximately 17 acres outside Rifle Colorado.


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