The mining and logging settlements in neighboring Rico and Dolores created a demand for agricultural products that could only be grown at lower elevations in the richer soils of the Montezuma Valley. The limitation was water, with an average annual rainfall of only 13”. The Dolores River, which originally ran through the Montezuma Valley and connected with the McElmo drainage, had been turned north by a geologic uplift in prehistoric times leaving the Montezuma Valley without a major river. The developers of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company punched through the uplift near the “Big Bend” bringing water into the valley for irrigation, as well as water to support the growth of Cortez, established in 1886.

The growth that Cortez experienced in the 1950s and ’60s was spurred by the development of the “Aneth Oil Field” in Southeastern Utah, which was accessed via McElmo Canyon. With Cortez as the nearest full service town, many of the oil field workers and their families made it their home. It was during the oil boom that streets were paved, schools were built and several subdivisions were developed in Cortez. The development and paving of Highways 666 (now Hwy 491) and 160 opened up Cortez as a regional trade center for the surrounding agricultural areas and Indian reservations. When the energy boom busted in the 1960s, Cortez gradually developed a tourism economy based on the presence of Mesa Verde National Park and its location on Highway 160, the major east/west corridor in the area.

In the 1980s the Bureau of Reclamation began construction on McPhee Reservoir, which when completed in 1995 provided irrigation water to 35,000 newly irrigated acres (including 7,500 acres on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation) and supplemental water to 25,000 acres in the Montezuma Valley irrigation system. This project, known as the Dolores Project, also provides long-term water supplies to Towaoc, Cortez and Dolores.



  • City of Cortez Building Requirements

    The City of Cortez Building Division administers the city’s adopted building, fire, and property maintenance codes. In addition to permitting for new construction

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    The Cortez City Council recognizes that obesity and being overweight is a serious public health threat to the well-being of adults, children and

  • City of Cortez Wants Businesses

    City of Cortez welcomes your business to the community if you would like more information on how to get started contact MCEDA today.