- Riding DitchAt Home in the Water Crisis
essay, irrigation, farming, Colorado, water rights, environmentalism, ditch riding, sustainability
The first time irrigation made me cry, I was standing in a diversion box along the ditch line, soaking wet from the waist down, trying to divert water into our storage pond. We had dug the pond ourselves—bulldozer, bentonite clay—so that we could pump the pond water through a high-efficiency drip irrigation system onto six acres of diversified organic vegetables and cut flowers. We owned twenty acres of land on the Colorado eastern plains, a wide-open flat expanse of shortgrass prairie with tremendous views of the Rocky Mountains and one quarter of one right of the New Cache La Poudre Irrigating Company ditch system attached. Farming in the arid expanse of the Western United States requires not just land but irrigable land along a ditch system and the rights to use the water that ditch can deliver. The land itself is expensive; the water rights make it more so. We searched for two years to find our farm and the water rights attached. The mortgage on the property started out as something we could barely afford and got increasingly more difficult to pay in the Great Recession years that followed.
Diversion boxes are typically concrete, built so that the water that enters from the ditch can be distributed properly to various owners. This particular box, on the northeast corner of our property, fed only our pond and the center pivots that irrigated corn fields for the Adlers, who lived across the street. When we were running water and the Adlers weren't, we had to use a series of old 2x4s and scrap plastic to try to block [End Page 20] the water from entering his end of the diversion box so that we would receive our entire water order. Usually my husband, Matt, set the boxes, but on this particular day he was off the farm, and the job fell to me.
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Try as I might, I could not configure the boards in a way that completely stopped the flow of water to Adler. There was always an inch on the left, a half inch on the right, our precious water flowing away from us. I pulled the boards out, turned them sideways, and still the water leaked through. I worked up there for hours, half-soaked, half-heat-baked, increasingly frustrated, swearing, shocking my then-small children. I had crops to harvest, wash, sort, prepare for delivery. I had lunches to make and naps to supervise. I was often the only labor at home on the farm in those days. I had summers off from teaching, and we couldn't afford for Matt to quit his full-time job.
Later that night, under purple-and-orange cirrus clouds blown thin across the open sky, he took one look at the setup I had managed and said, "No, that's perfect. A little bit of leakage is no big deal."
This was excellent information, delivered just a bit too late.
When I say water rights are expensive, this is what I mean: Our quarter of a right on the New Cache La Poudre Irrigating Company ditch was worth $30,000 when we bought the farm in 2008; $35,000 five years later, despite the Great Recession. One might think that the amount of money and hassle and value surrounding these [End Page 21] rights would necessitate a system of measurement and delivery a bit more sophisticated than a water-soaked lady farmer thrashing around with some busted-up boards, but one would be wrong. In another time, Adler and I might have shot each other over a diversion-box dispute. Cities and farmers and environmentalists are still at odds over how the water should be stored and allocated, and still, somehow, system-wide, "a little bit of leakage is no big deal." The waste inherent in the system confounds me.
I spent six years trying to be an environmentalist farmer in northern Colorado. I still don't know what that means, exactly, but like everything else...