Pete walked in my office and said, “What are you doing this morning?” Implied in this ritual inquiry is a need for help.
My usual response is a question. “What’s going on?”
This particular morning Pete replies, “There’s no water. The ditch is completely dry. Can’t imagine why. Either they (adjacent ranch owners) shut it off or the river dropped overnight. But I’ve got to go up to the head gate and try to dam up the river.”
Shoring up or extending the damn in the river so the flow increases into the irrigation ditch usually requires that Pete drive the tractor into the river. But this year, a neighbor channeled the river too deep for Pete’s tractor and we’ll have to try and damn up enough of the lower flowing river by winging out by hand the present dam with additional river rocks. So, I follow Pete into the mudroom and we both put on our irrigating boots. Hopping into the Gator, an ATV, Emma and Griz join us and we drive up to the head gate where our irrigation water flows in from the Elk River, about a mile away.
Once at the head gate we both make our way into the river and begin extending the damn. The river naturally recedes throughout the summer, but every now and then we’ll witness a significant drop in a matter of a day or two. As we work, we surmise this is the case. So, we carefully walk back and forth in the river placing rocks of all sizes into our mini-dam.
We share irrigation water with two other adjacent land owners. Each neighbor owns different water rights to the river. Our water rights date back to 1905. Sharing of the water begins as soon as the river and meadows open up. We need the water for our livestock, hay production, lawns, and gardens. Our neighbors use the irrigation water primarily for hay production. With great consistency, our neighbors make executive decisions about when and how the water is released and controlled. We are reminded at these times that, even though we’ve shared irrigation water and access every year for twenty-four years, the West is still home to independent thought and action.
One morning a neighbor’s irrigator called and said, “Just wanted to let you know I’m shuttin’ off the water.” He’s a good guy, but he failed to inquire about whether or not we still needed water. He’d forgotten that, even though we’re haying and don’t need irrigation water, we still need water for our livestock.
Managing shared water is most likely one of the most difficult transactions in the rural West. We continue to do our best to dance with those who often listen to different music and sometimes we think even music in a different dance hall. If a phone call is necessary, we make it. Otherwise, we attempt to make do with whatever remedy we can create.
As Pete and I created our remedy in the river that morning, my mind wandered. In between carefully placing my feet on wet river rock and strategically placing big rocks and little rocks side by side so as to invite more water into the water flow for the irrigation ditch, I imagined what it must have required of pioneers who first coerced water out of the river. What effort it must have taken to envision, dig by hand, and adapt the first irrigation ditches through this river bottom.
I knew the little bit of our Sunday morning spent in the river carrying rocks to and fro could never share the same narrative of the early days of developing the irrigation system that flows through our meadows. Those pioneering men and women removed dirt and rocks one shovel at a time and stayed with the task until it was done. Our mini-damn project was a window just big enough to allow us to simply imagine and entertain what it must have been like to create a water system with one’s own physical labor without which their new life could not be sustained.
The dam Pete and I made worked quite well. Ours was a relatively easy task. Watching the water begin to flow in the ditch near the house, the difficulties of communicating over the management of the water with our neighbors receded to the background. I stood near the garden bridge and quietly watched as the water’s life giving energy re-entered my landscape: the same life-giving energy the pioneers sought and successfully coerced as they settled the Elk River Valley.