In the Land of Irrigation
    Where the Desert blossoms as the rose
    There dwells a Knight in armor
    Whom everyone loves that knows.
    He guides the little streamlets
    To the famished stems and roots,
    He carries life in his shovel -
    The man in the rubber boots

From "The Man in the Rubber Boots"
by Agnes Just Reid (1947)


When it rains in my town you can smell sagebrush.

It happens on hot July afternoons, when thunderclouds sprout like mushrooms from a loamy blue sky; by the end of the day their white heads pile up to unfathomable heights, even as their dark underbellies drag over the darkening mountains. Then a crackle and rumble, and sometimes, like today, a release of heavy, dust-raising drops to the parched earth.

That's when I catch a whiff of the pungent pale green shrub. It reminds me that this corner of the Rocky Mountains is part of the dry sagebrush country that covers much of the American West. I live in a desert.

You wouldn't know it walking through town. Shade trees line most of the streets, and almost all of the lawns are emerald green, despite the scant 12 inches of precipitation that fall each year. It's so lush here that if the entire town were lifted up whole and plunked down somewhere east of the 100th Meridian, few would think it out of place.

All because of irrigation.

When we bought our house in western Colorado, I was surprised to find that it came with stock shares in a local ditch company. I knew the ditch above town from walks along its scrubby banks. It was a nice sort of stream, though it ran a murky brown, when it ran at all. Bankside willows, cottonwoods and box elders offered welcome cover for humans and animals. In the muddy lane that runs alongside the ditch, I often found the tracks and droppings of mule deer, and coyotes, mixed with the markings of four-wheelers and hiking boots.

But the ditch took on added significance when I realized I owned part of it. And what a deal it was: For less than $20 a year, my wife and I had access to enough water to douse our entire half acre, 24 hours a day, all summer long.

Like stingy millionaires, we went slow with our new wealth at first. We sprinkled in the early mornings, and only when plants showed signs of water distress. But we soon noticed that our neighbors were more profligate. They watered day and night, until sheets of water ran down the street. Apparently, our water wealth would never run dry.

And so we became bona fide Westerners, consuming quantities of water that even Mother Nature would have trouble matching back East. To the giant elms and maples, we added dogwood, spirea, boxwood and other water-loving species. Sitting under our grape arbor, listening to songbirds and the gentle whoosh of sprinklers, we could forget the dull, hot sagebrush hills just outside town. They were a place to travel through, a stark foreground to the picturesque tree-clad mountains beyond. But not a place to live.

My new appreciation for irrigation helped me piece together how water has been harnessed for our little civilization. Upvalley, rivers and reservoirs swollen with snowmelt are diverted into smaller canals like the one above my town, which in turn feed thousands of capillary ditches and pipes that snake across the land. An amazing circulatory system, and one that explained so much about my community.

Why, for instance, on the hottest, driest days of summer, grown men walk around town wearing rubber boots as they pick up mail and supplies. They have come in from fields where, like kids at a water park, they have sloshed around in mountain waters, using gravity and grade to direct the flows across the land.

It explained why agriculture is revered around here, even though coal mining, sandal manufacturing, schools and pensions are the real economic engines; agricultural water has made a humid people feel at home in an inhospitable land.

And it explained some darker phenomenon, such as why the river that flows north of town turns from a raging torrent in late May to a series of puddles by August. Often there isn't enough water to dilute our town's treated sewage; ammonia levels frequently exceed state health standards.

And all because irrigators have had more rights to water than any other living creature in the valley for the past 100 years. Unlike other parts of the West, we don't have any endangered species with which to wrest some water from ditches back into the river. Sometimes, I wish we did.

The conflicts inherent in the irrigated West have hit me harder since we sold our house and bought a larger place outside town. It's a wide-open parcel on the edge of sagebrush country. But in the summer it is a green oasis. Alfalfa stands belly high in the hay field, and there's even a series of wetlands where redwing blackbirds chase each other through cattails from spring till fall. All nourished by irrigation waters, of course.

In a good year, the ditch water arrives in May and lasts through September. This spring the former owner of the property invited me out to help "bring in the water." One late afternoon, we drove to a quiet place where an empty dirt ditch crossed under a narrow road, and we waited. About an hour later, two wet dogs, pink tongues frothing, appeared out of a willow thicket. A minute later, a man in a baseball cap and rubber boots emerged, a pitchfork laid jauntily over one shoulder. "She's all yours now," he said. "I'd have been here sooner if there was more."

A few feet behind him, a low wall of brown water crept down the dry ditch bed, pushing before it a writhing pile of leaves and twigs. Rich and I grabbed pitchforks out of the truck bed and began pulling out this "trash."

After five minutes of hard forking in the ever deepening water, we started walking down the ditch lane, staying just ahead of the water. "Some years I've pulled out dead cows and dogs, all sorts of stuff," Rich said, as we came to the first headgate, where a metal divider separated water for a rancher's alfalfa fields below.

I probed gingerly into the murk. "Maybe I'll be that lucky some day, too."

We only pulled out vegetative matter that day, though we had a brief staredown with a live cow. Along the way, two neighbors joined us. They talked of crops and the light snowpack in the mountains. And they groused about their neighbors: "I told him to come out at 6, but goddamn, he never shows."

At one juncture we encountered a plugged-up gate. "Hey, Rich," I said, "the water isn't flowing too good through this guy's gate. Should I clean it out?"

"Nah. Let him come do it. Besides, it means more water for us."

"Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting" came to mind, but as we walked the final stretch of the ditch, another notion took hold. By then, the rhythm of work, talk and water seemed as natural as the sun-drenched clouds, as satisfying as the sight of bright green grass rising in the ranchers' fields. I was partaking in a ritual as old, and as basic, as Western civilization. Water, no doubt, is for community.

But communities change, and so, inevitably, will the direction of the waters that support them. People are pouring into this agricultural area, planting homes into the middle of hay fields. Already water is becoming more valuable for drinking and soaking golf courses than for spreading lavishly on agricultural fields. The age of ditches may soon be over.

It won't be all bad. If urban areas use water more efficiently than ranchers and farmers, the river might recover some of its original grandeur, roaring bigger in the spring, flowing longer through the summer. That would be good for fish, fowl and all manner of creatures adapted to an honest-to-God Western river. And some desert wildlife - such as mule deer, prairie dogs and badgers - might do better, as their former habitat rebounds.

Still, the loss of the agricultural landscape and culture will be tough to stomach. Like Dorothy returning to Kansas, we will watch the vivid green pastures fade out to dull tans and grays. Sagebrush and rabbitbrush will return with a vengeance around the sodded courtyards of new homes. The great cottonwoods will wither and die, their skeletons providing roosts for eagles and vultures.

When we reached the barbed-wire border of my new home, I heard the cry of killdeers and the eerie whirring of a snipe somewhere out on the pasture that was about to receive its first life-giving flood of the season. Some forms of life have adapted just fine to this watered desert.

For now, I'm one of them.

 

Paul Larmer is editor of High Country News.