Living so long in California during the drought (I think it’s time we stopped calling it a drought and started calling it “California’s climate” as it has gone on more than a decade) makes where I live now, the San Luis Valley of Colorado, a high mountain desert, seem like an oasis. The Rio Grande threading through it is, to me, a miraculous thing as are the aquifers and hot springs that are the result of the pulling apart of “our” two mountain ranges, the San Juans and the Sangre de Cristos.
But where I live, water is a complicated substance, something that can be said anywhere in the west and anywhere there’s farming. Right now water is rushing through the irrigation canal and into the fields according to “shares” — a system I’d probably learn to understand if I had bought some property outside of town.
My grandfather was a “ditch rider” back in the 20s and 30s in Montana. I don’t know much about what that means except that he rode (a horse) along the ditch easement and opened and shut gates and monitored the use of peoples’ shares. The family was proud of him for this because he was re-elected over and over, showing he was a very fair man and his neighbors appreciated his work. I think of him every time I drive to Alamosa (the “city”) to shop at a big supermarket. Along the way, there is a small, old wooden structure beside one of the irrigation canals of a type that was very common in my childhood. I have no idea what it is or why there are no longer many of them, but in the dim recesses of my memory (before I was five) there’s a faint image of my mom pointing out one of these little buildings and saying, “Your grandfather had all the keys.”
Back in the late 50s and early 60s when my grandmother was alive, the houses on her street used an irrigation canal to water their yards. I really loved it when it was “our turn” and my uncle opened the gates and the water flooded the pasture. The irrigation water supplemented rain and the opening and closing of the gates depended on how much rain had fallen. The ditch manager kept track of that, too. Farms, of course, had first “dibs.”
Here in Colorado, there has been — for many years — disagreement even who owns the run-off water from a rain storm. The state VERY, very recently gave approval for people to collect rain water at their houses. Before that? The runoff was the possession of someone somewhere according to arcane principles involved with agriculture.
In South China, where there was no shortage of water, there were different devices to move the water in and out of the fields. Some of them were beautiful — there was an elegant waterwheel pump operated by a well-balanced person (often a kid and his pals) who “climbed” it like stairs.
One of my most beautiful memories of South China is riding home from the city under a full moon, and passing a cabbage field that had been recently flooded. The rows in the field were at 90 degrees to the road so as I rode by, I saw the moon reflected over and over in each narrow channel.
Of course, my favorite kind of water is…