From a centuries-old “gentle art” to a modern form of water collective, these irrigators function almost like family.
By Steve Knopper, excerpts from an originally published piece in the Winter 2016 issue of Headwaters magazine
Every March, in the tiny southern Colorado town of San Luis, some 25 representatives from 62 family farms attend a meeting at the old courthouse. They get down to business quickly—no refreshments or snacks.
First, they appoint a mayordomo, an irrigation expert who plots out a strict watering schedule for 1,062 acres of farmland along the San Luis People’s Ditch. The mayordomo spends the summer making sure all the farmers on the ditch get their fair share of water, and fixes problems with flooding by contacting a platoon of neighbors who come out with their shovels or, in extreme cases, finding somebody along the ditch who owns a backhoe. Sometimes the mayordomo has to contend with a group of renegade elk that jump over the fences surrounding the ditches.
“Mayordomos are homegrown,” says Junita Martinez, who with her husband irrigates a family farm using water from the nearby Rio Culebra Basin. “We have several people on our ditch that have been mayordomos—they teach a child, or maybe a couple of nephews, and they get the hang of how to do it.”
In the new episode of Connecting the Drops, a radio partnership between CFWE and Rocky Mountain Community Radio stations, listen to audio footage from this year’s ditch rider election. From the story:
Back in town, the meeting commences and more than a dozen people crowd around a large conference table. After the Pledge of Allegiance, roll is called, and the group reviews last year’s finances and receives updates on special repair projects planned for this year. Next on the agenda is hiring the ditch rider for the season. The current ditch rider is quickly re-nominated and two participants engage in a spirited discussion about watering frequency and duration. It lasts several minutes, but eventually dies down. The re-nominated ditch rider wasn’t present, but the motion to rehire him for another year passes nearly unanimously. Mike Maldonado’s ranch uses water from the People’s Ditch. He voted in favor of the re-hire and says neighborly cooperation is an important part of maintaining the People’s Ditch legacy. “I think we have incredible people here,” Maldonado says. “I mean it’s just a special and unique place and I think everybody understands that. Most of the people are heirs of someone who started way back when, so their farms have been in the family for many many years and generations. And I think that carries over. I think that’s an incredibly unique thing for Colorado.”
Acequias, a more than 400-year-old Hispanic system in which families share water out of community ditches to maintain the hay, carrots, chico corn, cows and pigs on their farms, are the closest thing to irrigation utopia in this dry land. Operating first in northern New Mexico and later in southern Colorado, acequias began long before Colorado became a state in 1876, and the traditions embedded in their communal lifestyle continue today.
In the San Luis Valley, for example, acequieros get together every spring for an all-day clean-up event, where a dozen or so farmers and their families, sometimes with the help of regional student volunteers, remove dead branches and “nuisance plants,” as Martinez calls them, before kicking off the summer irrigation season.
“It is a gentle art. It’s passed on from one generation to the next, and you really have to study and pay attention and know your fields,” says Devon Peña, a University of Washington anthropology professor who farms 181 acres near San Luis when he’s not teaching in Seattle. “The joy of irrigation is a source of peace and connection to others, and to the land and water.”
But that doesn’t mean the acequia system is perfect, especially when droughts ravage streams and crops. In April of an especially dry 2012, a farmer in San Francisco, Colorado, planted alfalfa in a field he’d just purchased. Per acequia rules, he asked the president and secretary for extra irrigation water, and they agreed, allowing him to take his water out of turn. It seemed like a classic example of cooperation along the acequia.
But there was a problem. The acequia leaders forgot to inform a different farmer who’d been scheduled to receive the water at the same time. The neglected farmer pulled rank and diverted the water to his field as scheduled. The conflict escalated to the point that the sheriff showed up and the second farmer pulled a gun. (Nobody was hurt, and the farmer, 72, received 18 months of supervised probation.) The conflict became a lesson for an acequia community that has worked together for generations. “[The alfalfa farmer] was able to save his crops,” Martinez recalls. “But the community knows we didn’t handle that right. That’s one of the things we learned. We didn’t follow through.”
Due to its scarcity, those who deal regularly with water in Colorado must often work together in an intimate way to sustain their communities. The acequias are a great example of this. Another, similar system can be found in the hundreds of ditch companies around the state, of which 125 are further organized and represented by the 14-year-old Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance (DARCA).
“What ditch companies traditionally do is collect an assessment and use that to run the company—make improvements, pay people for maintenance and things like that,” said DARCA executive director John McKenzie. For many ditch companies, the incentive to cooperatively come together, as with the acequias, is minimized due to the ability to pay for services, said McKenzie. “Unless you’re a low-budget ditch company that doesn’t do a lot of assessments. Then there are cases where they would get together and do the cleaning among the members. But that’s getting less and less.”
Ditch company members for the most part divvy up the amount of water they receive based on the shares they own. They are nonprofits, generally, but the shareholder system means, unlike with communal acequias, some members have more influence than others. They must often work hard to overcome self-interests and cooperate. “We don’t have the tight-knittedness that the acequias have,” says Will Hutchins, a farmer outside Delta, who, as president of the Bona Fide Ditch Company, oversees 32 shareholders.
Bona Fide’s ditch is about seven miles long and started operating in 1887. Today, its members include several farmers, in addition to a bowling alley, a mortuary and a large industrial-park developer. Hutchins is the ditch rider—”chief cook and bottle washer,” he calls himself—which means it’s his job to maintain unity. One “big family unit” shareholder, as he calls it, spends a lot of time squabbling over land, financing and, occasionally, the weight of silo corn. And Hutchins once had to lock the headgate of another longtime shareholder because she refused to pay her assessment fee on time.
But the ditch company comes together when it has to. Not long ago, a shopping-mall developer requested to submerge 300 yards of the ditch in a tunnel, then build a road on top. Hutchins consulted with the board and shareholders and came up with lofty terms, in which Bona Fide would own the mall and lease it back to the developer for 99 years. (The developer declined.)
“A couple of the board members are actually neighbors. I’m out irrigating my field, I’ll see them on a regular basis,” Hutchins says. “We’re always talking about the crops, the latest political shenanigans some politician’s up to. We exchange loaves of bread and boxes of candy for Christmas.”
In a way, ditch companies operate like families. “We’ve got various factions that feud with each other,” Hutchins says, but that will also “unite against all outsiders.”
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