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Riding Ditch

At Home in the Water Crisis

Photograph by Alex S. Maclean

ISSUE:  Summer 2019

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 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.

Try as I might, I could not configure the boards in a way that completely stopped the flow of water to the Adlers’. 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 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 in this beautiful bone-dry Western region, I know it has mostly to do with water. Water rights in the West have a bloody history that no sane person wants to repeat, but I suspect that a future in which water is further privatized, nationally and globally, is a future with more conflict, less justice.

In April 2018, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality granted the Nestlé company permission to increase the volume of water it pumps per day from a well near the town of Evart to 576,000 gallons for an annual reporting fee of $200, despite receiving over 81,000 public comments in opposition to the project. The company has been operating in the area for years, but at approximately two-thirds that rate of water usage, and much of the water it bottles is sold to people in communities like Flint, which still lacks a reliably safe municipal water supply, and Detroit, where in 2013 government officials stopped providing municipal water to some residents during its bankruptcy proceedings. It is a clear example of water use intersecting with environmental justice, economic justice, even racial justice. After reading the comments, the state agency identified three main public concerns: that water should not be a source of profit, that corporations could not be trusted to protect human and environmental interests, and that privatizing water might have negative consequences. One might wonder to what degree the residents of Michigan, in particular the citizens of Flint and Detroit, trust their government agencies to manage their water resources after the clear abuses of the recent past.

The right to use water in Colorado, as in much of the Western United States, has been privatized since the nineteenth century. Originally, the water rights were allocated to landowning farmers based on who began using the water first—a concept known as first in time, first in right—which is the foundation of what is now called the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. This means that if your great-great-great-grandfather happened to be involved in Front Range agriculture in the 1860s, you may have some of the most senior rights there are. The more senior the right, the more solid it is, as the oldest claims to water are filled first. If there are three owners on a ditch, for example, the owner who has the oldest rights gets his water first, the second-oldest rights are filled second, and the junior rights are filled if there is enough water left, which leaves owners of junior rights dry in some drought years. This happened to a farmer friend of ours in 2008, who went to check his well one day to find that it had been locked, without notice, by the water company.

One of the aspects of the prior appropriation doctrine is that of beneficial use; because farmers, for example, use the water to grow the crops that feed the community, they should have more access to that water. Beneficial use is codified into modern water law to prevent water speculation by investors who might drive prices beyond what farmers and cities can afford. In order to buy water rights, you have to prove that you have an interest in land or industry for which the water is necessary. Still, as the state’s population grows, farmers are increasingly in competition with cities and industry for the rights to limited water resources within Colorado, with the price of water shares climbing consistently. In 2018, Colorado River reservoirs were less than half full, with projections that they might hit their lowest levels in history. Today, water managers across the West are jittery, worried that climate change is about to force their hands.

Jim Myers has seen a lot of dead things pressed up against the culvert trash rack of the Big Thompson Ditch & Manufacturing Company, one of many irrigation systems along Colorado’s Front Range. “Lots of dogs,” he tells me, adjusting the brim of a sweat-stained welding cap. “Cats. Raccoons. Squirrels. And just that one time, in all my thirty-nine years as a ditch rider, a dead body.” The man had drowned in the Big Thompson River, and his body had been sucked into the Parshall flume measuring pool on the west side of the city of Loveland, just off the local recreation trail.

“That’s something I hope never to see again,” Jim says. “That was a terrible thing to see.” He is wearing an inside-out white V-neck undershirt, bright-red suspenders, and a Pendleton flannel that smells, pleasantly, like soil and engine grease. Jim is around my dad’s age, I think, but his fashion sense and friendly cantankerous nature evoke my beloved grandfather.

Ditch riding, as a profession, is about as Western as it gets. The Colorado Division of Water Resources deploys river commissioners and ditch riders to manage the distribution of captured snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains to various shareholders along a series of reservoirs, underground tunnels, rivers, and irrigation ditches, many of these last dug by hand by nineteenth-century settlers. In a fairly romantic history of the New Cache La Poudre Irrigating Company, a water attorney named William R. Kelly writes: “Whatever it may mean in other areas, to be called a ‘ditch man’ in Northern Colorado is a term of respect and a compliment, implying one of public spirit and constructive qualities, willing to spend time for benefit of the general community by building and safeguarding their irrigation works and water rights.”

Under the loose supervision of the state water commissioner, and in cooperation with Northern Water, a public agency created to manage the Colorado–Big Thompson water project (known locally as C–BT), Jim drives the Big Thompson Ditch & Manufacturing Company line every day during irrigation season, tracking orders with handwritten notes in a ledger that lists who is drawing water, how much, and when. He is in charge of a series of head gates along the ditch system that release or block water according to who along the line is irrigating that day, a task he calls “setting the gates.” He burns debris from the ditches in the spring. He fumes about the graffiti local kids paint on the diversion boxes and dams. Some days, he, too, has to pull on his waders and get down into the ditch to change the directional flow of the water by sticking 2x4s and scrap plastic into slats in the concrete diversion boxes. At one of the trash racks along our route, Jim gets out and scrapes long strings of soggy moss off the grates so that it does not block the ditch flow.

Jim has agreed to take me on a tour of the ditch system because he is Matt’s friend. The nursery Matt manages for a commercial landscaping company draws water from a different ditch system, the Campion Lateral, that Jim also manages. Ditch riding for the Big Thompson Ditch & Manufacturing Company is seasonal, full-time, paying work, but Jim serves as the ditch rider of the Campion Lateral for free. When I ask him how sustainable this volunteer position is, what will happen once he can’t perform the job, Jim shrugs. “I don’t know, really. I don’t know anyone else who cares.”

“Matt cares,” I say. Matt and I drive together some weekend mornings, coffee in hand, to pull weeds and twigs and other debris off the trash racks along the Campion Lateral when Matt is filling his pond at work. This is called “doing the clean outs,” and the fact that Matt takes responsibility for it when he draws water is one reason why Jim likes him enough to deal with me. Jim and Matt share the belief that doing things the right way is one of life’s sweet pleasures. Matt and I have only ever seen water-soaked dead birds on the grates during clean outs, but we’ve seen a lot of them. All we can do is scoop them up with the pitchfork or shovel or whatever and throw them on the debris pile with everything else. I’m relieved, after talking to Jim, that we’ve never seen a larger animal. I’m not sure what he does with the dogs.

“Yeah. Matt would be a good candidate,” Jim says.

Except we’re not farmers, not anymore, and Colorado’s Anti-Speculation Doctrine prohibits us from owning rights to water for which we have no demonstrable use, on the Campion Lateral or any other ditch system. I am sure that Matt doesn’t care enough to take on an unpaid job managing other people’s property. I don’t say this out loud, because I have only just met Jim and we are already bumping up against water controversy. Instead, I say, “Don’t you go telling Matt I volunteered him to work for free. He’ll never forgive me.”

Jim laughs. He’s been married twice as long as I have and knows exactly what I mean.

Photograph by Alex S. Maclean

The second time irrigation made me cry, I had just finished a seven-hour day planting melon seedlings and pumpkin seeds during a ninety-degree afternoon in June. I’d had trouble keeping the seedlings from drying out in the heat, had been dragging thirty-foot sprinkler tubes with wobbler heads on them from one furrow to another. I’d been half-bent over, making holes in the soil every eight feet with a dibble, measuring two to three seeds for every hole. My kids, ages four and six, had been helping me cover the seeds, but they lost interest and went to search for toads in the beady pigweed shadows, to catch the crawdads hiding in the ditch. We were at the northernmost end of our six acres of cultivation. We had leased the fourteen acres north of that to a kid from the local high school who was growing field corn for his FFA project.

Forty-two percent of all fresh water in the United States is used for crop irrigation. Different methodologies vary in both application and efficiency. Our neighbor irrigated his corn crop using gated pipe/furrow irrigation, whose efficiency ranges from 40 to 60 percent (some studies report potential efficiencies as high as 80 percent, but 50 percent is the number most people agree on). It is a type of flood irrigation, which happens just as it sounds it would. He ran the water from our diversion box into a large plastic tube with small openings at the top of each of his furrows. Our field sloped slightly downhill from north to south, so the water simply flooded the furrows, gravity pulling it steadily south, until it reached the end of the line. The end of his line was where our vegetable and flower crops began, so to prevent his water (water that we leased and he reimbursed us for) from flooding our field, we pulled a ditch between his field and ours, creating a small berm on the south side. The ditch collected the runoff water from his flood system, called tail water, and diverted it into our holding pond farther south, so that we could use that tail water to run our drip system.

Flood irrigation can take days, and it’s very boring. It’s normal for the process to be supervised by checking, maybe twice a day, that all is well. In the field that day, parched and exhausted, I didn’t notice that the flood water was soaking the berm on the south side of the ditch until water had already started to run through in multiple sections. I yelled for the kids, handed them shovels, and we all ran frantic along the berm, trying to patch the holes eroding out of it by throwing more soil on top. Newly planted seedlings can easily be pulled from the soil by flooding like that, and it was less likely but also possible that it could wash out the newly planted seeds. I pictured hundreds of dollars’ worth of seed and seedlings uprooted and rotting in the sun. Even when we stopped the water from flowing, Matt had hours of shoveling mud just to repair the berm, through dinnertime and into moonlight, long after I had taken the kids to make our weekly CSA deliveries. I cried that time from exhaustion, dehydration, worry, aware of the irony that in the midst of one of the driest agricultural counties in the nation, our crops were being threatened by an abundance of water.

It is nearly impossible to talk to someone about water in Colorado without having them quote Mark Twain: “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” It’s unclear that Mark Twain actually said this—it’s not, apparently, in any of his published works. My suspicion is that these are two things that Westerners feel they can claim—Twain and a violent water history—and we’ve conflated them somehow in the name of heritage.

There have been numerous turning points concerning water in Colorado’s history. One of the better known is a dispute at a schoolhouse in the town of Eaton in 1874. Members of the Union Colony (modern-day Greeley) arrived to negotiate with settlers from the new colony of Fort Collins. The Fort Collins settlers had, without concern for downstream users, diverted almost the whole flow of the Poudre River, leaving the Union colonists with little water for the crops already in the ground. Both groups arrived at the negotiations heavily armed and discussions went poorly. At one point an agitator called for the end of the meeting by yelling: “Every man to his tent, to his rifle, and to his cartridges.”

Benjamin Eaton, future governor of Colorado, was one of the more even-tempered in the crowd that day, and he kept the group from violence. The resulting negotiations always teetered on the edge of a shoot-out, but eventually, the Fort Collins group agreed that the Union Colony group, having arrived on the plains first, did have some sort of priority right to the Poudre River water. This incident formed the basis for the prior appropriation doctrine.

When we lived on the farm, we spent one Fourth of July at a barbecue with our rural area neighbors and their guests, who were mostly prominent local Republican party members and owners and executives of oil and gas companies. We didn’t know the politicians or the executives, but our neighbors showed up for us when our kids were sick, when hail devastated our crops, when grasshoppers ate a year’s harvest in four weeks, when our garage needed a new roof. They came with scratch-baked cakes, prayers, honest commiseration, and care, and we did our best to return the favor in kind. (There was a time where I would have said that being liberal environmentalist farmers in Weld County was merely uncomfortable, mildly irritating, that our political differences didn’t matter much in the context of our personal relationships with our neighbors, people we truly loved. I imagine it would be more difficult now.) That Fourth of July, the group was worried about rumors that Denver politicians were going to try to take agricultural water rights away from individual farmers through some sort of eminent-domain action. There was talk of civil disobedience, of armed patrols at head gates. I didn’t believe it was true, not really, but still a spark of panic kindled in my heart.

We need that water, I thought, we’ve worked so hard. We were, at that point in the recession, $75,000 underwater on our farm mortgage, $20,000 more in debt to the farm. That water is the only thing we have worth any money at all.

Every farmer I know is rich in equipment, in land, in resources, and buried in crippling debt of equal or greater worth. It’s an odd form of wealth, wealth that can’t be spent. We were struggling, and I will admit to caring less about the common good than about my own in that moment. The personal stakes were high—and not just economically. I had worked myself bloody cultivating that land, had harvested broccoli on my hands and knees by headlamp and moonlight, had raised my kids barefoot and dirty and free. Is there an ethical way to participate in a flawed system, even in service to an idealistic dream of an environmentally healthy local-food community? I have asked myself that question about water issues and capitalism both, and the only answer I can come up with is that you do the best you can. This is, of course, insufficient.

Buying into the privatized water system didn’t feel like a choice. In order to farm, we had to own the water or rent it from someone who did. As environmentalists, we farmed with sustainable practices. We installed the drip irrigation system, used organic practices, raised chickens and turkeys and pigs to provide humane and ethical meat to our community. I believe our ownership of water threatened the common good less than ownership of water by a corporation like Nestlé, that our use of the water to grow sustainable food was more responsible and beneficial than a city watering a golf course, a drilling company injecting fracking fluid into rocks, but I also recognize the personal financial incentive I had to justify this belief. I share the concerns of the more than eighty-one thousand Michigan residents about turning water, so essential to human existence, over to corporate ownership and greed, especially after the centrality of water to our livelihood turned even our dirt-farming, tree-hugging hearts into something closer to Tolkien’s Gollum. We owned that one quarter of one water right. It was ours to use, ours to keep—the ugliest principle of water in Colorado: first in time, first in right. Mine, not yours. Precious. Privileged. Private.

Jim Myers can name everything he sees. Approaching one of the head gates, while I am fumbling with my notebook, he says, “Hey, look, a kingfisher on the gate,” and I look up just in time to see a blue flash in full dive toward the ditch water, folded gracefully into its hunt. Farther down the ditch, we flush an owl from a gnarled old cottonwood, and Jim says, “I guess we’re disturbing the old great horned.” He lists all the names of the peaks west of us too quickly for me to keep up. He is rattling off ditch-system information, pointing out features of local geography and wildlife, and, best of all, telling stories about ditch riding.

“There was this one doctor in town,” Jim tells me. “I mean, he’s still in town, so I’m not going to name any names, but he used to think it was funny to throw his Christmas tree in the ditch every year come January. When I saw him at the ditch meetings, I’d ask him who he thought it was had to drag his tree out of the ditch, and he’d just laugh like he’d told the best joke around. Anyway, I got sick of it.” One year, Jim caught a kid stealing copper wire from his shop yard, and Jim agreed that he wouldn’t report him if the kid worked off the money. Jim had the kid haul the doctor’s Christmas tree out of the ditch, up to the doctor’s front porch, and decorate it with other trash that had blown into the ditch. “I never heard any laughing after that,” Jim says. “And there’s not been a Christmas tree in my ditch since.”

Ditch riders also have to monitor suspicion of farmers and landowners stealing water from the ditch system. Plants are fragile, especially in places where there is so little natural precipitation, and when they are dry, you either water them or lose them. If you aren’t due for another water delivery, or you just couldn’t find enough water to lease, desperation might drive you to take a number of illegal and ill-advised actions, including stealing water from your neighbor by siphoning a ditch. Landowners in the area are simultaneously outraged by water theft and, I think, sympathetic to the agricultural and financial pressures that might drive a farmer to it.

Jim once got a tip from a farmer that someone had been driving the ditch line late at night, so he parked in some brush to watch, undercover. “It’s not that I planned to shoot him,” Jim says, smiling, “but I took the shotgun along just to scare him, I guess.” Sure enough, about 10 p.m., he saw headlights through the pigweed and lamb’s quarters. “I got excited, and clumsy, and bumped the interior lights on in the cab, and that was the end of it. The truck hightailed out of there before I got a chance to identify the bastard. But he never came back to steal the water either. Just the rumor that the ditch rider is out looking for thieves is usually enough to shut it down.”

Eighty percent of Colorado’s precipitation occurs west of the Continental Divide, while 80 percent of its population and a large percentage of its irrigated agriculture are located on the eastern side. When resources are both scarce and necessary, there are bound to be disputes about how to allocate them; also, there are bound to be ambitious plans that happen to work. C–BT is a public-works project just like that—if someone told me, even today, that we should build infrastructure to take water from the Western Slope of Colorado and pump it across the Continental Divide to the Front Range, I would probably roll my eyes—except I know we’ve already done it, are doing it still.

Conceived in the 1930s with construction completed shortly after World War II, C–BT provides supplemental water to Front Range cities and farmers through an elaborate system of irrigation-ditch companies. Northern Water’s headquarters in Berthoud, Colorado, include a xeriscaped conservation garden and an interpretive area in which water circulates through a small replica of the C–BT: twelve reservoirs and the 13.1-mile underground Alva B. Adams tunnel, which runs underneath Rocky Mountain National Park.

On this scale, water is measured in acre-feet, or the amount of water necessary to cover an acre of land with one foot of water. One acre-foot of water—325,851 gallons—provides the annual water needs for two typical households. In the C–BT system, snowmelt water is collected into Grand Lake. From there, it enters the Adams tunnel. Gravity-fed from this point, the water can travel from west to east through the tunnel in just two hours. At peak capacity, the tunnel can deliver eleven thousand acre-feet of water in a twenty-four-hour period. The water is then regulated through two reservoir systems before it reaches Lake Estes, just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. Still gravity-fed, the water continues, unless blocked, into a series of reservoirs west of Loveland/Fort Collins—Pinewood, Flatiron, Horsetooth, Boulder.

Our quarter of a share of water was often not enough to irrigate our little farm, even with an expensive drip system. C–BT water is a lifesaver for farmers who can’t afford the $30,000 (or more) it would take to buy more water rights. We rented a small amount of C–BT water, between two and four acre-feet annually, for a $200–$400 fee. The state of Michigan charged Nestlé a similar amount to have access to 1.77 acre-feet of water per day from the Evart site. Unlike us, Nestlé did not have to purchase $30,000 worth of usage rights in addition to this fee.

There were times when irrigation made me laugh, like during our first year on the land, learning how to string the irrigation. “I’m worried it’s going to be too hard for you,” Matt said, “but I don’t see how we’ll ever get it done if you can’t work it out.” That comment, before we were farmers, would have really pissed me off. I don’t think I’m a particularly vain woman, but I have always taken pride in keeping my body strong and healthy. The physical load of farm work, though, had run me up against many tasks that my threshold of strength and scrappiness, no matter how well maintained, simply would not allow me to accomplish. By the time we got started on the drip-irrigation installation, I no longer worried that this made me look like a spindly little girl. Spindly is as spindly does. I worked myself to shreds every day on that farm.

Installing drip irrigation on the surface of a row is difficult to describe. Drip line is sold in giant spools, so Matt mounted the spool on a broomstick between two supports on a ladder for ease of pulling. It was so easy to pull, in fact, that I consistently pulled the ladder all the way over and had to set the system up all over again. The drip line has to be run down both sides of each crop-bed surface and attached to a header line with a screw-type end that catches the inside of the header tube and allows the water to flow. This installation process is smoother if the system is running, pressurized, which means that everything is wet and slick and dripping. There is a lot of running up and down rows, a lot of kneeling in mud, a lot of using both thumbs to push attachments from which water is spraying in one direction into tubes from which water is spraying in the opposite direction. After my first couple of passes, I paused to wipe the water off my glasses and saw Matt trying to hide a grin.

“You can laugh,” I said, and we both did.

We had hundreds of rows that needed drip—days of cleaning water off my glasses, pulling the ladder over, standing it back up, getting water all over my glasses. It was practically slapstick comedy. It was exhausting.

Even when we built a tractor implement that could bury the drip line in the row for us, drip irrigation was excessively labor intensive, but it is at least 90 percent efficient. I don’t have any illusions that this kind of conservation, on a large scale, is an easy solution. It also did not help us sell cabbages and sunflowers. Very few customers ever asked us about our water-conservation practices, though as a group they were admirably committed to sustainability. It was a financial and physical sacrifice. We did it for the deep pleasure of knowing that we’d done something well, that we’d acted on our principles, but the expense in time and money was one of the reasons our farm eventually failed.

In the 1990s, the state of Colorado had 3.8 million people. In 2016, it was about five and a half million. The average precipitation in Larimer County, in the 1990s and now, is 16.8 inches per year. The demand on the water supply is increasing while the supply itself is not. There are a number of possible solutions to this problem, none more controversial than the Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP. Proposed by Northern Water, NISP would deliver 40,000 acre-feet of new water supplies to eleven cities, along with four other water districts in northern Colorado, through the construction of two large reservoirs. Northern Water estimates that since 2009, more than four million acre-feet of excess water has flowed to downstream users in Nebraska and beyond in water-abundant years due to lack of storage capacity in Colorado. NISP’s goal is to store water legally owned by Colorado users so that those who cannot use it in water-abundant years can have access to it in drought years.

Environmentalists in Fort Collins formed an organization called Save the Poudre in 2005 to oppose the NISP project—they object to reduced river flows, to the environmentally catastrophic installation of a dam, to the subsequent drowning of truly beautiful foothill habitat. Locally famous for an iconic photo that shows the naked backsides of its members standing in the river, the group has contested points of the Environmental Impact Statement for the project, objected to the benefits touted for local farms, and asserted that the right incentives for conservation are a viable solution to the existing water problem.

Photograph by Alex S. Maclean

In Colorado, the word “conservation” means different things in the context of water depending on whom you talk to, or at least what you’re talking about. Sometimes, conservation means what Save the Poudre means: limiting use, or prioritizing use, as in taking shorter showers, replacing bluegrass with xeriscaped native plants, parching golf courses and ball fields. When talking to farmers, conservation means storage—building dams to “conserve” the water when it’s rich, store it so it doesn’t flow free to the downstream users. In the heat of the fight over the NISP project, pickup trucks on the eastern plains of Colorado had bumper stickers that read: conserve water. build glade reservoir.

Under NISP, we worried that our New Cache irrigation water would switch from the relatively clean snowpack water of the Poudre River to water pumped up from the South Platte, a river that flows through Denver before passing south of our farm, picking up contaminants that would salinate our soil over time, making it difficult, and eventually impossible, for us to grow our specialty crops. Northern Water downplayed these concerns, and while we agreed with many of Save the Poudre’s main points—that dams are environmentally catastrophic creations, that reservoirs lose water to evaporation, that there would be negative effects on local wildlife populations and lower river quality when flows dropped—their volunteers often spoke to us with tremendous condescension. It was hard to be treated as though we had never considered the environmental impact of our farming operation by people who had not designed and fabricated their own drip-tube installation implements for the hydraulics of a 1952 Allis Chalmers CA tractor, who had not spent thousands of their own dollars on irrigation construction and supplies.

NISP is still under review. The Final Environmental Impact Statement was released in 2018 with a number of modifications, but the dams seem ever closer. Despite opposition by Save the Poudre, the majority of farmers in Colorado support NISP without reservation. Our neighbors held rallies in support of Glade Reservoir; tied its construction to the continuation of their rural heritage and their children’s “right to farm”; ridiculed anyone, including Matt and me, who might question any part of the project. In truth, our own reliance on C–BT water made it impossible to ignore the benefits of large water development projects, to wonder whether NISP might not be, in fact, a necessary evil.

We were sympathetic to both sides. We were alienated from both as well. Like so many controversies, the issue is polarized, its presentation a fallacy: You can have rivers, or you can have farms. I have yet to see a plan that recognizes the value of both wild spaces and farms, a plan that reflects a love for both ways of experiencing nature.

Jim and I are checking the head gate outside of a set of old quarry ponds that are now a city-maintained open space/recreation area called River’s Edge. Jayhawker Pond, one of the largest in the park, functions as storage for the water that the city uses to irrigate the nearby baseball fields. This is the first dirt access road we’ve been on that isn’t well trimmed and maintained. The pigweed and ditch sunflowers are five to six feet tall, make violent popping noises on the side of Jim’s truck as he drives right into and over them.

“I stopped mowing here so the stupid public would stay off it and out of my way,” he says. “Mowed, it looks to them just like the rest of the trail system around the ponds, never mind the posted no trespassing signs.”

It’s the first head gate we get to that has a lock on it.

“Is this because of the stupid public?” I ask.

“You said it, not me,” Jim says, smiling.

Jim checks the measurements at the Jayhawker output, finds they’re off. He’s giving the city a bit too much water, so we walk back to the head gate to adjust. Jayhawker is temporary storage, meaning the city has only seventy-two hours to use the water it draws from Jim’s ditch.

“Back in the big drought of 2002, I told the city they ought to stop watering those ball fields,” Jim says, marking the information in his handwritten ledger. “Do their part for conservation. Free up some of this water for agriculture, you know, so we can all eat. But they said they couldn’t possibly, those ball fields make $40,000 per year in use fees.” Jim shakes his head, clearly disgusted. “I have to manage this head gate like any other. It’s my job, and I do it, but I pay a lot closer attention to the farmers. Because this,” and here he waves his hand toward the pond dismissively, “all this is just for frickin’ ball fields.”

Jim believes conservation, individual and systemic, would make a big difference in water management. He practices it himself, he tells me, by sharing the bathwater with his wife. Jim believes in the other kind of conservation as well, that we should build as many dams as it takes to keep the rights the region owns in the region itself. His take on the NISP project ruining the Poudre River is simple. It won’t. “There are one hundred twenty years of water priorities before you can even fill Glade—you can’t stop that water or dry it up—it has to flow through the Poudre just like it does now to get to the people who own it. It won’t affect the fish or anything, because the existing water doesn’t just disappear from the river. It still flows just like it always did.”

Later, I ask a friend of mine, a water toxicologist, what he thinks of Jim’s faith in the Poudre, and he laughs out loud. “Imagine believing you’ve destroyed the ecosystem so badly that it can’t possibly get any worse.”

Jim also supports construction of a less controversial dam that has won approval through Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming Project and that will create a new reservoir, Chimney Hollow, but he doesn’t think the twelve cities and water districts that participate in the project will get much benefit from the 90,000 acre-feet of water the reservoir will hold.

“There are one hundred years of water priorities ahead of the Windy Gap water,” Jim says. “I mean, in a drought, it will be just as dry as everything else. How will that save us?”

By 2013, we were buried in debt and facing foreclosure on our farm mortgage. When I talk about it now, I say that we lost our farm, because loss is the word that feels true—we threw the scraps of our failed dream into a giant Dumpster, moved away from the field we’d cultivated and loved, gave our scrappy remaining laying hens to friends with a half-acre backyard—but by some luck we were able to sell the farm in pieces. The $35,000 we got for our quarter share of one right of New Cache water paid off almost all of the farm debt we were carrying on our credit cards by that time. The water money was like salve on a wound, the only thing we had worth any money at all.

We live in town now, and I pay the city for the water I use to run the drip system I installed in my tiny front-yard garden. I think a lot about the ways food production interacts with environmental degradation, water use, equity, aesthetics. I suspect that avoiding future water catastrophe will take both kinds of conservation—that we will need to become smarter about storing and allocating water while simultaneously finding ways, systemically and individually, to waste less of it. It will require neighbors to build consensus on what the common good looks like, in water management and everything else, in a hyperpartisan America. Like any worthwhile, necessary endeavor, this will require trust—in institutions, in one another. When I read about Nestlé, about Flint, I don’t feel particularly trusting.

I think about the way I held those water rights close, my impulse to hoard them. I would have done almost anything to protect my individual right to use that water, even as I worked hard to conserve it, to protect its quality. I believe in working for the good of the Earth, for the community, for the common good generally—these beliefs are what drove me to become a farmer in the first place—but if someone had tried to take away my water rights, I might have taken up my .22 rifle and joined my neighbors in the head-gate patrol. Solving this problem will require better of me, of all of us. We will have to think outside the systems we have in place, operate instead from a fundamental shared assumption that all humans share an equal interest in the ways water is stored, allocated, and managed; that the most essential beneficial use of water is to support life.

When I despair that this will never happen, I think about something Jim told me about the way he has changed his pesticide use in response to recent press about threats to bees, monarchs, and other pollinators. “I don’t spray the milkweed anymore,” he said, “or at least I try real hard not to. I just come on out here at the end of the summer and pull the seed heads so they don’t get out of control.” It’s part of what charms me most about Jim, proof that people do sometimes change in meaningful ways in response to crisis. It’s also a powerful reminder that the systems that govern water usage are made up of individuals like Jim, like Matt and me, and that those individuals can drive small changes that might, collectively, eventually, reform the system itself. I have to believe it’s possible. If I didn’t, I would have no hope at all. 


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