Gwen Petersen: In a Sow’s Ear 2-4-13

Water: The source of practically everything. Neither you nor your critters could survive without it. You wouldn’t have oceans, rivers or the fish that live in that elixir of life. And you sure couldn’t grow crops without it. The competition among ranchers and farmers to obtain and retain “water rights” for their irrigation ditches remain fierce, on-going and provides a nice living for certain lawyers to adjudicate the feuds.

Years back, irrigation meant flood irrigating. A shovel was the tool of choice. An irrigating shovel is a remarkable tool, sharpened on its business edge. It’s used to shovel, chop, scoop, pound, mash, lean on and occasionally to kill a rattlesnake. (A shovel fight between two water-rights opponents could be much like a fencing match except most irrigators don’t yell “en garde!” before they smack their opponent).

Some 30 years ago, before pipes and pivot sprinklers and innovations about which I know nothing, I wrote about cleaning irrigation ditches in The Ranch Woman’s Manual — country woman style.

While the men — using shovels and backhoes — assume responsibility for cleaning the big ditches of debris that has accumulated over the winter, you are in charge of cleaning the lawn and garden ditches.

Your ditch cleaning and irrigating costume are the same. Your only tool is a plain working spade. Thigh-high heavy-rubber, ugly-gray boots will chew your feet to a blistery pulp in no time. At each step, your foot comes up followed a half second later by the boot itself, making a shuffle-smack-thunk sound as you walk. Wear stout leather gloves which will get soaked, but will help prevent more serious wounds from sharp sticks and heavy rocks. Caution: Do not use rubber gloves. They’re slippery and you tend to drop hurtful stones on your toes.

The garden and lawn ditches carry water diverted from Antelope Creek. The thing is always full of water so … you wade. The snaky ditch wanders through some cottonwoods and meanders among the apple trees, across the nearest meadow and thence to your garden and lawn. Jump in at the garden end and begin scooping out sticks, twigs, leaves and rocks. The rocks tend to become heavier and heavier as you go. An hour and a half is the outside limit for stooping and lifting, so take a break. Sit down. Eat the chocolate bar you’ve had the foresight to put in a pocket. Re-energized, get up to return to work. Note you’ve acquired a semi-permanent forward-leaning posture. Still, you maintain a cheerful attitude. It’s a lovely day. Except for the pain in your back, it’s great to be outdoors. You’re nearly through — just a quarter acre through the cottonwoods to go.

You’ve talked yourself into a pat-on-the-back attitude when you discover the beaver dam. It consists of a solid mass of interwoven sticks, twigs, leaves and small logs which have got to come out. A beaver dam can be several feet long and wide and thick and you must unthread all those interlaced sticks, twigs, logs and slimy moss piled up like a giant game of jackstraws. Alas you manage to yank on a lynch-pin twig and pull a hunk of the structure loose with a whoosh that sloshes icy water over the top of and into your boots. Your cold clammy feet now weigh a ton each. Go right ahead with your choice of curses and screams. No one will hear you and the extra emotion will help keep you warm.

When you finally return — exhausted — to the house, you find your mate has returned from HIS ditch-cleaning detail some time ago. He asks, ‘What’s taken you so long to take care of that little ditch?”

You save his life. You let him live.

P.S. The latest quarrel over water in our county is between ranchers who have owned their places for generations and a deep-pockets lawyer-hiring newcomer who wants ALL the water on the ditch. The fight is on. ❖


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