A crash course in irrigation

Before we moved to the Western Slope, we were told again and again to make sure we buy water, not just a farm. Over here, water and land are sold separately, like toys and batteries. Just because water runs through, on or over your property doesn’t necessarily mean you have any right to use it.

The good news is that Quiet Farm does have adequate water, in most years. The bad news, however, is twofold: first, the Western Slope is in an unprecedented drought and at the moment no one has enough water. And second, we know precisely nothing about irrigation management. When you live in modern suburbia you just turn on the tap and the water flows magically, right? That is so much not the case here.

Water Droplets
Irrigation management on Quiet Farm doesn’t look like this.

QF Irrigation 01 sml

It looks like this: our Parshall flume (or weir) with attached flow gauge. No, we don’t know what any of those words mean, either.

QF Irrigation 02 sml

This is our water pump with screen to catch wildlife – raccoons, ground squirrels, marmots, whistlepigs, ponies, etc. – when they fall in. Looking forward to THAT happening.

We now own two shares of one of the Western Slope’s strongest irrigation ditches. There are dozens of ditch and reservoir companies; the vast majority of the area’s water comes from hundreds of lakes and reservoirs up on the Grand Mesa which are filled with precipitation each winter. When there is no snow, like last year, then there is no water in the ditches or reservoirs. And so water becomes a very valuable commodity.

QF Irrigation 03 sml

This is known as an “ag tap,” an abbreviation for agricultural. The water from this tap, however, is from our domestic supply. Confused? So are we.

QF Irrigation 04 sml

This is downstream of the water pump and will help irrigate our land with irrigation water. We think. Or maybe not.

When we want some of our water for irrigation – which we can have between the beginning of April and the end of October – we order a precise amount from the ditch company, accounting for absorption and loss along the way. Ditch riders, who live up on the mesa during the season, use a complicated system to send the water down the correct ditch to our property on a specific day. We have to be out at our headgates at about 6AM to start our run, and the water we use is debited from our account, just like a bank. We can lease, sell, trade or give away our water as we see fit, but if we order water, it’s coming to our property whether we’re ready or not. So figuring out our irrigation system is of paramount importance to our future success.

QF Irrigation 06 sml

Our water will run through gated pipe, a common sight in our area. Big farms will own thousands of feet and it’s set up according to your property’s individual landscape and contour. The black gates open and shut to control the water flow.

QF Irrigation 08 sml

A lot of our gated pipe currently looks like this, which is obviously not workable. Even we know that.

In case you’re worried that we’re actually living in Little House on the Prairie, our house has a domestic tap, which is just like water in a normal house. Except that domestic water here is crushingly expensive, especially compared to Front Range rates, which means we absolutely cannot run a farm on domestic water without bankrupting ourselves. No more domestic taps are being issued in our area; local government doesn’t think we have the water to support additional growth – unlike on the Front Range, where greedy, short-sighted counties sell their water to the big cities and then wonder why their towns die. Domestic taps are worth tens of thousands of dollars over here, if you could even buy one.

QF Irrigation 07 sml

Apparently little critters like chewing on the gates inside the pipe. The gates cost $3 each, and we have dozens missing. The few remaining intact ones are probably being eaten right now while you’re reading this.

QF Irrigation 05 sml

The end of the line. Of course, if the pipes aren’t connected properly we’ll just flood everything and there is no way to turn the water off once we’ve called for it. So good luck with that.

We’ve got just about a month to figure this system out, because once the water goes off at the end of October we’ll have no way of testing our work. And when the water (hopefully) starts running again next spring, we want to be ready to get our pasture in good shape.

QF Irrigation 09 sml

Good news, though! We’re unknowingly growing a pasture of invasive elm trees that will need to be removed by hand…

QF Irrigation 10 sml

…when we’re not growing anything at all. Surprisingly, bare pasture is actually worse than having even invasive plants in the ground.

The moral of this tale, friends, is not to take water for granted. The daily luxury of fresh, clean, potable water is an absolute gift and one that not even everyone in the U.S. has access to. So treat your water like the precious resource it is, and know that it is finite. And wars over water will be much more devastating than wars over oil.

There is much work to be done, and winter is coming. Pray for snow.

15 thoughts on “A crash course in irrigation

    • Hi Marty! Ten acres in almost a perfect square. About eight and a half is in (abandoned) pasture, and the other one and a half includes the house and outbuildings and where we’ll install hoop houses and so on. Ten acres is tiny compared to major commercial operations, but we think it will be more than enough for our plans.

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  1. In a good water year, can you bank what you don’t use, or is it use it or lose it? Can you have any storage for water you don’t use that you own? How about rain barrels, water catchment tanks? I bet when you see rain clouds coming, the rain dancing begins. When it’s all said and done, you have water rights. Learning to use them wisely is the key. Good luck!

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    • Hi Jim, we are allowed to build any matter of water storage – cisterns, catchment tanks, ponds, etc. There aren’t any water storage options on the property right now, but we will definitely be incorporating some, hopefully next year. And we’ll be setting up a rain barrel system off the gutters, too. But at the end of the irrigation season, any water we haven’t used will just remain in the reservoirs for the following year – it doesn’t roll over from one year to the next.

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      • I have to ask: the picture of the pasture with the elm trees, the next picture no trees. You guys just went out after breakfast and pulled the whole pasture by hand? My brother and I had to do the same thing, the only difference is they were Mexican sand burs, or goat heads, instead of elm trees.

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      • Jim, we are so flattered that you think we could clear that pasture by hand! They’re actually photographs of two different pastures; one is so dry and bare that not even elm trees are growing. We’ve figured out that the ground is too hard to even dig them right now, so we’re snipping the roots. And then we’ll have to figure out what to do with all those saplings – it will overwhelm our baby compost pile! I need a woodstove again, for certain.

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  2. Zayante Creek flowed through the bottom of my garden, but could not be used. Only well water is available. It works out fine for me. I would not want anyone else using water out of the creek and taking the water before it gets to my garden, because the plants that grow on the bank use the water ‘indirectly’. (I cannot use it, but they can.) However, the many pot growers who use the water up above are drying the creek now. It is a serious problem in our region, as well as all the other environmental problems associated with that stuff.

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    • Hi Tony, marijuana operations bring both a lot of money and a lot of problems. We are definitely seeing the impact here in Colorado. So far Delta County hasn’t legalized it for retail, and I’m hoping they don’t or our fights over water will get much more severe.

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      • It has caused more unnatural damage to the environment than anything since the clear cut harvesting of the redwood a century ago, which means that it is the second worst environmental problem in our history.

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  3. Pingback: Farm update: October 1 | Finding Quiet Farm

  4. Pingback: Farm update: October 8 | Finding Quiet Farm

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