Sunday, March 08, 2009

Irrigation Ditch

What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers; rose, lilac and chamisa stems; Apache plume, honeysuckle, prickly pear, yucca, hyacinth, rock rose, dandelions; three men working on new ditches, two have piles of block near their fences.
What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, loco, snow-in-summer.
What’s red: Branches of apple and peach; stems on cholla and some shrub along the river; leaves on pinks, coral bells, beardtongues, small-leaf soapwort, pink and yellow evening primroses, some golden spur columbine, purple aster and anthemis.
What’s yellow: Globe and weeping willow branches; arborvitae and other conifers.
What’s blooming inside: Bougainvillea, aptenia, rochea, and kalanchoë.
Animal sightings: Heavy clouds kept birds in early mornings.
Weather: Too warm, too dry, too windy, too soon; couple trees started to bloom near the river; piles of Russian thistle collecting; all signs of rain that hit my roof early Saturday were gone by daybreak; 11:35 hours of daylight.
Weekly update: Ditch meetings are remembered as times when the community came together to elect its leaders and plan its communal work. The one a week ago was more like a corporate shareholders meeting, with an irrigation district manager who reported the previous year’s activities, provided status on construction projects, and announced when water would begin running.
People also like to remember that work as some festive spring weekend. Alvar Carlson said the original ditches often began when an ox gouged a furrow with a wooden blade that men deepened with spades. They piled the dirt they dredged along the banks to increase the carrying capacity of the ditches. In the 1930's, men spent at least thirty days each summer repairing the village ditch and twenty days on the one along the main road.
When settlers were expanding into lands between the Santa Clara and San Ildefonso in the 1730's, the Santa Cruz alcalde, Domingo Vigil, expected the San Ildefonso to extend the ditch in exchange for an agreement that a disputed grant stay within the control of specified local people. When San Ildefonso complained to the colonial governor, Juan Domingo de Bustamante ruled the natives couldn’t be forced to clean the ditch.
Constructing and maintaining secondary ditches is still unpleasant, hard labor. Last spring I ran into a drunk near the post office who told me he’d just returned from helping clean one of the ditches. He wanted me to cash a casino chip he claimed had been used to pay him.
Some ditches in my area are underground, but there are still many open sections where Russian thistles and trash collect. The association hires a man with a backhoe to do the major cleaning, including killing stumps. When a hay farmer at the ditch meeting asked why he couldn’t get water as early as the ditches nearer town, he was told scheduling that clean-up depended on how late the spring winds were blowing in new tumbleweeds.
Last summer our mayordomo offered to sell me some of the water rights the irrigation district had been buying to prevent Española and Santa Fé from obtaining them as a ruse to claim the water. One man down hill from me apparently took him up and is now busily repeating the work of the pioneers.
First, he or the ditch managers, hired a backhoe to bury a pipe from his property to the main ditch. Next, someone had to patch the crack that left in the county pavement. Then the man installed a pump to pull the water uphill to his property. Recently, he used a backhoe blade to level his land enough so water can be effective. This past week he dug another ditch going uphill the length of his property to distribute water and had dirt delivered to compensate for his scraped away topsoil. In five weeks, he will be able to connect some gated irrigation pipe to his pump and call the mayordomo to open the valve to water his small holding.
It’s hard to see how my neighbor can ever recover the costs of his investment. But when the water runs, perhaps it will be enough to show his kids. A friend of mine in town, where water is available on a schedule rather than on demand, tells me:
"We get water on Wednesday thru Saturday. From that point on, we simply share the water by taking our individual turn when our neighbor is done watering. For instance, when my neighbor next to me is watering, I simply ask him to let me know when he is done watering. When he is done, he releases the flow to me and I water my yard. When I'm done, if any other neighbor needs the water, I let them know when I'm done and release the water to them. If nobody needs the water after I'm done, I go to the main ditch and close the water flow down to our street. Over the years, it’s been kind of fun to water because it seems to keep our neighborhood close in that we get to chat and visit when we're exchanging water. I love it when the water is released to us. I've been working with water and crops almost all of my life and is something that I truly love. I should have been a farmer."
Even when the latest technology replaces the forgotten drudgery of the past, new ditch memories are made every summer.
Notes:Carlson, Alvar W. The Spanish-American Homeland, 1990.
Twichell, Ralph Emerson. The Spanish Archives of New Mexico, volume 1, 1914, on 1730's.
US Department of Interior, Tewa Basin Study, volume 2, 1935, reprinted by Marta Weigle as Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico, 1975, on 1930's.
Photograph: Our local ditch filled with Russian thistles and pigweed; the concrete feeds through a metal culvert that goes under the road and is faced with plywood to stabilize the bank; 28 February 2009.

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