Academic journal article Material Culture

Water-Conveyance Technology and the Preservation of Agriculture in Colorado's Orchard Mesa Irrigation District

Academic journal article Material Culture

Water-Conveyance Technology and the Preservation of Agriculture in Colorado's Orchard Mesa Irrigation District

Article excerpt

Abstract: Agriculture in the American West survives, thrives even, but remains threatened by urbanization. As developers pave over agricultural landscapes in the American West, we are not just losing many beautiful and bucolic scenes, but we are also losing a material culture that is part of America's pioneer heritage. In Colorado's Grand Valley, however, farmers are replacing older irrigation systems with new technologies to preserve their heritage. Using the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District (OMID) as a case study, I find that a component of the survival of working agricultural landscapes in this irrigated region is the sentiment farmers have to sustain their way of life. They have accepted and implemented efficient water conveyance technologies and government programs in order to sustain their landscapes. On OMID, the changing elements of water conveyance technology intersect with modern needs for water conservation and with the preservation of farming heritage in the American West.

Keywords: Colorado, material culture and technology, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, place attachment, preservation, agricultural landscapes, Western Slope

Bob and Julie Commons grew up in Colorado on the Colorado Piedmont. They married and moved into the Rocky Mountains to Alma, a snowy place in Summit County high in the mountains. In 2007, they relocated to the west side of the Rocky Mountains, the Western Slope, a region carved by the erosional down-cutting of the Colorado River. Here, Bob and Judy could fulfill a longtime dream of staying in Colorado but living in a part of it with the best of both worlds - a more agreeable climate and not too far from snowmobiling country. Nowin their fifties, they are third generation Coloradans and are all too familiar with Colorado's water issues and the associated backdrop of old and new irrigation technologies. Julie recalls being aware of the constant pressures the Front Range's urban growth put on her family and their agricultural land, of which she still owns some acreage. Julie and Bob share a little different perspective now - in the Grand Valley agricultural region, their business supports agriculture/tourism even though their main use of irrigation water is for their lawn and not for agricultural purposes. Their neighbor across the street, Linda Lee, espouses a different perspective. Linda Lee Gubbini owns a vineyard and a winery. She is also a full-time nurse. Her front and back yards make up a well-manicured vineyard (Figure 1). She operates her winery out of her home. What she does or does not do on her side of the water system sometimes affects the water supply to the Commons property and vice versa albeit to a lesser degree. Bob and Julie did not fully understand their rights at first even though their real estate contract explained that irrigation water rights came with their property. Once they understood that the system flow to their land was controlled by the opening and closing of the gate on the cistern on Linda Lee's property, Bob and Julie approached Linda Lee. Here's how Julie remembered the story:

Julie: "Hi [Linda Lee], we just wanted to know when do you open the gate?"

Linda Lee: "I have to make repairs, so I'm not opening it for two weeks. "

Linda Lee's boyfriend: "That doesn't matter, you could open it up for these guys..."

Julie said the facial expression Linda Lee then directed at her boyfriend was the one that can cause a man's voice to fade away quickly - as Julie termed it, a "who-the-hell-are-you-to-decide-anything" look.

Julie: "That's OK; just let us know so we can flush the system."

According to Julie, Linda Lee later realized she was in the wrong, because the repairs that she needed to make would not interfere with the Commons' ability to get water. Linda Lee's property backs up to Orchard Mesa Canal #2. Gravity pipes water to Bob and Julie's property and to a couple other families on the same headgate. Bob and Julie have a drainage ditch that borders the eastern edge of their land and returns unused! …

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