Thursday, July 25, 2013

Spreading Water the Old Way

In New Mexico they call them acequias (ə-ˈsā-kē-əs), ditches that carry water from a river to farm ground. They hearken back to the ancients in the southwest. Our ditches (not nearly as romantic sounding as acequias) are only 130 or so years old, but they bring life to us just as they did for the pioneers when Europeans first came to this area.

I fancy the ditch out our front door as my very own acequia. It diverts from the Blackfoot Slough, a canal which follows an original high-water channel for much of its length. Our ditch then runs through a grove of cottonwoods and across the front lawn of the house. From there it sidles a giant black willow, goes under a footbridge and waters the horse pasture.

Flood irrigation is not the most efficient method of water delivery, but in the regenerative and sustainable agriculture world, it’s a star. It is powered by gravity alone, so opening headgates, installing dams or “checks” in the stream are all that’s needed to irrigate the ground. Heavy equipment is used at times to clean and repair the channel, but the system is largely dependent on hand labor once it’s up and running.  

Our ranch is surrounded by large center-pivot irrigation systems. Efficient, productive, modern, they’ve got it all - and the power bill to go with it. I would never say that flood irrigation trumps pivots; the “circles” feed a lot of people. But the canal system is valuable historically and culturally, if not for the ecosystem it maintains. It provides a summertime riparian extension of the river. Where pivots homogenize the land with monocultures from pavement to pavement, ditches help retain some of the naturally diverse landscape. Often lined with willow and cottonwoods, our acequias are beautiful and provide habitat for all kinds of creatures.

Another benefit of flood irrigation is that while underground pumping pulls water to the surface, the ditches recharge the aquifer, an attribute that becomes more important all the time. It must work economically too because we're still here. Five generations and counting.   

a four-way concrete "check"

water makes it way down a "land" at dawn

for the birds

dogs love to "change water" almost as much as they love herding


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Grouse and Grazing

I’ve been hobnobbing for three days with distinguished company – a range scientist, three biologists, and me. The first day I was pretty intimidated, just listened as they threw around scientific names of grass and brush species. By the second day I was participating in the discussions. By the third day I was arguing with them! Gotta love that.

We toured range sites throughout southeast Idaho for possible inclusion in a research project to study the effects of livestock grazing on grouse populations. According to my scientist friends, the study would be the first of its kind and will require careful planning and collaboration with diverse interests to be successful. The variables are so great, the data so elusive, that it’s never been tackled before.

I was honored to be included. It’s what I might do for fun, look at other grazing scenarios in different areas of the state with a few scientists to fire questions at. When in a group like this I often think, “If only I knew what you know, and all that I know as well, then we could make progress!” But alas, we only know from our own experience. That’s why we need each other.    

The best conversations we had were around the campfire at night. We love this land and all that it supports, and know it is more than grouse we’re concerned about. We wrestled with some little questions and some big questions. How do we address the increasing use of 4-wheelers on public land? What to do about invasive species? How do we engage the public without damaging the resource? How best do we take scientific data and make it applicable “on the ground?”

All good questions. Issues that will only be unraveled through alliances like these - where learning from one another is the objective, without pretense and above the political fray. 

Big Butte in background
good for grouse, good for cattle

black sage (artemisia nova) on left
low sage (artemisia arbuscula) on right

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fourth of July Weekend

The weather has cooled off after a series of 95+ days. It’s too early in the summer for this! We don’t have air conditioning; instead we open all the windows at night and shut them up tight about 8:00 am. It works great unless the nights are too warm and muggy.

We spent the Fourth in the hills with the cattle. Mark took a few minutes to hang a beautiful new flag on the garage before we left. We intended to make it home for the fireworks, but the day got too long as it often does in the mountains. We saw a few colorful explosions above the city lights as we topped the divide heading home at dark. The radio was playing patriotic songs including Neil Diamond’s “America.” We found out later that Seth and Anna had seen Diamond in person at the Capital Fourth concert.

Maybe missing the Fourth of July festivities was the impetus for Mark to take some time out of his Sunday to finish a project I started last fall. I had dug an old gate out of the ranch junk pile and brought it home to install at the front entrance to our yard. I transplanted some hollyhocks to the site from my Uncle Doug’s yard and gathered some lichen covered rocks from the mountains. Now all I needed was to catch Mark at the right time to set two posts and hang the gate.   

Turned out today was the day. He found an old cedar post standing solitary out in the sandhills. It was once a corner post to an old arena and would be just right to anchor the gate and complete the vintage look I was after. Mark loves cedar posts, says they never rot. He said this cedar was alive when Christ was a child.

Turned out nice don’t you think?