Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Watermaster

This is not a statue of Dad, but if there were a statue in Lanark in might just look like this.
Dad served as the Watermaster on the Canal for the South Liberty Irrigation Company for about forty years.

In the small farming towns of southern Idaho, as well as in other areas around the arid west, one of the most important men in the community was the Watermaster.  Water was seldom in abundance and so it became necessary to select a man of strength and principle who would assure that all of the farmers in a given area would get his fair share of the precious water allotted to them and their thirsty acres.  Dad was that man almost continuously for forty years as he worked for the farmers who owned the South Liberty Irrigation Company.  This company was a small cooperative of farmers mostly in in Lanark and a few in Ovid who had water rights in Mill Creek and Miles Creek in the mountains west of Liberty and Lanark.  The early pioneers in the area had  dug a long ditch/canal along the foothills into which the waters of Mill Creek and Miles Creek could be diverted.  It was a canal but rather small by the standards of other canals in southern Idaho.  On a good year the canal would carry six  or seven streams of water  which would be allocated for a specific number of hours or days to individual farmers based on their held water rights.   Dad was known for his dependability and his fairness.  He was also known for his firmness which he demonstrated on many occasions when some of the farmers were found turning their own water a few hours before they were scheduled to, or readjusting the size of the stream that had been turned to them so as to get just a little more water.  For farmers along that canal system water from the canal almost always meant the difference between a good crop and one that was very much in short supply. 
     In April or early May each year all of the farmers who were serviced by the canal got together to clean it and make ready for the upcoming irrigation season.  Usually the crews were divided into two groups.  One would start at the head of the canal  which was located up in Sharon near the Derricott place.  The other group started out near the Leland Wallentine place on the south end of the canal.  The canal was about thirteen miles long so that left each crew with just under seven miles of irrigation ditch to clean.  I remember looking forward to this project most years.  It was fun for me as a youngster to be able to go out and work along side the men of the town.  At first my job was to help cut the new willows that had grown up during the previous year.  Later, I helped with almost any other assignment that was given.  Each farmer had to provide labor to pay off their water assessment, which was based on the length of time they were allocated for their water turn.I remember the stories that were told and some of the pranks that were played on fellow workers.  I think that's where I first developed an appreciation for BS. At least that's what the farmers called it.  I will long remember a "water witching" demonstration by Carl Parker one day during our lunch break.  He had a reputation as a "water witch'.  He would take young green willow with a forked branch.  He would the hold it in his hands with the fork pointing upward and walk slowly across the dry ground.  Occasionally the green willow would mysteriously turn down and point toward the ground.  I watched with interest and it truly appeared that he was holding onto the willow so firmly that it would twist the young tender bark right off the willow branch.  When this happened he would announce that that was a good place to dig a well.  The story goes that people who had him "witch" a well for them were nearly always successful in finding a good well with much water.  Carl had quite a reputation for this and was even invited by Utah State University to come down for their "Festival of the American West" and demonstrate his skills.  I was there once while he was doing this.  I don't know what the scientific explanation for this is, but there are many who would attest to his skills.

The picture above is not of our local water witch, but shows another at another time and place practicing his craft.

       I also, remember the day each year when the water was turned into the canal.  Dad and usually one other man would go the head of the canal in Sharon very early in the morning.  The would then divert a few streams of water into the canal and follow it around to the end of the canal.  If they turned in enough water it would get around to the end of the  canal by sundown.  Dad had done this often enough so that he knew exactly how much water to turn into the canal.  As the water proceeded around the canal it would accumulate a pile of debris as the water did the final cleaning of the ditch.  They always had shovels ready and would clear the debris from the ditch before it formed a dam in the canal and caused the water to overflow the canal banks and possibly wash the bank away.  That could have been disastrous.  I remember on those days how tired Dad was after completing the days work and what a sense of satisfaction he had in knowing that he had had a hand in supplying the water to his neighbors farms for another year.  This water was the life blood of the community and especially the much needed crops.  Dad did receive a pay check for his work, but it was very small in comparison to the value of the service he provided.  Keeping the fields green and the farmers happy  and at peace with one another was a challenge lesser men could never have accomplished.
      Dad mostly did this job on horseback in the early years,  His favorite horse for this job was named Smokey.  This horse was very hard to catch but easy to ride.  He had a good comfortable gait.  In later years the horse was replaced with a truck.  I remember Dad coming home with big bouquets of daisies he found along the canal bank for Mom.  She was always thrilled with these small acts of thoughtfulness.  Another time he came home with a big shovelful of Junebugs.  He said they were so thick they we about to dam up the canal and cause it to overflow.  He brought this shovelful of bugs home just to prove he wasn't spinning a story for us.  Another memory was of the fall time when the water would be turned out of the canal.  Again Dad would follow around the canal as the waters in the canal receded.  He would usually wear a pair of hip boots.  I'm not really sure this activity was essential or whether it was done for the perks.
As the water in the canal receded it would often leave stranded fish that had gotten into the canal during the summer.  I remember on several occasions he would catch lots of trout and would just put them down in his hip boots.  When his hip boots got so full he couldn't navigate very well he would climb out of the canal, empty the fish into a sack and needless to say we had some yummy fish suppers for a day or two.
      Long after I was grown and had a family of my own Dad was still serving as watermaster.  I remember one fall when we had two missionaries in the mission field at one time Dad came over to our home in Montpelier and gave me a check.  It was his entire payment for the years service as watermaster.  It had been endorsed on the back and I was given instructions to sign my name on the back also and deposit into our checking account for our missionaries.  It was an unselfish and much appreciated act of kindness, which only went to demonstrate the attitude of charity that Dad felt toward people, especially his family and neighbors.  That could easily make up another post for this blog.
    Time marches on.  The South Liberty Irrigation Compnay is in the final stages of installing a pressurized pipeline where the old canal was.  I hope it brings a more efficient and dependable source of water to the farmers who now till the land along its length.  I do, however, wonder if the modern farmers' kids will be able to look back at the good times during a lunch break sitting in the shade of a tree with friends and neighbors telling stories and sharing lunches.  Frankly, those were good times from the present perspective.
     There are many other memories, but I hope this will add a little human side to the task of keeping the water in the ditch.

by Bart