Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/January 1890/Irrigation of Arid Lands

1149010Popular Science Monthly Volume 36 January 1890 — Irrigation of Arid Lands1890Henry J. Philpott



THERE is no more striking difference between the inhabitants of the Eastern and Western United States than the degree of their familiarity with the word irrigation. And there will never be a profounder difference than will be engendered by the thing itself. The Eastern farmer irrigates his cabbage and tomato plants when he first transplants them. His wife irrigates her flowers. The city gentleman irrigates his lawn. But the idea of watering a whole farm—not a New England "patch," but a Western ranch of from fifty to fifty thousand acres—seems a financial absurdity. What the Eastern farmer could not produce without such expensive cultivation he would say was not worth producing.

Equally incredible will seem farming without irrigation to the generation now growing to manhood over a large part of the Pacific coast. To them it will seem an absurdity not to have the water as fully under your own control as the land. They would not want to cultivate land if they had to take chances on there being neither too much nor too little rain.

What would surprise the Eastern farmer still more, if he knew it, is that thousands of acres of land, intended for nothing but hay and pasture, are not only irrigated from ditches a dozen miles long, but must first be leveled down with road-scrapers, and often the grading costs twenty-five dollars an acre. This, however, applies only to certain forms of irrigation. My present purpose is to describe a number of different ways of irrigation which I have seen exemplified on a large scale.

The simplest plan is with a street-sprinkler. It is profitable on certain crops of high value per acre. For irrigating trees and vines the spray may be taken off the wagon and a straight stream conveyed by a short hose to the roots. I have seen vineyards of one hundred acres watered in this way. It is chiefly used in tiding young vineyards and orchards over the first year, on land which thereafter will need no irrigation. It always struck me rather comically to see a street-sprinkler meandering over a field thirty miles from the nearest town, as if it had got lost and were groping about and trying to find its way back to its native haunts.

In such case the original source of the water may be a well or a mountain canon. I confess it still staggers me to see the miles of iron pipe through which a stream of irrigating water must often be carried from the mountain spring to the nearest field whereon it is to be used. A two-inch pipe, by the time it is laid, costs anywhere in the neighborhood of one thousand dollars a mile.

Wherever the water comes from, it is usually conveyed into a tank or a reservoir, and then piped or ditched about over the farm wherever needed. A hand pump is a rarity in southern California. A windmill pumps the water into a high tank, which gives it the pressure needed for sprinkling. Hydrants are placed at the house, at the barn, in the garden, in the orchard, and at other points. With plenty of hose the fire protection is admirable. The farmer's wife is as well off as her city cousin in the matter of water conveniences.

Running through iron pipes near the surface of a blistering hot soil, the water gets warm, not to say hot, and so it does standing in the tank over the well. When wanted for drinking, it is put into a porous earthen jar called an alla, and the evaporation of the large part which soaks through the jar cools the contents. Always in the morning, and nearly always throughout the day, you can get a drink as cool as the stomach ought to have. Sometimes a barrel, covered with a cloth kept wet, is used for the same purpose.

The water thus piped to various points on the farm is sometimes carried from the hydrants through ditches which run along the highest parts of the ground. These ditches are the simplest possible in construction. They go winding about like natural streams. Sometimes a furrow of the large farm-plow answers every purpose. For the capillaries of the circulation the furrows made between the rows of vegetables in cultivating them are quite sufficient. When you have irrigated a few rows, a hoeful or two of earth applied to each furrow stops the water from them, and then the dam is removed farther down the main stream, and more rows are irrigated in the same way.

The method of irrigating trees is different. A circular depression, with a raised rim, is made about the tree. In a large orange orchard this is done with a machine a kind of complicated scraper dragged around each tree by horses. The saucer thus formed may be fifteen or twenty feet, but is usually much less, in diameter. The water is turned into it from a hose or through a surface ditch. An orange grove never looks prettier than when thus prepared for irrigation. Sometimes, instead of the circular basin about each tree, small ridges are thrown up midway between the rows, in both directions. This makes a larger irrigated surface, and, of course, requires more water.

All these methods of irrigation are simply extensions of ordinary garden watering. I have seen two other quite different methods in operation. One of them is the simplest and cheapest, the other the most complicated and expensive of all.

In the former nothing is done except to dig a large ditch through the field, as near the middle as is consistent with its following sufficiently high ground, or between two fields, if both are to be watered from it. Through this ditch, or zanje, a slow stream of water is kept running. It soaks into the ground and percolates or "seeps" through it and thus sub-irrigates the whole field without any lateral ditches. Of course, this occurs only in peculiar soils. Its best exemplification is in Fresno and Tulare Counties, California. Sometimes a single ditch, nearly straight, will in this way irrigate one hundred and sixty acres.

The other method is exactly opposite. The whole field is flooded. Head-gates are placed along the main ditch, and from every head-gate a dike or levee is run across the field. Levees are also run along the sides, one of them forming the outside of the ditch. If these levees ran at right angles, a field thus prepared for irrigation would look for all the world like a huge printer's case. The levees may be two to four feet high. The intervening spaces are called "checks," and may contain any amount of land. I have seen one thousand acres cut into checks of from one to ten or twenty acres. I did not see how it could pay. Nothing was grown but hay and pasturage.

The checks are leveled, if not already sufficiently level. They are flooded one at a time. In flooding check No. 1, head-gate No. 1 is opened and No. 2 closed. As soon as the whole surface of this check has been covered with water, head-gate No. 2 is opened, and the same flood runs back into the ditch and down into check No. 2, and so on. The water is kept on the land but a short time. In warm weather the flooding is done mostly at night. The basins or checks formed by the dikes are not filled with water.

Alfalfa hay is cut four or five times a year, and the land is flooded after each cutting. Twelve tons a year per acre are not a rare crop, though less is commoner than more. For wheat and other cereals one good flooding is enough.

A good deal of California land has been over-irrigated. Alkali has been brought on or brought up, the soil has been made heavy, pools have been formed from the "seepage," and orchards and vineyards have been spoiled. After a field has been irrigated for a few years it becomes saturated, and wells dug in it soon reach water. It no longer needs so much water, and its former supply may be carried on to reclaim new deserts. How much a single river will reclaim, only give it time enough, can be vaguely guessed. Thousands of acres in the San Joaquin Valley have been placed beyond the need of further irrigation. The whole valley was once a desert.

A part of it seems beyond the reach of any irrigation except what can be done during the rainy season. The Coast Mountains do not furnish living streams, and the Sierra Nevada water must run up hill to cross the valley and climb the western slope. How to get it over there is a problem vexing many minds. Several companies have been formed, and surveys have been made, for doing the work on different plans. One company proposes to lay iron pipes about fifty miles, at a cost of several millions of dollars. Another would carry the water in an open ditch above ground. At the lowest part of the valley-trough the ditch would have to be at least fifty and ought to be at least one hundred feet above ground, for several miles.

Under a new law of California, irrigation districts may be formed, and a vote taken as to what, if any, mains shall be constructed. A majority of residents rules. The minority, if they own land, help foot the bill. So do all non-resident land-owners. The district where these great iron pipes aforesaid are proposed would contain about eight hundred thousand acres. It was estimated that five dollars an acre would pay the cost. A gentleman interested as a landholder, however, assured me that his honest estimate would be not less than two hundred dollars an acre. With plenty of water the land, now practically worthless, would be well worth one hundred dollars an acre.

It will be readily admitted that such gigantic schemes of irrigation as these must raise new questions of both civil law and political economy. The constitutional conventions of the newly admitted States spent some time in wrestling with the problem of water rights. In all our arid regions property in land involves property in water. If by going higher up the river or canon your neighbor may divert and use the water you have depended on, he might as well be permitted to take your land also, for it is valueless without the water. Litigation over these water rights has already given the California courts much to do, at heavy expense to litigants.

The rights themselves vary. In some cases one man or corporation owns the water, while another merely has the perpetual right to a share of it on the payment of a reasonable rate. But this right pertains to a particular body of land, and not to the person. In other cases each landholder is a shareholder in the water company. The difference appears on the face of the stock certificate. In the former case the name of the association which has tapped, say, the Alpine Cañon, will be "Alpine Water Company," while in the latter case it will be "Alpine Land and Water Company."

There are a good many of these land and water companies composed of farmers. Here is a new element introduced into farm life an element of business and of co-operation. Sometimes it involves also an element of clannishness; as, when two such companies fall to fighting over the same supply of water. In fact, as I have already observed, this necessity of irrigation will make the deepest of all the differences in personal character and habits of thought between the East and the West. Nobody will doubt that the institution of property in land has an important influence on character. Why not, then, property in water? And while this may be said to exist in the East, it is rarely thought of, while in the far West it is the thing most thought of and talked about. It is the main factor in human sustenance.

The result is bound to be that East and West will take different views of life. Hence they are likely not to understand each other. At present this makes the less trouble, from the fact that the East can so easily outvote the West. I mean, of course, the arid West. I think it a safe proposition that, when the country is all settled to a density everywhere corresponding with its fertility, the arid lands will outvote the regions needing no irrigation. And long before that time they will hold the balance of power.

Already the irrigants have secured from the non-irrigants the concession of an appropriation for surveys, and the appointment of a senatorial committee, which is now on its travels, studying the advisability of a great system of irrigating reservoirs to be built, or at least surveyed, at national expense; and in the latter case the demand will doubtless be for such disposal of the affected public lands as will make it worth some private citizens' while to construct the reservoirs.

The desert-land act was intended to be a step in that direction. Under that law, the man who irrigates a square mile (six hundred and forty acres) of desert land within three years after filing his entry, may buy it at one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre. It must be land not capable of producing crops without irrigating, and twenty-five cents per acre must be paid at the date of entry. By the operation of this law, and by purchase of adjoining railroad lands, a single firm has acquired the ownership of four hundred thousand acres of as good land as ever lay out of doors. The owners have carried over it the most gigantic system of irrigation on this continent. They have divided up the waters of Kern River, and spread them out into a great artificial delta. They have now begun to sell their lands in small lots of ten, twenty, forty acres, and so on. I attended one of their auction sales, and saw land, which ten years ago was uninhabitable desert, knocked down at fifty, a hundred, and even a hundred and fifty dollars an acre. The water rate is extra, and is so much per inch used. An inch is the amount that will run through an orifice an inch square in the course of a year, under a four-inch pressure.

The act was not intended to put such large bodies of land in the possession of so few men. But any law is apt to work that way. Where the stock of the water company is held by all the land-owners using, the land is often hypothecated as security for the assessments, and in default of payment could only fall into the company's hands. What sort of land monopoly will grow up under it, the whole business of irrigation is too new to foreshadow. There is a bitter feeling already against certain large owners and syndicates. But it is doubtful whether the still heavier enterprises of damming waters up in the cañons will ever be carried out by private purses, unless those who go into them are well assured of fee simple in still larger bodies of land. And that, I judge, is about what far Western people mean when they say they don't want the Government to dam the waters, but only to "encourage private enterprise."

The landscape effects of some of these irrigating systems are quite striking; sometimes pretty and sometimes depressing. Many of the main ditches are fifty feet wide. Such a stream of water, or a much narrower one, must form no insignificant part of the picture on the eye of the traveler. If it is straight, sluggish, green, bare, it may be a nightmare in its oppressive ugliness. But where it winds about like a natural stream, as it often does in order to keep on high ground, and is shaded by trees planted hap-hazard along its banks, it is a thing of beauty.

You drive along a lovely lane, lined on both sides by tall poplar-trees, between fertile fields, gardens, orchards, shady groves, and now and then you come to one of these artificial brooks. You may have to go up hill to cross it. In fact, the sides of the ditch are naturally and properly above the level, so that the water will run out over the land. So you have the funny sensation of crossing a creek on a hill-top, and even then driving upward to get over it. The bridge is natural as life, and likewise the milldam and the mill. A drive through the country between Hanford and Fernone is as pretty as the imagination can picture it. Its beauties are wholly artificial. Ten years ago that was a desert; to-day it is ahead of the Mohawk Valley in everything that goes to make a fine-looking agricultural region. Its one fault as a landscape is that it is as level as a billiard-table.

It is a disputed question whether irrigation induces disease. Certain it is that the irrigated portions of the San Joaquin Valley are malarious. But Mr. Nordhoff says they are less so than before they were irrigated. I have talked with some hundreds of the inhabitants, and they seem as a rule to think otherwise. They do say, however, that there is an improvement in the general health since they learned to drink deep-well water instead of the surface water which seeps through from the ditches. Some neighborhoods have artesian water. The whole valley is hot as a furnace, and the steaming canals probably make it seem hotter than it would, and may breed malaria as well as frogs and mosquitoes.

The Secretary of the Interior is reported to have sent an agent to Europe to study the subject of irrigation. We have a corps of engineers and a senatorial committee studying it in America. On the whole, it looks as if we ought to find out something about it. I have made a special study of it, and find it quite interesting. There is, perhaps, no more striking application of science to agriculture. You must know how to compute the mass of water that will flow through a ditch of a given size with a given fall. You must also know how much water will irrigate your particular piece of land. This will depend on its character as well as its size, and also on its annual rainfall.

It is astonishing how much the commonest Californians know about rainfall records. Rain-gauges are kept everywhere. The morning after a shower the farmers, instead of merely informing one another that it has rained, fall to talking of the quantity—and there is a good deal of sense in that. "My gauge showed fifty-seven hundredths of an inch," says Farmer Jones. "That makes 11·24 inches we have had this season," says Farmer Brown; "last season up to this time we had 13·42." And then they discourse of the precipitation yet needed to produce a crop without irrigation, or with partial irrigation, and the amount of irrigating water that will be required. The morning paper will give the rainfall in hundredths of an inch for a number of points throughout the coast country.

The size and strength of dams, head-gates, levees, etc., are matters requiring mathematical calculation of a delicate kind. Johnstown tells with terrible earnestness how important it is that these calculations should be to the last degree accurate. A careful survey of the route of each important ditch is also necessary. In fact, a number of sciences are involved in irrigating, but "practice makes perfect." Little by little the Western farmers are learning to depend more on cultivation and less on irrigation. They find it better in many ways; they now irrigate a greater area with the same amount of water. This hastens the day when the much-talked-of storage will pay.

What ought the Government to do in the premises? Tax the East to dam the West? I should say not, unless the expense were recouped. Perhaps it might construct the works and increase its prices on the land benefited. It gives lands to railroads in alternate sections, and then gets even by doubling the price of its own lands. What sort of a plan would it be for Uncle Sam to follow the example of the land-operators above mentioned—irrigate his land and sell it off at auction? He might sell it on sealed bids. I should not much, wonder if he could in this way make a handsome speculation.

Since the above was written, I read in the dailies that Secretary Noble has been informed that speculators are following in the wake of the Government surveyors, and trying to secure land and water titles; and that the Land-Office has been instructed to inform its registers and receivers throughout the arid regions that no such business will be allowed, but that the Government will retain control of these rights. This is a matter of several hundred times more importance than one Eastern man in a dozen will dream of.