Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/June 1893/Irrigation in the Arid States




JUNE, 1893.



A MOST vital change is going on in the region west of central Kansas—a change which will in the near future profoundly affect many if not all classes of agriculturists in other American States, and incidentally in Europe also. I refer to the change that has been brought about by the success of private irrigation enterprises, by important alterations in the laws respecting irrigation, by district irrigation under such laws, and by the steady growth of a public sentiment favorable to the irrigator, even when his necessities override ancient precedent.

It is my purpose in this article to give, as far as may be, a faithful and conservative account of the present condition of arid land irrigation enterprises. My account will be statistical as far as acreage, flow of water, cost of construction, and similar items; it will be descriptive, and largely from personal knowledge, as regards practical methods and their results. The entire subject, it seems to me, possesses an immeasurable interest for farmers elsewhere, and for all who are in any way dependent upon the farming class. Successful irrigation upon a large scale introduces, it is true, a new kind of competition, but it also urges intelligent farmers to adopt improver! methods of farming in their own defense, and often leads them to apply the water of neglected streams upon their lands. Even the general reader is often interested in discussions upon farm mortgages, farm rents, wages of laborers, taxes on crops, cost of fertilizers, and similar agricultural problems of the present time, because he has learned that they affect his own welfare. Much broader is the application of arid-land irrigation to every occupation and industry. America

Fig. 1.—Aqueduct at Mission San Juan.

has many and greater valleys of the Nile waiting to pour forth enormous harvests whenever the legislative and executive work of the irrigator has been accomplished.

If I were writing a history of irrigation in America—and a wonderful story it is—I should have to devote a chapter to the Spanish influence in all the lands from Texas to southern California, where men, whose mountaineer ancestors had learned the value of water in arid districts from the builders of the Alhambra, made reservoirs and led many a fertilizing stream to acres of vines and oranges on the high plains about old missions, or in the adobe-walled gardens of newly founded towns, such as San Antonio, Santa Fé, and Los Angeles. I should have to tell about the ruined irrigation canals of forgotten tribes in Arizona, southern Utah, and other regions of the Southwest where hundreds of square miles were covered with a network of water ditches, small and great. The modern irrigator often adopts the grades of these prehistoric channels for his enterprises, finding that no engineer can improve upon them. I should have to describe the fields under the red and yellow heights of Zuñi or Acoma, where the Pueblo Indians still raise their spotted corn by irrigation, as their ancestors did centuries ago, in the bottoms of narrow canons where the ruins of their fortressed cliff-dwellings still remain. But these things, except perhaps for a passing allusion, are foreign to the purpose of this investigation.

The arid States and Territories are beginning to organize as a group of communities that have common interests and a common purpose. Their respective areas and populations are shown in the following table:

Name. Area, square miles. Population in 1890.
Texas   265, 780 2,235, 523
New Mexico   122, 580 153, 593
Arizona   113, 020 59, 620
California   158, 360 1,208, 130
Colorado   103, 925 412, 198
Utah   84, 970 207, 905
Nevada   110, 700 45, 761
Kansas (west of 97°)   56, 000 807, 000
Nebraska   76, 855 1,058, 910
Wyoming   97, 890 60, 705
South Dakota 149, 100 328, 808
North Dakota 182, 719
Montana   146, 080 132, 159
Idaho   84, 800 84, 385
Oregon (eastern)   48, 000 113, 767
Washington (eastern)   35, 000 149, 390
Total   1,652, 060 7,480, 573

Fig. 2.—In Kern Canyon

The total area is more than half of the United States (without Alaska), and the total present population is less than one eighth of the population of the United States.

It is difficult, perhaps impracticable, to divide States once created. Although a respectable minority in California and Texas favor division schemes, which would make of the former three States, and of the latter four, the tendencies of the time are against it. But with the Territories it is different; and if admission is long delayed, so that irrigation developments will have enabled the soil to sustain a dense population, such Territories as Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah are very likely to be divided. Eastern Oregon and Washington are separated by diverse interests from the western slopes of those States in somewhat the same way as southern California is separated from the northern counties. If the desire for smaller States should increase in the future, it is not impossible, therefore, that the States and Territories of the arid belt should some time contain twenty-five or thirty political divisions instead of sixteen, as at present. It is perhaps too much to say that the balance of power can ever be transferred from the Mississippi Valley to the ultimate West of the Rockies, the Great Basin, the valley of the Rio Grande, the irrigated leagues of the Nevada and Arizona deserts, the vast valley plains of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, the mountains of Coast Range, Cascade, and Sierra. But if such a change is ever brought about, the irrigator will be the principal cause of the transfer of leadership from the man of the corn lands to the man of the fruit lands.

Twenty years ago no one in America knew how to utilize water on a large scale for irrigation. A few colonies in different parts of the arid zone, a few settlers in isolated valleys, were making experiments. Half a dozen ranchers would come together and plow an open ditch two or three feet wide, to irrigate their crops in years of severe drought. As for the districts where the average annual rainfall was below the required amount, no one tried to live there. But some of the most successful of recent enterprises have been upon lands where there is "no rainfall." Even ten years ago, though the number of colonists had increased, the total area under water ditches in the arid region was hardly more than two million acres. In 1886 it had increased to five and a half million acres, and the following table shows the state of affairs in 1891:

Irrigated Areas in Arid Region.

State or Territory. Acreage under
Acreage cultivated
by the irrigators.
California 4,500,000 3,550,000 3,500
Wyoming 6,031,484 185,000 6
Colorado 3,007,050 1,800,000 4,500
Montana 1,250,000 419,000 36
Idaho 1,200,000 330,000 12
Kansas (west of 97°) 990,000 120,000 50
Utah 735,000 423,000 2,524
New Mexico 700,000 405,000 10
Arizona 660,000 315,000 42
Texas 350,000 160,000 1,000
Nebraska 200,000 40,000 1,000
Washington 175,000 75,000 10
Nevada 150,900 75,000 76
Oregon 125,000 45,000 6
South Dakota 100,000 54,000 960
North Dakota 2,500 2,000 670
Total 17,177,843 7,998,000 13,492

Some of the artesian wells are of enormous size, and yield four and five million gallons of water daily, capable of irrigating a section of land. The greater number are small, however, and probably not capable of irrigating more than five or ten acres. Half a million acres is the utmost limit of the present wells. Some artesian districts contain at least that acreage, so that, if the water supply is sufficient, a vast area will be reclaimed by this method.

In the above table the most noticeable fact is that less than half the area lying beneath the water ditches, and capable of irrigation, is now cultivated. This is because it takes a number of years to settle the country, break up the soil, and bring it into cultivation. In progressive communities the possible acreage keeps ahead of the demand until the water supply or the land supply is exhausted. Judging the future by the past, and taking into consideration many projected ditch lines, there will be from thirty to thirty-five million acres under some irrigation system by the close of the decade, and the actually cultivated area may be close upon twenty million acres.

California has had a longer and more extensive experience with irrigation than any other division of the arid belt, and immense sums have been wasted in litigation and experiment. The systems now in use in different districts illustrate all the details of the business. All the larger problems connected with irrigation, such as seepage, drainage, reservoirs, alkali deposits, economy in distribution, can be studied in the valleys of California. More particularly one sees private ownership and district ownership in operation side by side, often in the same county.

The Wright irrigation act, passed in 1887, gave a great impetus

Fig. 3.—Coming out on the Desert.

Fig. 4.—The Calloway Canal.

to the process of uniting land and water in a permanent union. No less than thirty-eight districts have been organized already, and they include a total of about two and a half million acres, upon which bonds to the extent of twelve million dollars have been voted. About three million dollars in bonds have been actually issued and sold; seven districts have some of their ditches constructed and full of water; one has completed its entire irrigation system and is in successful operation. It will take a considerable time to obtain the desired capital and complete all the districts organized. Some of them are very large, and will greatly add to the irrigated area. The following table shows the acreage and estimated cost of water supply in the ten largest districts:

Irrigation Districts.

Name. Acreage. Estimated cost.
Sunset 36,300 $2,000,000
Madera 308,000 850,000
Selma 271,000 1,000,000
Turlock 176,000 1,200,000
Central 156,000 750,000
Alta 129,000 675,000
Colusa 100,000 600,000
Kern and Tulare 84,000 70,000
Modesto 80,000 1,400,000
150,000 175,000
Total 1,717,000 $9,350,000

The bulk of the district acreage is included in these ten districts, nine of which are situated in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. The lowest estimate of cost in any of the thirty-eight districts is $2.56 per acre, and the highest is $83. The last is in the famous orange colony of Riverside, where the water is piped to the land, and where the science of irrigation is perhaps better understood than in any other colony in America. The average first cost of water per acre is a little over eight dollars. Bonds issued are a lien upon all the real estate within the boundaries of the district, as well as upon the irrigation system itself, and are considered by conservative bankers as excellent security.

Beyond doubt the irrigation district laws of California are full of suggestion for cheap and effective work by the land-owners themselves. They are best adapted to communities that have learned something of the value of irrigation and can work together. There are many places where no irrigation will be done until the Government or some private corporation takes hold with the required skill and capital to secure the water and distribute it to the land; then the scattered settlers will use it, and others will come in and buy the land and water. Some of the irrigation

Fig. 5.—One of the Branch Canals.

Fig. 6.—Grapes from the Desert.

districts already organized are meeting with bitter opposition from large land-owners who do not wish to sell, nor to pay higher taxes upon more valuable because more fruitful land. The average farmer with his hundred or five hundred acres, where crops fail one year in three or two in five, is compelled to have water or become bankrupt. The owner of fifty or a hundred thousand acres pastures cattle there and makes a living that suits him. If the small farmers form an irrigation district, the cattle baron is apt to fight it on general principles, and if they outvote him and include any of his land in the taxable area, he fights them to the end. Several of the most promising district ditches of California are lying unfinished at the present time because of the stubborn opposition of the large land-owners, some of them living in Europe.

Private ownership of irrigation canals exists more or less in every county of California. It is too soon to decide the comparative cost of water under the two systems, but the logic of the situation requires supervision of private enterprises by either the State or the General Government. The danger in many private schemes is the sale of more water than can be supplied in seasons of drought, and the consequent loss of crops planted in the expectation of receiving an abundance. There is a golden mean between this extreme and the other, now less frequent than formerly, of claiming ten times as much water as can be used and allowing it to go to waste. One of the greatest corporate irrigation enterprises in the United States is in Merced County. The late Charles Crocker, of San Francisco, was the leading stockholder. Three and a half million dollars has now been spent upon a fifty-mile canal from the Merced River, with a hundred and fifty miles of lesser ditches; a giant reservoir, Lake Yosemite, covering a square mile thirty feet deep, and the purchase of large tracts of land. The company now has water to irrigate six hundred thousand acres. The carrying capacity of the main canal is not less than four thousand cubic feet per second. Colonies are springing up along the line of the canal, and thousands of acres have been planted to crops that justify irrigation.

A still better illustration of what private enterprise has done in this field is shown in the Kern region. Seven hundred miles of large irrigating ditches have been dug in this imperial county, which contains more than five million acres. The annual rainfall is from three to five inches, so that irrigation is absolutely necessary. Thirty large canals have been taken out of Kern River, which rises in the highest part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The most famous of these canals is the Calloway, eighty feet wide on the bottom and one hundred and twenty feet wide at the top, seven feet in depth, and usually full to within a few

Fig. 7.—Alfalfa Fields in the Desert.

Fig. 8.—After Ten Years’ Irrigation on a Barren Sand Plain.

inches of the top of the bank. It irrigates two hundred thousand acres through sixty-five laterals, of an aggregate length of one hundred and fifty miles.

But the glory of Kern is the enormous irrigation system upon the Kern Delta, constructed by two San Francisco capitalists—Lloyd Tevis and J. B. Haggin. All in all, it is the largest enterprise of the kind of which I have any knowledge. The total expenditure has been fully four million dollars. For this the owners have obtained a system of twenty-seven main canals with an aggregate length of three hundred miles, besides about eleven hundred miles of permanent laterals. Six hundred thousand acres can be watered from these artificial rivers. The sandy plain slopes south and west upon a grade of five or six feet to the mile. Very little of the land requires leveling. The great reservoir, a former lake basin, covers twenty-five thousand acres and contains fifty billion gallons of water. The various canals of this company and others take from Kern River alone a total of twelve thousand cubic feet of water per second.

Twenty years ago the value of such land was less than a dollar an acre. No settler could live on a quarter section, and like Fresno, Tulare, and in fact most of the San Joaquin Valley, it was used only for pasturage. To-day there are fields of hundreds of acres of alfalfa, where the best of Jerseys and Holsteins are kept; there are orchards of peaches, apricots, prunes, and almonds—thousands of acres—loaded each year with fruit; cotton, sugar beets, the sugar cane of Louisiana, tobacco, corn, cassava, and a multitude of the products of the temperate and semitropic regions thrive here and can be grown as staple crops.

Irrigation is often supposed to belong only to the arid lands. There, it is true, it produces the most surprising changes and the greatest proportionate increase of values. Water poured upon a rainless desert makes it blossom under the tropic sun as if some magician's wand had been waved over it. Vines, fruits, flowers, green lawns, golden wheat, and silver barley, for miles on miles, all lifted by the sparkling rivers above the fluctuations of the season—such are the changes the irrigator brings to the desert. But thousands of valleys and hillsides in the arid regions have enough rainfall to enable farmers to struggle along, and not enough to make their crops a certainty every year. Here there is an even more immediate need of water to supplement the natural supply. No available statistics can illustrate the extent to which pioneers in the Rockies, Sierras, and Coast Range are developing cheaply and easily a local supply of water for their ranches. The last census, which says there are about thirteen thousand irrigators in California (there are really twice as many), is very incomplete in this direction. Besides the

Fig. 9.—An Artesian Well in the Desert.

organized districts and the great irrigation corporations, there are illustrations in thousands of beautiful and fertile valleys, and upon many a sunny hillside, that it pays to irrigate.

In the old placer-mining regions of California one sees much of the local use of water, ranch by ranch, spring by spring, cheaply, easily, and effectually. The miners have long been familiar with the management of water. They built hundreds of miles of hydraulic mining ditches, triumphs of engineering skill, bringing whole rivers from the snow peaks to the beds of gold-bearing gravel below. They siphoned streams over mountains; they belted their flumes in mid-air to perpendicular cliffs of granite a thousand feet from base to crest; they changed little Alpine valleys into mountain lakes. Such men as these find it only child's play to water their hillside gardens, to wall up the "flats" by mountain streams and flood them so that the white clover or alfalfa keeps green there all the year. Thus one finds oases of verdure and fruitfulness about the cottage houses of thousands of mountaineers in Shasta, Trinity, Butte, Lassen, El Dorado, and the whole Sierra range of mining counties south of “Old Tuolumne.” Such men as these live in all the mountain ranges of the western half of the continent, and not the least attractive chapter of the story of irrigation is that which tells of their home acres. Even where the annual rainfall is more than sufficient for the ordinary field crops and the deciduous fruits to thrive without irrigation, the dry air and sunlight of the semi-tropic summers often make the application of water desirable for specialized horticulture, or for the greatest obtainable profit from ordinary crops.

Here, then, are the primary schools of the irrigator in the thousands of hidden valleys of Idaho, Dakota, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and California. Out of them, upon the wide valley plains, upon the vast distances of the high desert mesa lands, the young men of the coming generation of irrigation adepts pass on to greater victories. Artesian fountains spring up along their paths; rivers from regions of mountains, of forests and abundant rainfall, follow in their footsteps; they lead these rivers into the desert and plant gardens there—the grape, the olive, the date palm, the orange, the lemon, the banana, the pomegranate.

The facts and figures which I have used to show the progress of the States and Territories of the arid region are crowded with infinite suggestions and possibilities. Some time, it is not improbable, men may speak of the overflowing granaries, the unparalleled horticultural wealth along the Rio Grande, the Colorado, the Sacramento, the San Joaquin, and other great river plains, as history speaks of Egypt and Assyria in their splendid prime. What are the duties of the American people toward irrigation in these all-important years of the beginnings of new commonwealths based upon new industries? Millions of acres of land are forever worthless without water. Who shall own the streams and reservoirs—a few far-sighted men, or the people themselves? Irrigation journals and conventions of irrigators discuss the matter from the standpoint of the present, and endeavor to shape legislation to profitable ends. The slow, dumb masses have not yet recognized the magnitude of the problems involved. An effort is being made to have the United States give all the arid lands to the several States and Territories in which they lie, but the plan is dangerous. Only the Federal Government can protect the sources of water supply; utilize, reservoir, and distribute that supply, and unite water and land in an indissoluble marriage bond.