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Using Water: Irrigation

Irrigation is an ancient farming strategy.

archaeological site

An Ancestral Puebloan reservoir in Glen Canyon (now covered by Lake Powell). The rock walls captured water from a spring within the walls. Archaeologists also excavated a ditch for 30 feet.

For thousands of years, farmers all over the world have used irrigation—diverting water from streams and rivers to water their fields.

The Ancestral Puebloan people in the Four Corners region irrigated small plots of corn, bean, and squash.

Mormons used this strategy in a big way.

But the Mormons were the first to use irrigation on a large scale in the American West. They established “the first irrigation-based economy in the Western Hemisphere in modern times.”

What was the core of this irrigation-based economy?  Mining, manufacturing, farming, service industries, or something else? 

Irrigation helped the population grow.

Almost the first thing the first settlers in Salt Lake Valley in July 1947 did was to dam City Creek so the overflowing waters would soften the soil, and they could plant potatoes.

irrigation ditch in a muddy street

An irrigation ditch in front of Brigham Young's Beehive and Lion houses, on South Temple Street in Salt Lake City.

As Salt Lake City grew, the Mormons dug more ditches. They captured water from more streams. Farming and little communities spread out over the valley.

Settlers also established communities in other places where they could use stream water to irrigate crops. The first communities in Utah were in places where it was easier to irrigate. Where would the best places for farming and irrigating be?  (What areas would have the most water available?)

By 1865, Mormons had dug 1,000 miles of canals in Utah.

People really used those ditches!

farmer looking at field

Irrigated fields in Utah.

In the early years, all of a town’s water might come from the irrigation ditch.  In St. George, the city had a rule that first thing in the morning, families could fill their barrels with ditch water for the day.  (In the summer, they had to wrap the barrels with wet blankets to keep the water cool.)

irrigation canal

Mormon pioneers in Cache Valley, Utah, built the Logan/Hyde Park/Smithfield Canal in 1861-62. Some of the time they had to dig through solid limestone rock.

Next, the cows would drink from the ditches on their way to the community grazing spot.  (Ew. Would you want to drink the water after that?)

For the rest of the day, people took their water “turns” to water their gardens and farms.

People had to divvy up the water.

Even using dams and irrigation ditches, there wasn’t (and isn't!) enough water for everyone to use all they wanted. Usually, the first people to start using water from the stream had priority water rights.  

Communities had to establish rules about using water.  At first, LDS bishops were in charge of water use. Later county councils, then water districts and irrigation companies were in charge. 

Water rights in Utah are interesting! Read more about them and water history on the Utah Division of Water Rights website.

Usually, the Mormon settlers cooperated very well in sharing water and building and maintaining their irrigation systems.

But--people could get very upset if they thought someone was stealing their water. Sometimes people got into fights over irrigation. Why was water so important that people might kill each other over it?

irrigation canal

A man irrigating in Washington County, Utah.

Irrigating in southern Utah was tough!

Irrigation was easier in the northern part of the state. Why?

Southern Utah wasn’t so lucky. 

In the little town of Giles, in Wayne County, the people kept trying to build a dam on the Fremont River so they could get water into the irrigation ditches and onto their crops.

Time and time again, huge flash floods washed away the dam. Sometimes the floods carried away their fields too.  The people just couldn’t make the Fremont River behave. There’s a reason why you can’t find Giles on a map today!

Another fascinating irrigation story is the building of the Hurricane Canal.

Irrigation companies took over.

In the 1880s and into the 20th century, private companies tried to do what the Mormons had done so well—set up irrigation companies and irrigate more land.  But they couldn’t make it work as well as the Mormons had. 

The government took over.

Cooperative irrigation worked well, and if we had kept this system of water use, the West would look very different today.

But in 1902, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Reclamation Act and began building big dams in the West.  This allowed more water to be stored and moved long distances. These dams and water pipelines allowed for bigger cities, larger agricultural endeavors, industry, and recreation.

Disputes broke out between the seven states that used water from the Colorado River. They all wanted to get their share. So these states--Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California--worked out an agreement for water sharing.  It was called the Colorado River Compact and the states signed it in 1922.  In 1948, the “Upper Basin” states--Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona--signed an additional Upper Basin Compact.

wooden flume

A flume to carry irrigation water near Ogden, Utah.

There will always be water debates.

In prehistoric times, Utah was a wetter place.  But it’s probably going to be a desert for a long time to come. And as long as the West remains dry, people will always argue over water.

A big controversy right now is whether to pipe water from Lake Powell to Washington County so that area can have more people, houses, golf courses, lawns, industries, and businesses.

There is a lot more interesting stuff to learn about water.

Such as:

See what you can find out!