Historically in the West, he who controlled the water, controlled the land. Essentially, water has always been the root of the biggest feuds out here. Some would say it was the grass and the land - but grass don't grow without water. And the truth of the matter is: The real value of the land was in how much water could be accessed.
In many ways, not much has changed. The relatively arid climate, combined with the every increasing demand for food, makes water continue to be the undisputed King of the West. Because of this, "Water Rights" can become the basis for many quarrels, cause financial woes and make or break the value of the land for many surrounding miles.
In eastern Oregon, water is essential for the continued success of both rancher and farmer. Used mainly for irrigation, the various "ditches" provide the requisite moisture to ensure growth of crops for both man and beast. While the politics of the many "Ditch Districts" are often as antagonistic, complicated, and crazy as our current presidential race, the intricacies of the actual irrigation process can be quite amazing.
Obviously, the "original" source of water for all irrigation in the west, is precipitation. In the form of winter snow and spring / summer rains, the sky-moisture serves to replenish the soil in the short term, but also to fill the mountain lakes, which are the source of the more reliable irrigation systems. Many years ago, numerous lakes in the region were enhanced for irrigation water storage by building up the outlet of the lake and installing "head gates" which could control the amount of outflow allowed. The water would then travel it's historical course down the stream to a nearby valley, where a type of flume would be installed to divert water into the main irrigation ditches. The lake outlets often require a long horseback ride or hike into the mountains to adjust, and so are not often changed - really only to open in the spring and close in the fall.
The head gate down in the valley, however, is much more accessible and can be adjusted as often as needed - usually by an individual hired by the associated Ditch District as a "ditch walker", whose main duties include monitoring the amount of water in the main ditch, keeping it free of major debris and ensuring each land owner uses only the amount of water they have rights to.
Once diverted into the main irrigation channel, the water then flows in a meandering path throughout the valley. Each piece of property with associated water rights, has another "head gate" which will divert water from the main ditch into the ditches on the property. That gate can control how much of the water is diverted. Once on the property, the farmer or rancher must control where the water is going, to ensure maximum coverage for the field. This is often done via "dams" which are moved on a regular basis (usually every day or two). In Part Two, you'll follow me for a day of "flooding". Join me next week for that adventure!!