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An essay as part of the ongoing series, “The Power of Water”

In a perfect world, nobody would need to care about prior appropriation.

It means this. The date on your water rights has everything to do with water getting on your fields and how long you are able to use it. Unlike birth certificates and things stored in your refrigerator, the earlier your date, the better.

The first-in-time, first-in-right dictum exists almost anywhere water is bought or sold, brawled or spat over, from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown to the current water crisis facing the American West and the boxes of yellowed papers for the Bowen Ditch Company sitting under my desk.

The threadbare stock ledger details the juggling of the Company’s 16 shares since its incorporation in 1944.

The tattered stock ledger for the Bowen Ditch Company shows the juggling of shares since its incorporation in 1944. Photo by Tara Flanagan.

Eight men, including namesake Joseph Bowen, claimed the ditch with the State Engineer of Colorado in 1888. In a perfect world, that so-called priority date would have been seven or so years sooner; other local ditches beat us to the table and today they get their water earlier and longer. The current 20-year drought and aridification have made the pecking order among us all the more apparent.

The boxes contain evidence of the Bowen’s first recorded squabble, in which District Court Judge M.S. Bailey had to settle matters of whose water was whose up on Chalk Creek. The 1898 case underscored a facet of human survival: People fight over water.

With Chalk Creek’s origins in central Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks, up past the tourist-ghost town of St. Elmo, the relatively long ditch flows 16 miles from the headgate, east across U.S. Highway 285 and toward the Arkansas River in the general vicinity between Centerville and Hecla Junction. This is an exceptional place to stand in the middle of a stream and get dewy-eyed about one’s surroundings: The Colorado Trail runs along the mountains to the west, Browns Canyon National Monument sits to the east.

The Bowen has rights to 44.5 cubic feet per second as it arrives through the headgate on Chalk Creek, in a canyon west of Mount Princeton Hot Springs. Jim McConaghy, a local water engineer and Bowen shareholder with a propensity for understanding vast amounts of hydrological data, tells me that amounts to 88 acre-feet a day.

The Bowen Ditch flows eastward with Mount Princeton as a backdrop. Photo by Deirdre Wait. Wait

That said, some years the Bowen doesn’t run, or it might run a few days or a week or two. We’ve had completely dry seasons five times since 2002. But pointing to nature’s erratic ways, the ditch enjoyed a total of 3,761 acre-feet in the 2017 season and 3,347 in 2015.

We ran for a couple weeks in 2021, partly due to an infusion of rain.

Thirteen people own shares on the Bowen; just two, maybe three of them actively ranch these days, using the ditch for hay and cattle.

I am one of those 13 but not among the three, having bought our property when we moved from Summit County in 2016. I am also the secretary of the 133-year-old operation – an elected position I didn’t need to hire campaign advisors or kiss babies to win, but rather inherited (along with the Bowen Ditch coffee percolator) when we hosted the company’s annual meeting in our living room in 2019. Most of the folks in the room had held ditch office in some form over the years, and I knew there might be stinkeye sent in my direction if I weaseled out.

Greg Wright checks his portion of the ditch. Photo by Tara Flanagan.

Fact is, I’ve come to enjoy the volunteer gig. However, I’m still working on the Zen forbearance that is best to have in the days leading up to the ditch opening in late May or early June. In those days you as a shareholder – or a hired stand-in – plan little else. You don’t travel to Denver until you know the water won’t be coming that day. You hedge on wedding invitations, and if someone dies or has a baby, that certainly complicates the ditch opening.

If and when the day arrives, the senior rights have been satisfied and our commissioner from the Colorado Division of Water Resources broadcasts that the Bowen’s 1888 date is in priority.

Starting at 5:00 a.m. and running through the night, shareholders meet at key points along the channel, waiting for that initial, hesitant flow – an otherworldly brown goo with an overabundance of pinecones and needles – to crawl in our direction. As it nears, the two-foot-deep mass sounds like paper crumpling.

Using pitchforks and wearing knee-high rubber boots that in my case are seldom enough to prevent wet feet, we usher the snaking debris, pulling out sticks and anything else that might cause a clog and eventually blow out a section of the ditch. If that happens, hell can break loose, depending on where the break might be.

It can take up to two days for the brown gunk to run its course through the ditch and for the fast, clear water to flow.

During this time, property owners along the ditch have been known to bring out lemonade and sweet words of thanks for our role in helping keep Chaffee County green. They like the ambiance of the ditch, perhaps its ties to the past. But in the course of opening and maintaining the Bowen, some of my fellow shareholders have been greeted with threats of being shot, even though Colorado law clearly stipulates that landowners must give access to those operating ditches and not alter, impede or otherwise mess with the waterways.

Not all property owners know this, or care to play by the rules when they do know.

They’ve diverted the Bowen for private swimming holes and have built footbridges that choke the ditch with debris when the water is high. People have stuffed mattresses in culverts; whether anyone has slept there is another situation altogether. There was the bulldozing incident, the details of which sit with the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office.

There is name-calling, middle-finger gesturing, and an occasional slur toward the Bowen itself. “Your ditch is disgusting,” a woman told me two years ago as I walked past her house, my American Gothic pitchfork in hand.

As these types of conflicts increase with the statewide surge in population and tourism, the Bowen Ditch is a microcosm of the agricultural scene in many pockets of the West. Chaffee County has seen more than 30 percent of its agricultural land disappear since 1982. Ranchers say the hassles with tourists and uninformed newer residents are among the reasons they get tired. Gates are left open, people complain about cattle. Ditches are a major undertaking even when nobody’s giving you grief about them, and ranchers here are getting old.

In an effort to help keep ranches going, local volunteer groups help some of them clean their ditches for the upcoming water seasons. Ranchers have been known to hold picnics for the crews, and I’m told that a few of the volunteers have never set foot on a big agricultural property before.

David Kelly is known for hosting annual volunteer barbecues at his family’s ranch south of Buena Vista. He tells me there’s some enlightenment that happens when people from vastly different backgrounds are able to gather.

Volunteers have cleaned five miles of ditches on the Kelly property for several seasons now. He says gratitude runs deeply for this kind of help; he knows a woman who was moved to tears after a crew showed up at her place.

“It would have taken her a week,” he tells me. “They did it in an afternoon.”

In the case of the Bowen, the water greens up a big section of land alongside the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway on Highway 285. It still helps grow hay and cattle. But many of the shareholders aren’t what you’d call honest-to-God ranchers.

Tom McConaghy, the son of Jim McConaghy and president of the Bowen Ditch Company, remains mildly fascinated by this lopsided representation on the ditch. “It used to be people were depending on the ditch for income,” he says. “People work it now and they’re not making a living off of it. People do it almost as a hobby.”

The Hayward Hill portion of the Bowen Ditch was created with hand-built rock walls. Records show construction began in the late 1860s. Photo by Deirdre Wait.

Shareholders or their proxies spend six to eight hours clearing each mile of the Bowen every spring – even if water isn’t likely to run. There are saplings shooting up in the channel that need to be lopped, or saplings that were overlooked a year ago and which now require a chainsaw. We collect countless plastic bags, tree branches and any number of things that can block the ditch when it is opened. The tumbleweeds that accumulate in the stretch through the Chaffee County Landfill are often six feet deep.

And there are rocks. Rocks that weren’t there a year ago and whose removal requires crowbars and a couple-three strong backs. That, or pieces of machinery. You can’t very well operate a ditch if you don’t have someone in your membership who can run all kinds of earth-moving equipment and do it at a moment’s notice.

We’ve been lucky in that regard; my neighbor, a former jockey who runs a backhoe with the same fierceness it takes to move a racehorse down the backstretch, always seems to be there to plug a breach, move a rock, or undo any shenanigans that threaten the flow of the ditch.

Perhaps a metaphor for the West’s agriculture in general, there’s a Volkswagen-sized rock that looms above the Bowen mid-course, and many of us shareholders wonder what we’re going to do when that thing finally comes down. There are ample items regarding the Bowen’s long-term sustainability that can keep us awake at night, including the aging of the ditch membership and the very physical tasks required.

Jim remembers when eight to 10 pickup trucks would be parked alongside the ditch for cleaning, opening and other projects. Now it’s two or three trucks and maybe a Subaru; a lot of tasks just don’t get done as thoroughly as they used to. Shareholders have talked increasingly about enlisting volunteer crews if they’re available.

The ditch uses old technology to direct its waters. Many of the old structures are starting to fail. Photo by Greg Wright.

There’s also the matter of finances. The Bowen Ditch Company received a $42,500 Common Ground grant in 2021, enabling us to replace the worn-out headgate and other pieces of rotting framework that could not have seen another year of operation without costly intervention. The grant happened because local voters approved a .25 percent sales-tax increase in 2018 that funnels money into forest health, dealing with the effects of too much recreation, and keeping local agriculture in place.

The Common Ground money is far more than anything we’d be able to gather on our own. I ask Tom where we’d be without that infusion.

“Screwed,” he says.

In recent years, the Bowen’s aging assortment of gates, chutes, and channels has wobbled, clogged, and blown out from the force of the water, and a big rainstorm can cause multiple fractures in the old wood and earthen canals, sending cascades of suddenly unwanted water across the landscape.

When that happens, the phone calls begin, sometimes in the dark of night.

“I’m heading up to the headgate now,” the person, usually the ditch president or vice president, says. “We’ve got to turn off the water for now. Let people know they won’t have any for a while.”

As ditch secretary, but perhaps due to my own tendencies toward justified panic, I’m often the one lecturing others about safety and the necessity for more than one person making the 25-minute drive to the remotely located headgate. Nobody’s going to hear you or see you if you fall into that fast water, and almost all of us shareholders have gone swimming at one time or another somewhere on the ditch.

I had my own ass-over-teakettle moment in 2017, when we had too much water one afternoon and it demolished part of a channel just north of our property.

The entire neighborhood was there, using tarps and rocks to patch the ditch into some form of usability while the aforementioned god of equipment operations was moving large amounts of dirt.

Anyway, I slipped on a tarp and in I went, wallowing on my back like an overturned turtle. With the help of one of the neighbors, I managed to crawl out of the ditch, coughing up most of the water and mud I’d taken in. Everyone else pretended not to notice the kitchen sink’s worth of water I was sporting, which was squishing from my boots with each step.

Truth be known, I’d put my ditch neighbors up against any neighbors anywhere. Few of us would know each other if it weren’t for that ditch and the crazy amount of time we spend getting it ready and keeping the water moving through it. We help each other stack hay, look for lost dogs and fix tractor attachments. We have old stories and bad jokes that are distinctly ours.

These are the bonds that make the 3:00 a.m. phone calls worth handling.

“You’re not going alone,” I say. “I’m sending Duane up there with you.”

My spouse rolls out of a good sleep and puts on his jeans and ditch boots, goes outside and fires up the 2003 Yukon XL, which over five years has accumulated a geology project of ditch mud in the cargo space, where we seem to permanently store the requisite rakes, shovels, pitchforks, and sandbags for these occasions.

A waterfall on the Bowen Ditch carves a canyon below. Photo courtesy Bowen Ditch Company.

I’m hoping the pitchforks get used in the upcoming water season. Right now I’m wondering when the uncomfortable conversations about the weather are going to start in earnest among the shareholders. It’s mid-December and the Collegiates are dry. Most journalists I know in Colorado have written a story about the unthinkably dry weather.

I usually touch base with Tom in late winter and early spring to see what he’s thinking about the snowpack, the likelihood of the ditch running, and incorporating that discussion into the annual meeting in April.

In recent years he and I have had some depressing talks, which tend to focus on how long the snowpack will hold. We talk about the dust that accumulates on the snow and how it magnifies the sun’s heat. Spring runoff has been arriving sooner, and if we’ve had a dry year, a significant amount of that water gets sucked into the soil before it gets to its intended waterway.

Last spring, a series of late-season snowfalls stepped in and we were able to run the Bowen for a couple of weeks. Rain in June helped too.

As water-information gatherers, the McConaghys look at the current drought as a long arc that will eventually turn around. But they agree the Bowen is now more likely to see abbreviated seasons, or in some cases, not run at all. There are handed-down stories from longtime ranchers about the ditch running all summer long ago, but in more recent history the Bowen fell into a pattern where it ran three out of four years. Since 2000, it has experienced short or nonexistent seasons in one out of three years.

Long-term sustainability for the ditch isn’t something we talk about every day because there just aren’t any easy answers. The grant has given us renewed tenacity, but it can’t give us younger backs, a healthier climate, or an earlier priority date.

Our shareholders tend to agree that keeping the water here in Chaffee County is the moral thing to do. Most of the ones I talk to say they wouldn’t sell their water outside the county, although the Hill Ranch in Nathrop sold two shares of Bowen water to a broker who in turn sold them to Pueblo West Metropolitan District, with the final decree filed in 2008.

All told, the ranch sold off about 1,900 acre-feet from various ditches. That particular buy-and-dry practice, well-known hereabouts, resulted in a massive weed control and revegetation effort that has been complicated by a century of prior irrigation and a resulting peat buildup that is inhospitable to plants.

The author stands next to the ditch as it crosses onto her property.

As they say, water flows toward money. And perhaps that is the ultimate challenge for an operation like the Bowen Ditch. There’s an unnerving story that stays with me regarding a 2019 water auction in Mead, Colo., where an acre-foot of Colorado River water from the Colorado-Big Thompson trans-basin diversion project sold for an unheard-of $85,000.

Those are the events that create a new vocabulary, if not language, around water, money and greed, and a hotter, drier climate.

Unrealistically, I suppose, I tend to think of the Bowen as priceless, with the shareholders’ log under my desk as a storybook of sorts, something that runs into infinity with names of people who have yet to be born.

I wish them fat snow packs, long sandbag seasons, and a blessed first swim.

Image/Tara Flanagan

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, Ark Valley Voice journalist Tara Flanagan was awarded a Colorado Water Fellowship and has worked as a member of a state-wide water journalist team to report on the impacts of population growth, drought, climate change, and policy changes on the state’s water supply. This is a greatly-expanded version of an earlier AVV story by Flanagan, part of our “Power of Water” series. The rights of ditch owners are enshrined in the Colorado Right to Farm and Ranch laws.