It goes like this: First we till, then we plant. Then we wait for it to rain. Then we wait some more. Then we pray for rain and wait some more; after more blue sky we go to church, ante up our tithes and pray even more devoutly for it to rain. Finally, almost in desperation as our crops parch in the summer sun, we ask the Bishop to have the whole congregation pray for it to rain. And then it does and it does and it does. As we get closer to harvest the petitions reverse. We see our neighbor standing in the middle of his field and realize that he is standing on the top of his tractor and we pray and pray again, this time for the deluge to stop … we are willing to forsake all our sins, even walking on the kitchen floor with muddy boots, if it will just stop raining. Grandpa used to say, "When you pray for rain, boys, be sure to always mention the quantity too." Make no mistake; in the practice of agriculture, praying for rain, or its antithesis to have it stop, is as old as tilling, planting or harvesting … as agriculture itself.
In earlier simpler times it was pretty straight forward. We know when Moses came down off the mountain the law and the promise was:
“If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; then will I give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” Leviticus 26: 3-4
This worked well, at least for a while, but apparently there were problems. Imagine the headaches in Heaven. It is not just that we need water but quantity of water is critical; too much and it washes the crop away and too little, it's often worse than none at all. The other problem is that water, is always a local problem. Five miles away your neighbors may be in the middle of a drought while at home you may be flooded out. As most of you already know, spotty late summer thunderstorms can ruin one field of hay and leave the one next to it bone dry. I suspect that at one point, at least half the angels in Heaven must have been employed comparing and sorting the prayers for more water to those asking for less and allocating it by detailed geographical location … this while reconciling with the accounting department the points chalked up for being good or the demerits for bad.
It appears that with all the farmers involved it just got too chaotic and there was a major water department policy change in Heaven above. Enough was enough and there were more important things for the angels to do than sort rain shares and prayers by fields and fallows. By the meridian of time, we find the rain policy had changed to:
“God would send his rain on both the just and the unjust.” Matthew 5: 45
The irony is that the development of irrigation accelerated at about the same time. I suspect it was a junior angel, an efficiency expert looking for promotion, who meant well that suggested "just let it rain on the just and the unjust. We can free up the horde of rain and accounting angels to go to work on the redemption of some honest sinners. And the farmers, well the poor farmers, let them try to irrigate. They’ll be so busy fixing ditches, pipes and pumps; trying to find someone to move the pipe or paying the banker for the pipe that they won’t have time to sin." Or so he thought. The problem is that junior angel didn’t count on water thievery, shovel fights and irrigating on Sundays rather than attending meetings and the justification logic that asks; "even God irrigates on Sunday doesn’t he?"
That brings us to where we are today: "To irrigate or not to irrigate is the question" we ask and then second guess on ourselves and the weather; it is just not as predictable as some would like to think. Usually the rule of thumb is the more money we spend on an irrigation or drainage system, the less likely it is that we will need it. Case in point: In the Bottom of the Great Basin rests the Great Salt Lake. Like the Dead Sea, it is a salt water lake; fresh water comes in out of the Rocky Mountains, but there is only one way out: evaporation. For 20 years from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, there had been a persistent increase in rainfall and the level of the Great Salt Lake was rising and seriously threatening businesses and communities. It looked like lake front property would soon be island residences. Finished in 1986, the state spent $60 million building canals and pumping systems to carry the excess water miles off out into the desert to be dumped. Pumps were ready, the power lines completed, the canals dug, operators hired; once everything was ready the cycle of wet weather reversed. 1987 was a choker of a dry year, as were the succeeding years. The pumps have never been turned on. Today it sits a relic on the west end of the Great Salt Lake; a behemoth monument to the legacy of the Governor who would rather have a different monument named after him.
Now irrigation has its own set of problems. There are mice and rodents that chew through drip systems, holes in pipes and ditches, bad labor and no labor, maintenance, power outages and vehicle/tractor damage. There are few guarantees in life, but one of those few is that if you place a piece of aluminum pipe on the ground, it will certainly be run over by someone.
Those without irrigation wish they had it and those with it woe the day they started. Let me explain a little. In some places there simply isn’t a chance of farming anything but cactus and sagebrush without irrigation. So with little demand for those two crops, irrigation becomes a must. That’s not a hard decision. What is a difficult decision is when you usually have enough rain at the right time to get by, but at this particular moment are going through a dry spell and are not really sure if it will last three weeks, three months or three years? I know of no one who can answer that question for certain; if you find that person, you will know him or her right off as they will be filthy rich.
Until you find that person, here is a framework of values based connections to natural resources–in this case, water–that can help. Sustainable farming systems usually embrace all four to one degree or another.
I. Intrinsic values and connections are the highest: it is the water we use directly and personally. It is the water that we shower and wash with, and especially the water we drink as it becomes part of us. In times of true scarcity we abandon all other connections to sustain these intrinsic values. It would suggest that before spending a lot of money on irrigation, make sure the domestic and stock water systems work well.
II. Negative values; these are connections we choose to discard; the water that must be drained or removed, otherwise it negatively impacts the stability of the intrinsic values. This is water we often pay to get rid of–water we drain out of the basement, the water we flush, swamp water, flood water. It suggests that bad water is as damaging to a farming system as not enough water.
III. Flexibility values; these are connections we hold or store because the future is unknown and they improve security. This is irrigation water and irrigation systems–the water which is held or stored to improve on future options and opportunities. To one degree or another, it is a safety net.
IV. Of least value are the extrinsic connections fostered by abundance; enough abundance that we are willing to sell water shares and water rights–the money and what we can buy with it being of more value than the water itself.
With irrigation systems there are three main problems which must be addressed to improve the irrigation decisions: The amount of water that is needed in an effective irrigation system is large. The water is heavy and bulky and the size of storage and distribution systems, both man-made and enhanced natural storage, is extensive and often expensive. Location and timing; water is seldom where you need it, when you need it there. It must be stored and or transported. How are you going to guarantee water from when and where it is plentiful to when and where it is scarce? This requires an enforceable legal structure. Lastly, because of the above, cooperative, unified behavior that benefits a community in a reasonably just manner is essential; something farmers are not noted for. They, historically, are more willing to act independently and competitively than cooperatively. If in a dry year farmers start randomly pumping out of the creek it will soon be dry, tempers will flare and there will be blood on the ground. Consider the contrary farmers you know, including yourself, and imagine what it would take to get them working cooperatively on the same irrigation board. Would "hard hats" be needed at board meetings or are we already hard-headed enough that they would do us no good? Effective irrigation projects demand that farmers work together.
The narrow self-seeking homo economicus man must learn how to become his opposite; homo cooperaticus and realize that self interest can only be bettered through long-term cooperative behavior.
A word of caution: Make sure you use a sharp pencil on your payback calculations and a little pessimism will go a long way. It is easy to spend a lot of money on irrigation; getting your money back out of it will certainly be more difficult. Predicting farm prices beyond a season and the weather beyond a week is nearly impossible for the best of us; how will you do it accurately on a ten-year payback period? If we learned anything from the housing bubble and subsequent crash it should be to be leery of easy debt money. It can quickly destabilize the very system it was intended to improve.
One last question that doesn’t get asked very often: Do irrigation systems always lead to the intensification of agricultural practices? My observations would say yes. Irrigation, by itself will intensify your agriculture and will open doors to other intensification options such as fertilizer application via the same. This does not infer that all irrigation practices or that agricultural intensification is all bad or good, just that we need to consider the decision to irrigate on a deeper level and the extended risks and effects of that decision. There is plenty of literature available which discusses the pros and cons of agricultural intensification, but that is a topic for another time.
Note: A fun and accurate read on water rights and irrigation fights is recorded in Ralph Moody’s book Little Britches. It’s not a novel and, as water fights go, it is about par. Start on Chapter 14 and see it to the end.