Canals

Don Chandler on Paul Chandler's New Plymouth Farm on Butte Road 1984

Don Chandler on Paul Chandler’s
New Plymouth Farm on Butte Road 1984

 

This is the Noble Ditch. Across it is a weir.  There is a board across it to use both as a platform to walk across, and to hold or place the angled boards to impede the water flow.  A weir can be any structure that regulates or impedes water flow in a manner meant to regulate it.  Some such weirs were cemented in place for use for many years.  Other weirs could be spur of the moment — very temporary.  During the days of the waterwheels, each wheel had a mill race at its side that could be used as a weir — with slots in the concrete which could hold boards of a varying amount according to the desired restriction.

Just above the boards, and up the canal can be seen a headgate in the other side of the canal.  Headgates let water from the canal into “laterals” which then lead to the various farmers downstream to again divide out their share of the water.  In the 80s, Noble ditch went down its length replacing all the old headgates with new headgates using forms into which concrete was poured, so they all look identical today.

As the growing season progressed, weeds would grow in the laterals and impede the water flow. Rather than cut these weeds (a laborious task) often farmers would use these weirs simply to put more pressure to force the water against the friction of the weed growth.  Some farms needed weirs because they did not have enough “fall” where their land had difficulty with normal 1/4″ per foot fall for best flow. This could be as simple as not re-floating land whose “fall” had been disturbed by plowing or other reasons.

New Plymouth farmers on a lateral would get together each spring to burn the weeds from the previous year, and clean and mend the laterals.  A “rite of Spring,” burning weeds each spring would herald that year’s beginning work on the fields.  Usually work would begin at the lowest part of the lateral, and work their way upstream, cleaning as they went, and picking up more and more farmers whose farms were farther up the canal as they went.  The ditches were, of course, empty of water. This was done before the water was turned into the canals for that years’ crops.

Along each lateral would be succeeding smaller weirs that let farmers equitably divide the water flow, there being no other mechanical guide to do the dividing.  Sometimes “dividing being as simple as just cutting an outlet into the side of the ditch — however regulating such could be very judgmental and water could erode them letting much more than planned.

Dividing water could sometimes cause controversy. Most farmers could be trusted to not take more than their “shares.”  Each farmer had a “share” of water for each acre. This was how taxing/paying for the water and maintenance was done, via share.  And thru the year the shares owned by the farmer would be enough ration to irrigate his acres — if he used judgment and skill to use it properly.  However, at times it might be desirable to have more water than one’s allotment.  Some farmers were not above taking too much, if they thought they could get away with it.  This was done at the weir where they could fudge the amount in various ways.  Like use more boards or other devices to shunt more water their way than they deserved.  The canal had a ditch-rider who checked the headgate weir daily to make certain it was in  compliance.  Many times the “wheel” that, via a screw arrangement, raised or lowered the weir gate would be locked with a padlock to insure it remained unchanged after being opened by ditch-master.

In the 40s and 50s, sometimes disputes between farmers “stealing” each other’s water often got heated and sometimes became violent. In fact, in those years, the county sheriff spent most of his time refereeing such water disputes, which might have come to blows. One tale of such fight had one farmer who had a shovel hitting the other cutting his ear off, the other reciprocated with a hoe, cutting the other’s nose off.  Whether this is apocryphal or actual happening is questionable.  But most anyone involved in such disputes would believe it could have happened.  Many claimed that they had witnessed it, or knew someone who had??

In this photo, this side of the canal is being used for access to the fields.  The downhill side of canals (north side), where the lateral gates were installed, were always the side that the “ditch-rider” used everyday in order to monitor the canal, watch for problems, etc. Each day he would begin at the beginning of the canal near Emmett, and drive the entire length of the canal.

The opposite side was used each winter to pile debris — it being part of the canal right-of-way.  Weeds hanging on the canal banks dragging in the water would accumulate sediment, the water being very muddy. These weeds would accumulate huge amounts of mud, then the grass would grow out into the mud, and repeat. Thus producing a mass of mud out into the flow, impeding the flow.  When these accumulation would exceed the roots ability to anchor then the whole mass would slide off into the canal. So each winter the canal company had to send draglines along the canal, dig out these clumps, dress the side of the canal, and pre-emptorially address this ongoing problem.  In doing this the dragline left growing piles of this debris along this side of the canal.  When my dad first came to New Plymouth, in 1933-34 this debris side was piled up with many years accumulation 20-30′ high — leaving room for draglines to get in between piles to do the same again and again. Dad, used his Caterpiller and scraper to pull this accumulation off and spread it out over the adjacent fields. Thus returning the canal bank to use as access road.  Quickly his efforts were seen by others and he was hired up and down the canals, their entire lengths, removing all this debris.

Farmers, today, are used to this debris being gone, and to using their side of the canal bank for field access. So as debris gets dumped on the right of way, they are equally up to the task of disappearing it out over their fields. So today you seldom see any section where it collects.  Occasionally, when viewing a really old photo of the canals you might see the original method of piles. Similarly, draglines used to pile huge masses of debris from maintaining drain ditches, along their length. And, it, as well is now distributed out in the fields.  Again, if you look at old time photos, you can trace the drain ditches and the big piles along their length.  Teams of horses, in older times, were not the equal of the later tractors. So farmers left these “tailings” for the first 40+ years of both canals and drain ditches.

The canals look much different today than they did in early 1900s. Back then they were lined with cattails, making a black bird nesting paradise.  Cattails were especially bad for building up clumps that would slide huge amounts out into the canal. so they were systematically eliminated.  However, this eliminated much of the ecological niches for wildlife.  The grass/weeds  lining canals are now also mowed, or eliminated with weedicide.  The photo shows a happy medium weed growth–but the old growth I was used to is long gone.  Similar with drain ditches: As a boy I used to frequent many kid-friendly ecosystems along various drain ditches that did not really look like drain ditches.  Instead they looked very much like small creeks with clear constant flows of water, and even stretches of trees.

In the distance you can see the west side of Squaw Butte, about 15 miles away, a beloved landmark.

The Deweys were always special to me.  I knew four generations — just lovely people.  An interesting story about them:  Their orchards were abutted up against the canals up against the bluff wall. Both the Noble Ditch and Farmers Canal came from the same source outflow from the Payette — just above Emmett–then the combined canal crosses thru Emmett over to the southern valley wall.  Then separate and go downstream, both crowded up side by side against the bluff wall, in order to gain the elevation needed later, and finally diverge.  The two canals were independently owned and so independent immediately after the split just out from the river. However, this coupling of the canals was a huge risk.  Muskrats love canals and our area had its share.  Muskrats make homes in the ditch banks, digging the entrances under the water to be unseen and protected.  Once well into the bank, then their tunnels come up above water level producing a dry closed in burrow.  However, the entrances allow water well into the ditch bank — soaking it for many feet — which causes problems with the whole bank sluffing off and very rapid erosion with the full contents of the canal going thru the breach.  There are compelling reasons for ditch riders to check the canals daily.

This happened just above Dewey’s peach orchid.  Within only hours the water flow from the two canals had eroded so much mud that it covered over the top of mature peach trees to some depth — over 40 acres.  Further away it covered maybe twice that before someone could get to the river outlet and shut off the water.  It was a huge job to repair because, of course, it was all mud!  I remember seeing photos of it in the paper, as well as seeing it in person.

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