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Heather Hansman Travels the Green River to Understand the Future of Water in the West

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Lower Boulder Lake Dam on August 13th, 2014.

The end of the irrigation ditch is a corrugated pipe partially pinched shut by a piece of sheet metal. Randy Bolgiano, who runs the Circle Nine Cattle Ranch outside of Boulder, Wyoming, is standing in a hayfield just past the end of the pipe with a shovel, slicing off a piece of sod to block the trickle that flows out of it. The water runs into a channel along the edge of the meadow, and by blocking and pooling the flow, then pushing it out toward the field, Randy can inundate his hayfields, irrigating them. Randy and I had four-wheeled out to this end of the ditch, which isn’t far from the house where he lives with his wife, Twila. It’s threatening rain, the sky hanging gray and heavy, as we walk down the channel to move what he calls trash—hay and other downfall—to temporarily dam up his channels. He calls it shovel irrigating and says it’s the most low-tech way to irrigate, but it seems to work pretty well; the fields are green and glowing. When I ask him why they do it this way, he rolls his eyes a little and says it’s because it’s what they have.

There are cows with brand-new calves in the fields beyond us. Circle Nine, a cattle ranch where the only thing they grow is hay to feed the animals, is typical of the agriculture at the foot of the Wind River Range. That, Randy says, is because nothing else besides grass, not even grain, will grow out here in the high desert steppe of the upper Green River Basin. He calls the ranch a “sand pile,” a “gravel pit,” and says that flood irrigation is the only way to get a viable harvest in the narrow window between spring thaw and fall frost. The ranch has been around for 50 years, and it has rights to water through the Boulder Irrigation District, which allocates water from Boulder Creek, one of the Green’s first tributaries. Seniority and source are important in the competition for water. The district has water rights dating to 1919, and Randy gets two cubic feet per second for every 70 acres of land he ranches.

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Thanks !

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