Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fighting over land and water

I got to use one of my favorite quotes in a story a couple of weeks back: “Whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting over.”

It’s usually attributed to Mark Twain, but that may be apocryphal. Doesn’t matter. It’s a great line and as true now as when it was coined in the 19th Century.

The dustup out in the McKenzie Canyon Canal has been fascinating to report on. It pits two relentless personalities against each other: irrigation district director Marc Thalacker and property owner Jan Daggett. They’ve been sparring on and off for years over this project. Now Daggett has sued the district and the irrigation district has forced its pipeline across her property in the face of protests that included blocking the ditch with equipment.

Fortunately, the Showdown at McKenzie Canal played out as farce rather than tragedy. It’s easy to see how people got shot over water fights in the Old West. People get mad, people get their back up and pretty soon it’s war.

Most people I talk to are on the side of the irrigation district in this one — mainly because of the benefits of returning water to Whychus Creek. On the other hand, many of those same people think that the irrigation district has been high-handed and they didn’t like seeing the sheriff’s office portray the protesters as alcohol-fueled. Many people think that was an uncalled-for shot at delegitimizing the protesters, whether they’re right or wrong on the issue.

A friend of mine, an irrigator himself, but not in this district, says he finds people trying to retain their open ditches as a pleasant water feature “incredibly selfish.”
But those water features are important to people. When the ditches dried up in town years ago as Ted Eady returned his water rights into Whychus Creek, there was a great outcry of dismay. As one forester told me, people were more connected to those ditches than they were to the creek.

I grew up in the L.A. area and often went backpacking in the Sierra Nevada out of the Owens Valley. The locals there were still mad about L.A. stealing their water in the early 20th Century — and they weren’t shy about telling you so.

Daggett’s suit against the district will play out in court this summer. Meanwhile the ditch is piped and the water flows. Probably someday soon, there will be steelhead in Whychus Creek, which will be a cause for celebration.

But don’t count on everybody gathering together to sing hymns to flowing water. There’ll still be reason to fight over it.

And if folks can’t find a reason to fight over water, they’ll fight over land, the other great Western tradition. Right now there’s a pretty good brawl going on over the Cyrus family’s desire to convert Aspen Lakes into a destination resort.

Many neighbors are not pleased. Some think it’s a fine idea. Opponents see their way of life threatened and the Cyruses, as always, are relentless in pushing for what they perceive as their rights and prerogatives. It’s a recipe for a long-term, expensive and acrimonious donnybrook.

I think these things invoke such passion because they are so fundamental. It’s not just a pocketbook issue — it’s not “greed” per se, either for money or to retain a perceived right. Land and water become sacred to people and they are often willing to spend their treasure and even spill their blood to defend them. I think that eons of social and cultural values have wired us to take a stand on land and water. For most of human history, they have been life itself.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. Great comments on a contentious issue, Jim. I tend to side with your friend who called it "incredibly selfish," but it is nice to read a more measured response.

    Bourbon distiller George Dickel bastardized your quote for an advertising campaign a few years back:

    Water's for flowers, Dickel's for drinkin'!

  2. Gee, one wonders why the irrigation district is piping everything except the Aspen Lakes/Cyrus property ? You have to love it !! Not in my back yard. Oh and by the way, I will eat my hat the day we see Steelhead in Squaw Creek. Its not about the fish you know, its about the hydroelectric progects at the ends of these tubes. The one at the end of the Three Creeks ditch should garner the irrigation district $500,000 per year. Please, do you really think its all about the FISH.