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Tom Clyde: Center pivot nightmares

This is the driest spring since 1934, according to the TV weather people. It seems like there are a lot of things being compared to the 1930’s lately—unemployment, economics, and now dust-bowl drought conditions. So even though it’s a couple of weeks early, I started the irrigation on the farm this week.

It takes several days to get it all set up. It starts with a ditch coming out of the river almost two miles up the canyon. It was dug by four homesteader brothers in the 1880’s. One of them left a description of the project. They dug it in the winter because they were too busy farming in the summer months. The initial dig, contoured into the steep hillside, was by pick and shovel until they could get enough of a bench trail for a draft horse to stand on. They surveyed it with a carpenter’s bubble level, for two miles.

The project took them over two years. After completing it, and harvesting their first irrigated hay crop, they concluded there was no future in farming. They packed up and went to the Alaska gold rush. Most of them ended up broke and back in Park City within a year.

Fortunately, I have a guy who puts a mini-excavator in the ditch to clean out the annual rock fall, and it’s not a big deal to turn it on. Once the headgate is open and the water flowing, it comes around the mountain and splits into open ditches for flood irrigation, or into a small pond where it goes into a pipe for the center pivot irrigation system. Keeping it all flowing demands constant attention. The headgate clogs with leaves and sticks washing down the river. That takes a two-hour hike up the ditch to clear it with a pitchfork. Filters plug. Gaskets leak. This morning there is a random geyser that is spraying the electrical panel. 480 volts and a fire hose-worth of water. What could possibly go wrong? The decision to head to the Yukon suddenly seems entirely reasonable.

Every year, the first night after starting the pivot system, I toss and turn, worrying about this big machine running unsupervised out on the farm.”

It doesn’t matter when I turn the water on, it will freeze within the next three days. I could wait until July to start it, and there would be ice on the field the next day. But it’s running, freezing, leaking, and the ground is soaking it up as fast as I can spread the water.

Every year, the first night after starting the pivot system, I toss and turn, worrying about this big machine running unsupervised out on the farm. I have a recurring nightmare that instead of hitting the end of its travel and turning around, it continues off the bluff, down on to the highway, and drives itself down the canyon to Jordanelle, crushing cars like some monster truck rally, dragging pipes and wires with it. This is the 12th year we’ve had the pivots in operation, and it was the first time that I didn’t get up at 3 a.m. to go check on it in the dark.

Through the years, I’ve developed a pretty deep inventory of spare parts out in the barn. I went looking for a pipe fitting, and discovered that all my boxes of loosely organized parts had been preempted by a squirrel. The squirrel is apparently a CPA, neatly sorting its pinecones by size, variety, and freshness. One box was filled with pinecones from lodgepole pines, the box next to it was all spruce cones, and then there was a box of lodgepole pinecones that were still green. The squirrel was hoarding pinecones like toilet paper. It went to a lot of work to keep that supply organized, and I felt a little guilty messing it all up for a three-quarter inch hose barb. I can’t wait to see if it re-sorts them.

The squirrel has bigger things to worry about. We’ve had a mountain lion hanging out in the neighborhood all winter. The first sign was a deer carcass on one end of the neighborhood last fall. The guy from Wildlife Resources said it would pass through and we’d never see it again. So everybody put out game cameras—the neighborhood is under tighter surveillance than Ft. Knox—and the lion keeps showing up in backyards. A deer carcass turned up practically on a neighbor’s porch, and another on the riverbank across from my house. It recently wandered across the river in the middle of the day, abruptly ending a neighbor’s fishing.

Somebody has a new lion photo almost every week. That’s started the conversation about whether the permanent resident lion is new, or if the cameras are just documenting something that has been here all along. Maybe the back yard always has a lion lurking in the trees.

The summer is off to an interesting start.

Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.


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