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Ditch Walker: Water is gold, here

SAM COBB of the Rock Creek Water Improvement Company walks ditches to monitor and control allocations of irrigation water on the system that extends 14 miles and is controlled by 30 measuring devices.

SAM COBB of the Rock Creek Water Improvement Company walks ditches to monitor and control allocations of irrigation water on the system that extends 14 miles and is controlled by 30 measuring devices. Photo by Mark Gibson.

Water in drier parts of Oregon is precious and its distribution can sometimes cause feuds between neighbors.

“Water’s gold here and we keep getting more and more efficient about how we use it,” said Sam Cobb, a ditch walker for the Rock Creek Water Improvement Company serving the Wamic community.

It has been Cobb’s job for seven years to keep the peace by equitably dispersing 610 cubic feet per second, or 4,563 gallons, of water from Rock Creek Reservoir among nine shareholders.

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WATER ALLOCATIONS from Rock Creek Reservoir are released or held back using a weir system, which measures water volume at each point in the system.

Cobb does exactly as his title suggests. Each morning he walks portions of the 14-mile ditch to adjust a series of 10 to 15 out of 30 measuring devices. The weirs he changes are dependent upon how much water a rancher or farmer has ordered for the day.

The water will be carried by a ditch to the storage pond on the individual’s property, where it will be drawn upon to irrigate crops and quench the thirst of cattle.

“Our shareholders are all entitled to a certain amount and I keep track of what they are using,” said Cobb. “I play by the numbers because everything I do in this system is measured.”

It is essential that he keep track of the water supply because, as summer heats up, some farmers and ranchers get more than others.

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A series of valves are used to control water release to each water right holder in the system.

The way it works is simple and yet extremely complex: Water rights are assigned to a specific piece of property and pass from owner to owner, with the oldest rights getting first dibs on the available supply.

When the level in the 88-acre reservoir begins to go down, a farmer with newer rights will be the first to lose access to water. As the supply is reduced, newer rights are suspended so people with older rights are the only ones still receiving water delivery.

To balance the system out, landowners with the most rights also pay a higher annual fee for irrigation service.

Each of the shareholders has a stake in the company that is proportional to how many water rights they hold.

Cobb hand-delivers a weekly report to each ranch or farm that outlines the present and past week’s usage, as well as where their balance stands. His report factors the rate of evaporation and possible seepage into the calculation of the available supply.

The rancher or farmer is then responsible to make decisions about how much water to apply in order to grow a crop or, in Brendon Johnson’s case, fresh grass for several hundred steers.

“It’s all a juggling act,” he said of the fact that most properties have a combination of older (from 1800s) and newer (early 1900s) rights.

Johnson, 23, recently completed the Texas Christian University Ranch Management Program in Fort Worth, and went into business with his father, Jim Johnson, who works in the high-tech world.

Johnson’s grandfather, Jack Stevens, has been a rancher in Wamic for 25 years.

Because the Johnsons plan to double their stock within the next couple of years, they have to figure out how to make their allotted share of water spread as far as possible.

Johnson, who runs the operation, relies on having fresh green grass to feed newly-weaned steers that he buys at a weight of about 500 pounds and builds a frame to accommodate 900 pounds. From his ranch, the steers will be shipped to a feed lot, where they are fattened up before being harvested and their meat processed for the marketplace.

Johnson and other ranchers and farmers in the area can receive help from The Dalles office of the National Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency, to find ways of managing water more efficiently.

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SAM COBB adjusts the water flow to assure irrigation allotments from the Rock Creek Reservoir are being distributed in accordance with longstanding agreements based on historic water rights.

The ditch from the reservoir operates by an honor system and most people are respectful of the water rights hierarchy. However, Cobb has been forced a time or two to put locks on the valves to prevent someone from taking water that belonged to a neighbor. He also keeps valves locked up on a ditch that feeds public land along the route to prevent vandalism.

“The water has to be distributed by one hand, which is mine,” he said. “Water is very important to these guys and, if they are entitled to it, it’s important they get it.”

Although the reservoir is manmade for irrigation purposes between April and October, Cobb said people recreate on the water and it is home to a variety of fish, including rainbow trout and big mouth bass.

“At the very end of the season, we have to be sure that water is left for the fish,” he said.

Rains are rare during the late spring and summer months and Cobb said any type of shower has him shutting off values to conserve water being fed into the reservoir by Rock, Threemile and Gate creeks.

“When it rains in the hills, it brings up my levels and that is a good thing,” he said.

Although he works alone, Cobb is happy to be the only ditch walker for the company and get paid to spend time in the great outdoors. There are two more reservoirs in the county with their own personnel.

“It’s one of the most interesting jobs I’ve had in my life. The independence is phenomenal,” he said. “I retired from a corporate background (manufacturing jet engine parts in Texas) and really enjoy the solitude.”

He gets plenty of social time by serving customers at Molly B’s Diner on Main Street in Tygh Valley that he and his wife own and operate. The restaurant’s claim to fame is that it serves “the best breakfast in Oregon.”

A Rancher's Life is a year-long series by reporter RaeLynn Ricarte and photographer Mark B. Gibson of The Dalles Chronicle. Here are the stories so far:

A Rancher's Life and A 'big picture' outlook started the series January 25, 2014.

All in a Day's Work and Moving cows is just the beginning were published February 12, with Weathering the storms. An audio slideshow, Working cows, was also published in February.

March started with a look at wolves in two parts, Wolf trouble and Wolves on the move. It continues with Springs promise, a look at calves and spring on the ranch.

An editorial, "More defenses needed," wrapped up coverage on this issue.

May started with the story exploring the trouble faced by one ranch, whose story is told in new feature-length movie screened locally in Hood River. One family member currently lives in The Dalles, and in "A Place to call Home" she tells her story.

May also featured multiple stories addressing the issue of public grazing, an issue researched by reporter RaeLynn Ricarte for over four months. The issue is first explored in"Battle rages over grazing rights." Much of this battle has been fought in court, and "Taxpayers foot the bill of resource lawsuits" explores one aspect of this battle. Additional stories followed: Seeking balance on our public lands, A place for cattle, Activist disputes accusation of fee gouging, An embattled system,and Walden: Scrutiny need on species regulation.

The May presentation ended with an editorial expressing the need for public grazing in the western states, Resources to Thrive.

A special section, Farm and Ranch, further broadened and expanded the series in June. it is available as a .pdf document: Farm and Ranch.

As July brings hot dry weather, it's a great time to explore the impact water, and a lack of water, has on the ranch community. Water is a precious commodity in Eastern Oregon. Ditch walker Sam Cobb is in charge of how the water in water stored in Rock Creek Reservoir is distributed in the article "Ditch Walker: Water is gold, here"

In August, the second edition of Farm and Ranch explored the stories and people behind some of the brands in the region.

Water issues were further explored in August, with three-part presentation:

State and federal rules water rules impact ranchers throughout the region. Water dispute boils explores state regulations and how they impact ranch operations. A related story looks at a study launched by ranchers working with OSU to study water issues in arid and semi-arid lands.

Federal proposals to change or clarify what waters are under federal jurisdiction has many agriculturalists worried, and represents yet another clash over water.

Locally, efforts are being made to work collaboratively to improve water quality on 15-mile creek for both fish and farmers. The creek is used for irrigation.

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