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Ditch Irrigation Questions & Answers

Ditch irrigation is an age-old method of delivering water resources to areas requiring water for crops or herds. There are several terms, definitions and legal issues you should be aware of when dealing with ditch irrigation systems or companies.

What is Ditch Irrigation?

Ditch irrigation is used to provide water to farmland.

Irrigation is a method of providing supplemental water to areas where naturally occurring amounts of water are insufficient.  Ditch irrigation is a system of trenches or furrows dug into the ground to deliver water. The idea behind this type of water delivery is used to maintain water flow using the minimum amount of water required.  Farmers and ranchers to provide water to herds and crops use ditch irrigation. These manmade diversions have parts to help guide a gravity-fed system such as headgates, lifts, culverts, drops and weirs. 

What are Some Ditch Irrigation Terms?

A "call for water" is a term used by water rights owners.  When a call is made to the local water authority, seniority is explored to determine who along the irrigation system receives their allotment in a specific order. A "share of water" is the term used to designate a specific interest in a ditch company.  The ditch company controls the ditch irrigation. The share represents a portion of water flowing through the ditch.  This share varies between companies and can vary between irrigation seasons. A "diversion record" is an account of the cubic feet of water used in the daily flow for the ditch.  Water authorities use these records. A "ditch rider" is a person hired, or elected, to maintain the ditch operation during irrigation seasons.  This person opens headgates, calculates water volumes and maintains diversion records.

What Property Issues are Involved in Ditch Irrigation?

Can I use the water in a ditch on my land? In many states such as Colorado and Montana, the answer is no because you do not own water rights.  If there are no known claims to the water you should consult local authorities to determine if any claims exist before using the water. What are "water rights?" Water rights are given to persons who have verified claims to water delivered through a ditch system.  In states like Colorado these claims are given seniority by virtue of first to claim water rights. Seniority is given to those who claim rights ahead of your claim.  How do I determine if a ditch is abandoned? Abandoned ditches are those that have not been put to beneficial use in a specified number of years according to local or state guidelines. Ditches not used are not necessarily abandoned but may be inoperative due to water restrictions.  Consult local authorities or neighbors to determine if a ditch is abandoned. Who is responsible for ditch irrigation maintenance? If you own rights to the water you are responsible for ditch maintenance.  If the ditch passes through your land, but you don't own water rights, you must still allow access to the ditch for reasonable maintenance.

What are Some Basic Tools Used in Ditch Irrigation?

Smaller trenches use hand tools such as a mattock, shovel, spade or tiller.  These tools create irrigation ditches averaging 6 inches wide. Larger ditches use chain trenchers and backhoes.  Chain trenchers are chain-driven self-propelled machines used similar to lawn mowers. Backhoes are larger equipment with digging capabilities.  Where little digging is required, a vibratory plow is used to plow cuts into the ground for irrigation.

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