By RACHAL PINKERTON
QUINCY — I grew up on a farm in the Quincy Valley. When I was in college, I spent some of my summers changing siphon tubes for my neighbor. While I understand how the water works on the farm side of the ditch, I never quite figured out all the things that ditch riders do and how they got the water to my fields.
And there were other questions. There were ditches that I wasn’t sure how they got water. There were other ditches that barely had water in them and I wasn’t sure what their function was. How did ditch riders know how much to open up the weir?
On June 14, I had the privilege of tagging along with a ditch rider to find out what they do. I was assigned to Nate Volkov, a relief rider for the Quincy-Columbia Basin Irrigation District. The plan was that I would ride half of a normal route with him. During that time, I would get to see what a ditch rider does and get some answers to my questions.
What follows is an account of my time with him:
I met Nate at the Quincy-Columbia Basin Irrigation District’s pumping plant near Winchester. That day, Nate was doing ride 45, which is the top ditch in Block 73, north of Quincy. The ditch itself is close to 20 miles long and covers around 7,800 acres of farmland. Nate had been the permanent rider for this ditch prior to becoming the relief rider. I hopped into his district-issued pickup and we headed off. The first task of the day was to check the weed rack for the water coming out of the West Canal and into the canal that leads to the pumping plant. This weed rack catches all the large weeds that enter the canal.
The next stop is the pumping station to ensure that the pumps are pushing the correct amount of water into the ditch. The pumps run at 2,000 horsepower. We also head outside to check the outer pumps and the weed rack for smaller weeds. Unlike the first weed rack, this rack is automated and escorts the weeds from the rack into a truck, or a pile if the truck is not present, via a conveyor belt. This setup is to prevent weeds from entering the pumps.
We returned to the pickup and Nate began organizing his water order cards for the day. When a farmer needs water in their fields, they make the request the day before. They can call the ditch rider, leave a voice mail at headquarters, talk to the ditch rider in person or text the ditch rider. The last way is preferred. Farmers must place their water orders before 3:30 p.m. the day before they need water. Nate said that once all the water needed for the next day has been counted, the water master radios it to the Bureau of Reclamation. Water is turned down the West Canal overnight so it is available for use the next morning. Water from the West Canal services Quincy, George, Royal City, Soap Lake and Ephrata.
We headed up to the top ditch. Nate checked the amount of water coming out of the pipe from the pumping plant to ensure that the readout and the amount of water matched. They did and we moved on.
Nate stopped to check the amount of water being delivered to a field. That day, there were 66 of 84 units running water. Part of a ditch rider’s job is to verify that farmers and orchardists are getting the amount of water they ordered. If they aren’t, it is the ditch rider’s job to correct it. Weeds stuck in a weir are one of the main reasons that a farmer may not be getting enough water.
Time to give an orchardist more water. Nate opened the main gate in the ditch to allow more water into the weir. Once it was open, he adjusted the gates going into the orchard. This particular place had two units that were fed from the same main gate. It took several minutes for Nate to get the water levels right, ensuring that the orchard was getting the correct amount of water. Once that was completed, we continued on. As we drove to our next stop, Nate answered one of the questions that I have wondered about for years - what do ditch riders do in the winter?
“Winter is a very busy season,” he said. “If there are any gate repairs, we do that. Last year we did a lot of system improvements.”
If a ditch is seeping badly, they line it with a heavy duty tarp covered with felt on both sides. Before placing the tarp, the ditch is dug down a foot. Once the tarp is placed, six inches of dirt, followed by six inches of rock is placed on top.
We stopped in front of an orchard pond. As Nate checked the amount of water going into the pond, he told me that water can only be turned on for a farmer if they have a balance on their account. Water must be paid for in advance before it can be turned on. If there is a negative balance on a unit, water can’t be turned on. This information is checked on a phone that is carried by the ditch rider. The phone is specific to the ditch that he is riding that day. Ditch riders also use these phones to record and verify daily the amount of water that each farmer is receiving.
Look for part two of this special three-part series in next month’s edition of the Basin Business Journal.