All Prickly Over Water Rights

IT's a prickly beauty that surrounds my house. I'm fortunate to have a little water going nearby. All this prickliness - cactuses with flowers, crickets that fly and snap, and the rattlers - has taught me the precious truth about water. Things go smoothly here if everything gets just a dab of it.Smoothly in a certain way, that is. If no one steps on anyone else's toes, and it rains a bit. Mark Twain would call my stretch of Colorado real estate, which is also home to coyotes, ravens, and jack rabbits, "lonesome desolation." I think these creatures are all rather heroic, maybe a bit dusty, and occasionally startling - especially when you've got the house lanterns lit, and the coyote's howl reminds you to lock up the goats and chickens. In their own ways, the wild animals are all just guarding their right to be here - a right that existed long before men experimented with clay or mobile homes or gunpowder. They all like a drink of water, if not from the river then indirectly by preying upon some other unfortunate creature. Sometimes things go so smoothly it makes you wonder... if water supplies in the world diminished to the degree they have here - with 360 days of sunshine and near panic if there's no snow on the mountains by January - would we behave as well as these "desolation" creatures? Would we learn to stick, bite, camouflage, and steal others' "water"; or would we be like the white thistle or the peaceful columbine that stake out shade under the ton-a-day water-absorbing cottonwood? Out here, where law and order have been in place at least since Jesse James was permitted to hide in these rock outcroppings, people have been figuring peaceful solutions to the water problem. Since the first time people cut irrigation ditches off our trickle of river called the Huerfano, there've been skirmishes about who has more rights - those on the upper part of the trickle or those on the lower. It must have been settled in some fair way, because it's mostly peaceful here. Perhaps the ancient (at least 100 years old) deed of property is responsible. It went something like this: You got a water number. If it were 57, you took the 57th turn on the river. After a certain number of hours or days, you blocked your ditch and gave others a chance. If you were No. 1, you had to wait half the summer, while numbers 2 through 56 greened their fields. But someone got smart and bought up his neighbor's numbers. Of course, this was the end of the value of a homestead and the beginning of dust. The numbers up and down got as mixed up as a jack rabbit-with-antlers postcard. It was hard to tell who had water access when, and it wasn't funny anymore, except to tourists. Lawsuits have passed through going back to the Spanish Conquistadors, not to mention survivors of the Ute nation, Civil War veterans, third cousins of Jesse James, and beavers. Things got hot for awhile. A recent newspaper story titillated the county and made everyone feel justified wearing cowboy hats, whether they had a "herd" or not. One man removed his neighbor from his horse, permanently, with a Winchester. The judge ruled this "renegade attitude" was not justified on the basis that "one man's field is greener than another's." I suppose if this action were over something more valuable, gold or silver, the perpetrator would have gotten the highest sentence in the land: his water taken away. As it was, he got a life sentence. The whole thing raised the water issue to the consciousness of life and death; it suddenly made everyone who had it feel the glorious days of the West were exhilarating as ever. No one loaded up, but I walked into a few peaceful homes with children to see a shotgun by the window with some plugs nearby on the linen table cover. No one before had really seen the romance of water. It was a political issue, a kind of buzzing nastiness that came along like the hatching of a yellow jacket's nest, when snows melted. A droning Cessna patrolled the air, an appointed water commissioner checking which fields were shimmering or not, with an unreadable chart of dates and numbers and farm identifications. Those who felt they were having a bad year - or worse a good one! - at least knew someone was keeping tabs on things. After the false romance of the incident wore off - some kept their cowboy hats in memory of it - the issue of water seeped into the county's most precious nursery: Schoolchildren had heard the Wild West story at their doorsteps and wanted to know why people would fight over a glass of water. They would act it out, "Blam! Steal my water and I'll An enlightened principal, who was pleased that most of these kids couldn't see violence on television because they had no TV stations nearby, was horrified. She believed children could be taught something in school and so arranged a field trip to a ranch. She wanted them to see all ranchers weren't so passionate about neighbor's prosperity and could live with the system.Phrases began coming home from school with the children: "Do you know what money is? It's grass. Water makes grass." Or, "Mom, is it true money doesn't come from shuffling papers in an office? But is a dollar really made of weeds?" "It's good they know the economy of the area. But there's something more," said the principal. "Tomorrow we go to the river." The pupils looked at fresh baby brook trout shooting just below the surface. They examined fine pearls of tiny snails attached to rocks. They watched a cloud come up and rain magnificently in a thunderhead over a dry pinyon hillside. "Water makes clouds and sunsets and milk," one child wrote on a test. "Snail's eggs are very delicate and we should at least not disturb them by throwing shiny cans in. They have a right." d shoot a man who took all the water out of the rocks "No, no, no," said the principal. "But better." AN open house was arranged, so parents could see that the latest project was not a teacher's picnic. Water-using cattlemen were invited, whether they had children in the school or not. More came than expected. The commissioner, who had a kid in school, said, "Let's have our monthly meeting there." They came. Big men with cows to chase on the road; thinner men beat by the wind and driving harvesters. Women with strong thumbs who milked every morning; mothers whose pristine ranches depended on the herd - and water. They all sat in the kids' little chairs. "We all have to live here so water is to share," opened the girl of 'clouds, sunsets, and milk. A boy: "Money is important, and we all need jobs. But if we fight about water, we'll all end up like this," and he let sift a handful of dust. Girls giggled, and his father shifted uncomfortably, but relaxed when he saw others smile. Another child: "Our land is very old. Like Merlin the magician. But if we share the water, it will grow younger - all over." Parents began to clap. The principal, in the back row, sighed with relief. Finally, a kindergartner: "The water sings to you, smiles at you, and opens her arms to you - like my grandmother! And I always share my nana!" The effect of the school presentation has been slight, with a few exceptions: A county planner was there and plans for a lucrative nuclear waste site were abandoned; a train carrying dangerous chemicals was rerouted; and kids, when setting the table for dinner, sometimes stared oddly at a clear glass of water. Although the water ditches haven't been sorted out to satisfaction, no one's been pushed off a horse. With snow starting to accumulate high up, there will be water to go around for all the wonderfully prickly people - as well as those plants and creatures here long before us.

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