Course Update: Agriculture in the West: Past and Present

In days prior, we explored the use of water for recreation, for hydroelectric power, and as an ecological linchpin for wildlife. Throughout those days we made frequent mention of a vague term–irrigation. We often hear that the majority of western water goes toward agriculture. On Saturday agricultural water use took concrete form thanks to our visits at the Ute Mountain Ute Farm & Ranch Enterprise and Mesa Verde National Park.

The Ute Mountain Utes operate a farm outside of Cortez, CO. They draw water from the McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River. Eric White, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member, talked to the kids about the tribe’s travails with water rights and their own growth plans from supplier to retailer. He then gave us a tour of a cornfield and the enormous irrigation pivots that water fields as large as 140 acres.

We finished the day climbing cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, just outside Cortez. Mesa Verde NP was our nation’s first designated World Heritage site. The remnants of a native people (The Ancient Puebloan, otherwise known as the Anasazi) remain on the mesa. Although many theories exist as to why these people disappeared, there is one theory that brings us to this place. The Anasazi people originally lived and farmed the verdant surface of this high mesa. At some point they abandoned their homes on the mesa and retreated to cliff dwellings. And finally, they vanished for good. One possible reason for this change is water. As water supplies became strained, tribes splintered, tempers raised, and the threat of violence drove their people to the cliffs. Could it be that this was the last civilization to run out of water?

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