Carson Valley’s ditch masters keep water, history flowing
April 7, 2002
MINDEN — On the first Monday of the month, if he feels up to it, 81-year-old Johnny Indiano helps his wife, Barbara, load his portable oxygen tank into a blue Chrysler and makes the six-mile trip from their 80-acre ranch to the old Minden Inn.
He takes the elevator to the second floor, where you can hear him coming down the hall. The oxygen tank chugs like a train engine without the “oo.” By 4 p.m., Indiano is seated at the conference table in Room 220 of the converted hotel with four other ranchers.
In their plaid shirts, blue jeans and well-worn work boots, the five members of the Water Conveyance Advisory Committee aren’t the most fashionable of Douglas County’s many advisory boards. The subject matter — ditches and irrigation — probably isn’t the sexiest. But if you want to learn about the history of the area and the importance of water, this is the place.
“It’s probably the best show in town,” said Michael Fischer, Gardnerville dentist and former Douglas County commissioner who helped create the Water Conveyance Advisory Committee in 1991. “It seems like kind of a time warp. These guys are talking about things that were important 30 years ago and, unfortunately, not enough people realize are important today.”
“These guys” are chairman David Hussman, vice chairman Arnold Settelmeyer, and members Russell Scossa, Dennis Jensen and Indiano. Settelmeyer, Scossa and Jensen have been on the “ditch committee” since its inception in 1991. Hussman and Indiano also have served more than one term. Nobody can recall another county in Nevada with a similar setup.
“We thought it was good idea at the time,” Fischer said. “There was nothing to address needs of the ranchers as far as being able to put water on their property in the face of all the subdivisions. The ditch committee members are very, very good about trying to find compromises that allow agriculture and residential development to go forward and still maintain ability to irrigate their fields.”
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Members must be irrigators to be appointed to the board, or belong to one of the Carson Valley’s ditch companies.
“We don’t get too many applicants,” said Hussman, elected earlier this year to serve another term as chairman. “The ones we do get think we have something to do with municipal water. When they find out what we do, they say, `That’s OK, think I’ll pass.'”
Had there been a need for the Water Conveyance Advisory Committee 100 years ago, the same names would be on it because these families have been ranching in Carson Valley since the mid-19th century.
“That’s another thing about us,” Settelmeyer said. “We’ve been here more than five years.”
With average annual precipitation of just 10 inches, and a valley population that doubled in the last 10 years to 32,000 people, water is a major issue.
During one of Jensen’s turns as chairman, he and other members led a ditch tour for county officials. He spelled out the three functions of the valley’s irrigation system.
“The first, and most obvious, is to keep this beautiful valley both green and agriculturally productive. The second is that irrigation ditches function as a storm drain system for both the agricultural and the urban interest. The third function of the irrigation systems, as well as the agricultural lands, is that they relieve pressure from urban areas during high water and flooding events.”
The Carson River’s ditch system is part of the Alpine Decree, which grants a specific amount of water to parcels based on an historic allocation.
“Even if there weren’t any more irrigators, the system would have to remain for urban drainage. Nobody has an appetite to build a storm water system. Like it or not, the ditches are becoming an urban drainage system,” said Arlen Neal, the committee’s technical adviser.
“Some of these ditches were dug when Nevada wasn’t even a state,” he said. “When the equipment got better, the ranchers made the ditches a little deeper. The Allerman canal is about 100 years old and is probably one of the youngest. We irrigate land out of the Cottonwood Slough and it’s 140 years old, dating back to 1861.”
Douglas County commissioners needed a 13-page ordinance in 1991 to create the committee, but Settelmeyer distilled their work into an 11-word mission statement: “to make sure the historical water delivery system is kept intact.”
Now, Settelmeyer refers to the ditches as “the arteries of our heart.”
Applicants who come before the board should expect the five to know the affect a single shovel-turn of dirt or diversion of water will have on downstream users.
Engineer Rob Anderson frequently appears before the committee. His office in a renovated bank is a short block from the county complex in the old hotel.
At a February meeting, he’s representing three clients: the Baptist church, one of Carson’s Valley’s largest real estate agents, and an applicant who wants to subdivide three parcels on the valley’s west side.
“I thought you had Carson Valley divided up already,” said Settelmeyer, needling Anderson with the good-natured bantering that goes on at the meetings.
“No, not yet,” said Anderson. “I am doing it a little bit at a time.”
The ditch committee is a resource, Anderson tells his clients, rather than a roadblock to their projects.
“I explain that the purpose of the ditch committee is to help insure that irrigation easements necessary to serve downstream users are provided for; that it is a benefit to them as property owners and obviously to the downstream users to provide protection that may otherwise may be omitted,” Anderson said.
“They are good people and actually a huge resource. They have so much history on how this valley been irrigated. I don’t think many people realize what a wealth of history we have there,” he said.
Neal describes himself as “kind of the eyes and ears of the ranchers.”
“They’re busy all the time,” he said. “I can attend meetings, gather data and prepare reports that they can review. I attend the water conveyance advisory meetings to answer any technical questions.”
Neal, 71, marked his 10th anniversary with the ditch committee in February. He retired after 36 years with the Soil Conservation Service in Northern Nevada and California. He knows the valley and the water system like the back of his hand.
On a short tour of the Carson Valley ditch system, he can point out the houses where, in the old days, the owners “would sooner shoot at a white government car than shake your hand.”
His big project now is ditch mapping. It’s a huge effort, in the works for three years and now in its final stages as dozens of little red crosses dot the map. Neal estimated he spent up to 20 hours a week in front of a computer at the county’s Government Informations System office mapping the valley’s intricate ditches.
“What we’re trying to do is get the biggest of the irrigation ditches on a map that could be overlaid with assessor parcel numbers and aerial photos so we have a better way of showing an applicant how their project will affect downstream users,” Hussman said.
Neal said it is challenging to educate newcomers to the valley how the ditch system works and how much downstream users depend on easy, clean access to water.
“This committee is really farmer-oriented, to protect their ability to maintain their ranches,” he said. “For example, the Virginia Ditch starts at the (Carson Valley) golf course and ends at Cradlebaugh Bridge. It runs for 10-1/2 miles. Can you imagine how many things and places it goes through?
“We’re not criticizing, but every little subdivision wants a piece of the action. They want to irrigate or take water off it as it comes through. Think of the water quality? That’s one of the issues the committee is always involved in. There’s maintenance. Nobody wants to maintain it.”
When the Carson Valley was under water during the New Year’s Flood of 1997, Settelmeyer and other ranchers breached the diversion dams to direct the raging Carson River away from the towns of Minden and Gardnerville into agriculture fields.
“A lot of people don’t know that,” Neal said.
The problem now, Neal said, is that the ranchers who traditionally maintained the ditches are being replaced by homeowners.
“It probably goes back to the ’60s,” Hussman said. “We started to see alfalfa fields turn into houses.”
Like the others on the committee, Indiano ranched all his life until he was slowed by the heart disease which keeps him tethered to an oxygen tank. Yet, he refers to himself as the “rookie” on the board because he has only served a couple of terms. For decades he was one of two people who cleaned the Carson Valley’s vast network of ditches.
“He knows every ditch in this valley,” said his wife, Barbara.
Indiano sees the committee’s role as educating newcomers as well as protecting the valley’s water.
“Some of them don’t know which way water runs — uphill or downhill. It’s getting worse. Before, the water stayed with the land. Now, it’s like a yo-yo,” he said.
At the February meeting, about a dozen people crowded into the little room so committee members could review projects before the development goes to the planning commission and finally to county commissioners for approval.
“It’s kind of like church,” said one observer. “If you don’t get here early, you have to sit in the front.”
“We’re pretty informal,” said Russell Scossa. “If you want to ask a question, just get our attention.”
Veteran water attorney George Benesch complimented the board.
“It used to be if you had a controversy with water, you settled it with shovels,” he said.
Although the ditch committee serves only in an advisory capacity, decisions carry weight with the Douglas County commissioners.
“They know more about the county than the county does,” said Commissioner Jacques Etchegoyhen, a former rancher and now state representative of a land conservation group.
“It breaks my heart we didn’t have them 30 years ago,” he said. “It became a burden on a rancher to hire a lawyer to go prove he had a ditch easement. It’s not hard for a developer to bankrupt ranchers, even accidentally. There has hardly been an incident when the rancher hasn’t prevailed.
“They don’t worry about being politically correct. They have no idea how much we really listen to what they say. If they said ‘no’ to a project, the county would back them till hell froze over,” Etchegoyhen said.