When we think of the impact that agriculture has on the environment, some of the first things that spring to mind are pesticides that poison rivers and invasive super-crops that threaten local species. Historically, there have been tensions between agriculturalists and environmentalists. But there are many farmers and ranchers who are just as interested in saving the environment as are the watershed protection groups.

Photo by TaschasSnapshots (deviantART).

Ditch companies are an example of agricultural organizations that can be a boon to watershed protection efforts. These corporate entities, known regionally as mutual ditch companies, acequias, or ditch co-ops, have been a fixture of the American agricultural community for generations. To form a ditch company, farmers who irrigate their fields from a shared watershed come together to draft articles of incorporation and bylaws that will govern how they distribute this precious resource. Mutual ditch companies are particularly important in the high western plains, where scarcity of water raises these entities to the level of political organizations.

Ditch companies generally have complete control over the maintenance of their ditches. Although the legal quirks vary from state to state, ditch maintenance generally includes litter control, flow control, the management of invasive species, and the maintenance of infrastructure such as headgates and concrete-lined ditches. These maintenance tasks are not only important to the fields of the farmers who make up the ditch company, but also to the watershed in which these ditches run. Litter, pollutants, and the seeds or young of invasive species all have the potential to flow from private ditches to public waterways.


Photo by Vaughan Leiberum.

Keeping unwanted materials out of our waterways is an important concern for both environmentalists and ditch companies alike. However, environmental groups seldom have access to ditch property, and ditch companies seldom have access to the labor resources they need to keep their ditches clean and freely flowing. This is a problem that can be solved by cooperation between environmental protection groups and ditch companies.

To get this cooperation started, contact your state engineer, division engineer, or watershed coordinator to find out about mutual ditch companies in your area who need help keeping their waterways clean. For many ditch companies, spring and fall cleaning is an arduous task, and people get contentious about who pays for which labor. Because of this problem, many ditch companies will be happy to accept the help of volunteers, or workers whose efforts have already been crowdfunded.

Photo by Fabian Niehl.

Helping ditch companies keep their waterways clean is a way not only to help protect your environment, but also to get the agricultural community more involved in environmental protection. By learning more about the needs of your local farming and ranching communities, you will get a better idea of how to encourage sustainable agricultural practices while still making sure those needs are met. Reaching out to farmers and ranchers in your area can often be the beginning of a successful working relationship that protects your environment and strengthens your community for years to come.

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