Life on the Farm in the West is Shaped by Water

Tershia D’Elgin’s book 'The Man Who Thought He Owned Water' examines how water defines farming, and is an astute look at how water regulations shape daily life.



Even after a very rainy winter in California, the state—and much of the West—is still experiencing drought conditions. To call water a complex issue is an understatement.

Tershia D’Elgin has immersed herself in the subject of Western water rights. In her book, The Man Who Thought He Owned Water, the San Diego-based writer and water resources consultant charts the history of her family’s farm, Big Bend Station, on the South Platte River in Colorado through the water it uses. Despite her depth of knowledge of hydrology, biology, law, and policy, D’Elgin approaches the issue as an activist, with a personal connection to the land and a mission to inspire others to think critically about the way water is used in agriculture.

William Eaton Phelps—the title character and D’Elgin’s father—moved his family to the farm in the 1960s. Among its many old structures, a former stagecoach stop built in 1864 became their home as the property grew from 300 acres to more than 1,000 and became a cattle ranch.

D’Elgin introduces meaty concepts about water, its relationship to food and farming, and the central conflict between today’s rural-versus-urban tug-of-wars; and she challenges readers to really think. She also has a strong voice and memorable sense of humor—and both provide helpful counterpoints to her very technical subject matter in this eloquent, well-written memoir. In the book’s introduction, she makes it clear that she hopes to address a range of readers in both rural and urban areas. She writes:

Researching and writing this, then staring at so astronomical a number on paper—ten elephants’ weight worth of corn per hour, which took 66.6 acre-feet of water to grow—I find I can’t blame small farmers and ranchers, not more than myself. The chutes that sort us into rural and urban, into ‘enviro’ and farmer, into progressive and conservative—these chutes are worse than counterproductive. They’re perilous, because each of us can blame someone else and take no responsibility ourselves. No more chutes! Together, we must rally behind healthful, affordable food production right now, because—as you’ll soon read—the additional question of whether water will still be available to grow food is grave and imminent.

She introduces the term thalweg, “the truest, deepest continuous course of a river,” and encourages readers that “this book’s symbolic thalweg will tell you that this acrimony between ag and urban must stop. The city folks and country folk had better realize their interdependence, better get it together.”

The Man Who Thought He Owned Water suggests that our human supposition of ownership and domination over something as essential and powerful as water—evident in Phelps’ lifelong plight on his farm—is ridiculous. D’Elgin grew up under her dad’s strong influence, with his tireless work ethic and high respect for nature and the wild. She explains how those traits came full circle, eventually resulting in this book.

“And yes, the urge [to write] was prompted by watching Big Bend Station with my father, marveling at insects and wildlife drawn to water, and by my own hopes for the future,” she writes.

His care for the land also prompted D’Elgin to work on water issues in her home away from home. “My San Diego neighborhood, supported by water from the Rockies, is underserved, with no parks,” she writes. “On a manic tear, neighbors and I saved a blighted nearby coastal canyon from being paved, raised half a million, mobilized kids to plant native plants, and won a bunch of environmental awards. One upshot was that I began to understand stuff like disenfranchisement, watersheds, water quality, solid conservation, ecology, regulation, and government intransigence. The other upshot was a willingness to question out loud.”

The book offers deep schooling on the Platte River region of Colorado, a hugely productive agricultural region that battles both drought and flooding; its geography, history, and the state’s water law. We learn, as D’Elgin writes, that “the outcome of initial Coloradan arbitrations would eventually determine water law throughout the arid western United States, the fate of American-grown food, and a good measure of the urgency for this book.”

Many of the issues addressed in The Man Who Thought He Owned Water are pertinent in my home state of California, where the Salinas Valley is known as the “salad bowl of the world” and the state has been rocked by a historic drought in recent years. And those early Colorado water laws have certainly set the stage for similar water and ag conflicts happening in California.

D’Elgin’s thorough research can at time feel overwhelming. But even readers who browse this book — taking in the informative sidebars, tables, definitions and graphs— will learn a thing or two about water policy. From information about the Colorado’s Augmentation Plan to artificial recharge ponds to calculating our “Farm Fare” water footprint, nearly every page holds a huge amount of information. You’ll also score the author’s mother’s recipe for her “Signature Iced Tea.”

Readers will also appreciate The Man Who Thought He Owned Water for its storytelling. The memoir might just move you to laugh out loud one minute and ponder your human existence the next. With lovely descriptions, poetic reflection, and absurdly funny, intimate expression, D’Elgin draws you into each fold of this epic family history.

Her writing about the family’s early effort to settle on the farm, for instance, establishes the stakes with lyrical intensity. She writes:

So we moved. Welcoming us was a plague of cutworm moths, millions of them, and they weren’t much smaller than hummingbirds. We timid city folks took refuge inside. During the day, moths snoozed in powdery brown masses on the window screens, as thick as cafe curtains. Once the sun went down, they were unstoppable in their pursuit of light. We moved stealthily between boxes and disarray, keeping the doors closed and lights off. Everything seemed normal enough as long as it remained dark, but with a flick of the switch, the rooms erupted into a frenzied horror, something midway between The Birds and Mothra. Particularly the rooms that gave off to the outdoors were alive with hundreds, make that hundreds and hundreds, of startled moths. This siege went on for days.

After reading this book, one has the sense that D’Elgin could choose any topic and turn it into a story worth telling. The Man Who Thought He Owned Water is all the more powerful because she manages to embed her personal life within the larger story without seeming self-involved. And it’s for this reason that the book’s message about pollution, diminishing natural resources, and overpopulation makes such a strong impression.

Author photo credit: Diego Lynch.

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  1. Susan Tova
    Monday, June 12th, 2017
    This article demonstrates why I subscribe to Civil Eats. Clear, thoughtful writing, beautiful photos, and urgent subject matters. Thanks for a helpful book review.
  2. Jim Young
    Wednesday, October 17th, 2018
    I can't imagine another book, starting out as interestingly as "Centennial" then diving into all the mysteries I had concerning Colorado's water rights (and management). The gory details thankfully come later in the book, after the careful preparation that kept me up reading as much of it as I could before tired eyes could hold out no longer. The details of the aquifer recharge timing and advantages over above ground reservoirs are welcome background for reviewing, again, the four part series "Tapped Out: The History and Battle Over Water in California's San Joaquin Valley" (which suggests a series of aquaducts, or "assaquia" going back to the source, aquifer recharge points, reservoirs, that I now see with black plastic balls, covers or even proposals like the San Diego County Water Authority for putting floating Solar Panels on their Pumped Storage high reservoir, to limit evaporation).

    In curious coincidence, we saw the series "The Hawaiians" based on Michener's "Hawaii" before we got a non-volunteer assignment to Hawaii (where my wife and I had been military dependents, her parents in the Coast Guard, in which her mother served in WWII SPARS, and my father had served in the Air Force). We didn't bother wasting a volunteer choice since the odds seemed so stacked against everyone who applied, so getting a non-volunteer assignment seemed a miracle.

    While in Hawaii , we heard about the Big Thompson flash flood and read Michener's "Centennial," before finding out we would be assigned there next. We moved during the time the miniseries was being aired, so we were interested in Greeley, Weld County, and the Big Sandy true stories (a little less fictional names than Michener uses). While in Hawaii, we were sorely disappointed with the meat we could buy at the Commissaries, but found out from a Hawaiian friend about a very successful distributor of Colorado sourced meat for restaurants, who's wife was bored and decided to open a retail store for the Montfort meat her husband distributed to restaurants. I must confess we found it not only the best tasting meat we had ever imagined affording, but also so much better in price. My wife's mother would fly out for months at a time (her dad when he could), as her mother showed off her cooking skills learned all over the world, and especially appreciated at the big pot lucks where she had the advantage of such tasty beef.

    Curse you, Tershia, for bursting my bubble and persuading me to step away from any future meals with Montfort meats, the ones I blissfully enjoyed in my ignorance, but, seriously, thank you for enlightening us. Actually we stepped away earlier, and our children are a mix of strict Vegetarians, just occasional carnivores (at least until I tell them the bubble bursting bits about the meta they enjoyed in Hawaii).

    We moved to Lowery AFB in 1979, before buying a home in Aurora, and wondering about the water use policies that required us to limit our lawn size, as so many news stories appeared on people buying up water rights. With two young children and working many hours in the Space Systems Command and Control School, we tended to take any time we could on visiting places children would appreciate more ,for some reason taking short, in state, vacations in Grand Junction as a base to do some mountain areas like where a great great great uncle mining engineer had been killed in an avalanche, before spending a day going back to Aurora through the southern mountains. Weekends were usually day trips to the more local mountains the kids enjoyed more.

    Some other instructors had grown up on the Colorado plains (Kirk), and Fort Collins, Kansas (Salina), or Wyoming, and Neighbors worked on projects in La Junta. From them, we got a feel for what happened when big corporations bought up farm land, thinking they could hire people to farm them any where near as well as farmers my grandfather credited with using the most effective fertilizer, their shadows as they constantly surveyed every inch of their farms to see what was needed at as many points and times as possible. They seemed to find no one, who didn't think they owned the land, or at least the reliable right to farm it to the best of their ability, like Ernesto, the Ackermans, and those like Brad Windell, that helped so many do better, could do it cooperating on the "beneficial uses."

    For a short while after I retired from the Air Force, I worked as dispatcher trainee at Associated Grocers, plotting the truckload deliveries of the company trucks (up to triples pulled down Interstate 25 to the military commissaries in Colorado Springs), and other company truck loads that went all over the rest of Colorado and a bit into some of the 7 states that touch its borders (you learn a lot more than most would know of the outlying towns).

    Then there were the Independents, like one driver who had a refrigerated trailer, coming once or twice a week to keep three little town's grocers stocked. I remember two were Holyoke and Amherst, just like the names around where I went to High School in Massachusetts. He had a 30s Diesel Refrigeration unit on his trailer, that he decided to rebuild in 1984, just because it seemed it would need it. It didn't and he just put it back together and used it as long as I knew him after that. He was a real down to earth part of his community, like my grandfather, so when he told me about the 50's style Model A Hot Rod pick up he was slowly building, with a Mercury flat head V8 and La Salle transmission, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven when I arranged for him to get a two speed vacuum shift Columbia rear end we'd picked up (in Trinidad or Colorado Springs), for $110 (very much below what talented wallet hot rodders would pay). It wasn't the strongest rear axle (though it could be strengthened a bit), but was very much in the spirit of parts that would be blended in the 50s, some stronger than needed (La Salle), and others a little more powerful than original but not enough to hurt the weakest links if driven half way reasonably. I hope it stayed with the kind of people that would appreciate it as much as he did.

    While working 10 years in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (Hawaii and Colorado), I watched from the perspective of low earth orbit satellites, the declining year round snow pack, with evermore concern (not knowing a fraction of the snow issues and factors that would be described in the book). We couldn't get the low orbit satellite pictures, in Hawaii, that might have showed conditions before and after the Big Thompson Flood in 1976.

    When Associated Grocers went bankrupt, we moved out to California where I became an aerospace company tech writer, commuting to in Pasadena for a little over a dozen years. The end of the Cold War caused the gradual shut downs and loss of something like 385,000 aerospace jobs. I could have stayed on longer than most, but, after my dad had joined in 1940, and we had stayed in the military or aerospace industry for 32 years beyond the 22 my dad had (with a brief period at Associated Grocers), I was ready to go see the civilian world.

    I paid for truck driving school and signed up as an OTR driver for Werner, getting paid to tour the country (46 States and 4 trips into Canada), in my version of "Travels With Charlie," a poor imitation of Bill Moyers' 13,000 mile "Listening To America" tour, and a bit closer to a 170,000 mile tour almost as funny as "Mr.Magoo's Don Quixote de la Mancha," with more dissimilar, but still interesting contacts, than John Steinbeck or Bill Moyers.

    I stuck closer to home after a year and a half on the road, getting an A&P certificate and working (part time pay, more than full time hours with volunteering at the college as an Aeronautics department Lab/Teaching assistant and volunteer at outside aviation related events. During that time, I met a lot of pilots that were especially attentive about the reduction in smog from the mid 80's (when we got here and my wife hadn't seen the mountains 25 miles from us for the first 3 months she was here), gradually clearing up so there was far less need for the Instrument Ratings they'd had to use to get students out of the frequent IFR conditions so they could practice where VFR conditions let the students land and take off. More feedback to me on the changing conditions, at least for visibility and smog, though not so much on water or snow (which, since I retired from the college, after 10 years, I don't get as much info from students that like to ski).

    The final retirement gave me the time to start looking into Water issues, fracking, climate change, and other issues (since 2012), learning what I could mostly by just showing up and seeing what many more people were concerned with and working to alleviate. The consistently best connections have been in San Diego County, though I can't make the100 mile trips as often as I'd like. I have settled into going to the North County Climate Change Alliance meetings at the Vista Library, since they seem to have the most consistently interesting mix of presenters, in a non-partisan atmosphere, and people willing and able to participate in making things better.

    The big payoff for me came last week when Marion Sedio put this book in their lending library. I thank my lucky stars, that I picked it up and found it so full of rich details on things that seemed so closely connected to my experiences on the periphery of so many things I wondered about.

    Centennial was entertaining and somewhat enlightening. This, to me, is "Centennial" on steroids, with far more useful, actionable, data, and a model for looking at California's not that dissimilar issues.