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Emery County Goes Back, For The Future

Jay Humphries oversees the Emery County Irrigation District. Perhaps more than anyone else, he's aware of the importance of remembering the county's roots. As the canals are piped and buried, memories of early settlement practices like "ditch dipping" (Storing muddy canal water in wooden barrels and using alum to separate the sediment) become less apparent. As modern, PVC pipe invisibly moves water with little or no loss, the most obvious relics of the fights, the sweat and the triumph of taming vast stretches of Emery County, Utah, disappears. So, Humphries decided to do something about it, with the help of Barbara Blackshear, Cultural Resources Specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation's Provo Area Office.

"Barbara's job, once the technology was established," he says, "is trying to retain part of that for future generations and some of what had been done in earlier years." He says he and Blackshear along with Canal Automation Specialist Roger Hansen, also from the Provo office, are working with the Emery County Museum to install kiosks at several locations that will show the canal placement, and their impact on the development of the county. "They've developed some segments that they're displaying in our county museum in Castledale," says Humphries. "And they're trying to get some history done through the schools on some of the earlier projects."

Money for the project came primarily from Reclamation's Salinity Program, and it's Provo Area Office coordinator, Lee Baxter. Because Reclamation has a treaty obligation to Mexico to deliver water not containing more than a certain level of salt, the Salinity Program contributed money to convert ditch irrigation to piped canals historical photo: canal workers(Ditch irrigation can cause salt embedded in the soil to leach into the river). Included in that was money for cultural resources mitigation, in the form of kiosks at canal sites and in the museum. "[Reclamation] wanted to give something back to Emery County," says Blackshear. "We're removing a large segment of their history, so we wanted to give them something back through videos talking about the history of water through the kiosks at the state parks that tell the story of the irrigation of Emery County and how the pioneers dug the canals," she says.

Included among the static kiosks, the Emery County Museum recently installed an interactive video kiosk which contains segments on rock art in the county and a aerial tour of the Little Grand Canyon. More videos are planned, as well as static iosks at Huntington Park, Millsite State Park in Ferron, Muddy Creek, and on the lawn in Castledale. The project makes Blackshear, an archeologist by trade, excited.

"I think for years, federal agency archeologists have been paying for and producing wonderful historic reports that go in a file ... and no one ever sees them. I love the idea of giving something back to the people whose history we're impacting," she says. And the intent of the project is to help tell and carry the story of Emery County far beyond Emery County, says Jay Humphries. "Those kiosks are for the public, not just the locals," he says. "When they visit the parks, they'll be there to remind people what was sacrificed before. It's a good idea."

But, Barbara isn't finished. "This has been a partnership between BOR, State Parks, the Museum, the water district and local historians in the area who have contributed their knowledge of the irrigation story in Emery County. It has been a fruitful partnership, hopefully not just for those directly involved in completing the project, but for tourists and future generations of Emery County folks to understand what it took to make a living in the very early days there."

Historian and author Edward A. Geary says in his "History of Emery County" that "Creative accommodation has continued to characterize the area through it's late twentieth-century transformation from a farming and ranching economy to a rural-industrial way of life." If officials in Emery County have anything to say about it, this project will build a bridge of history between those eras that will never be forgotten.


Last updated: January 22, 2007