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Column: Curious about water year? Take a look at Job’s Peak

Marie Johnson

Old ranchers say if we still have snow on Job’s Peak on the Fourth of July it will be a good water year. In short water years, I stressed about trying to keep the fields green and the cows fed, yet cussed the grass in my front lawn for growing so fast. A cruel joke. I would be sweating and swearing, pushing my heavy, mean lawn mower around. I was burning gas and breaking blades to keep the thick grass from topping out, because the kids have grass allergies, while the cows would bawl to be let out to clean pastures whenever I drove in a field to change an irrigation box.

To stretch short water, I would build up rock dams in our dirt ditches, forcing water over the banks. The ditch water would be so numbing cold and the rocks so sharp and heavy from the water rushing against them, I could cut my hands, not noticing the pain until I actually saw red blood seep through my gloves. Some of the ditches would be so deep and cold, when I was done I would need to go to the house and take a cold shower, crying because the cold shower felt like it was burning the raw skin on my body. I would shiver until I could turn the cold water to warm, then finally hot, stopping the spasms in my arms and legs.

In the late summer, when the West Fork of the Carson River flow decreases, to supplement it, my husband and I drive up into the mountains and open the reservoirs built by his grandfather, in cooperation with other area ranchers’ grandparents. These earthen dams built with horses and shovels on a mountain side were probably as much of an achievement then as it would be today to push the paperwork around trying to even get permission to build a reservoir. Water is sacred – ask anyone who has it and anyone who wants it.

The first summer my husband Kent told me he needed to go “turn on” Red Lake, one of the reservoirs, 25 miles up Highway 88 from here, I laughed. “How” I asked, “with a switch or a key?”

“A key,” he answered, and sure enough, he had one. A little brass key that opened a lock on a heavy, iron chain that was wrapped around a large, thick, metal wheel, which opened a valve in an earthen dam to let water drain out of the lake. The water flowed into ditches connecting to the river. After opening the valve, Kent would walk down along the ditch for hours, looking for plugs or breaches.

An aunt from Minnesota, whowe call Silly Alice, and my mother were visiting during one of the times we had to go “turn on” the lake, so they came along, plus my then only son Kyle, who was barely 2. Knowing getting the water would go into evening hours, I brought along hot pizza to eat after Kent finished checking the drainage. Kyle did not like waiting in the cool, summer evening with the mosquitoes.

So, the three of us ladies decided to distract him by doing a scared water dance we called La Cucaracha. We jumped around the valve wheel, waving our arms to ward off mosquitoes or evil spirits, depending on your imagination, and making lots of noise and laughter. After a time, Kent reappeared. He thought we were scaring off bears.

The rest of the night, we ate cold pizza and looked at the quiet lake built by sweat and sinew.

n Marie Johnson is a Fredericksburg, Calif., resident and is married to Kent Neddenriep. They have two sons, Kyle, 10, and Bradley, 7. Her column, “Fence lines,” appears once a month.