July 2012

The drain game

By David Feela

When I first learned that the gullies along most county roads in the Southwest are referred to as bar ditches, I thought they were named for the unfortunate drivers who’d had a few too many drinks before heading home and ended up in them. Though I was wrong, ample circumstantial evidence exists to make a case for updating the etymology on the subject.

It seems a bar ditch, also referred to as a barrow pit, is just a channel dug for drainage purposes. Irrigation and runoff water sluices through the cattails and the willows, creating a lush and muddy mess along the way, all of it a wetland wonderland, as long as a person can avoid climbing into one to unclog a culvert.

Before I get around to complaining about my bar ditch, it’s only proper that I take a moment to extol the virtues of the entire rural, Southwestern drainage system. It has, after all, been entrenched in the county for a long, long time.

Habitat is a perk for creatures living near one. Nothing is so picturesque as a gallery of Redwing Blackbirds perched on the cattails, supervising traffic while overseeing the future of their young. And then the foxes, skunks, pheasants, feral kittens and cats, dogs, raccoons, and the occasional pair of ducks all make use of the dense growth prompted by a continuous supply of water to sustain and shelter their wild rural lives.

A bar ditch is also a blessing in the spring when the asparagus rises. Vehicles pull to the side of the road and someone in rubber boots or ragged tennis shoes with a sharp knife swiftly collects the tender shoots. Some of these asparagus beds have been producing so regularly and prolifically over the decades that other people would like to keep these locations for themselves. A distant gunshot or a crescendo of barking dogs is usually reason enough to consider relocating, down the road.

Then there are the plumes of dust that drivers spew, often while traveling 20 mph over the posted speed limit, gravel spitting from their tires like nails from a pneumatic gun. Add a stiff wind from the prevailing direction and it’s possible to relive the Dust Bowl era if you own a house beside a county road.

And add to that the mud coating your vehicle’s lower panels up to the door handles when it rains, and you have a fairly obvious transition to the part about me complaining.

My house is in a peculiar position, given the natural rise and fall of the land. If I were to compare my property to a bathtub, my driveway would start about where the drain is located. A 12-inch culvert, probably installed while all of today’s county commissioners were either attending or complaining about Woodstock, channels the runoff from the bar ditch under the road to the opposite side. That’s the plan, and for most of the year it kinda works.

When it doesn’t, like during a downpour of spring, summer, or autumn rain, a sheet of water rolls across my neighbors’ properties and creates a lake where my yard used to be. I am happy to report that since I’ve lived here the water has never washed out the county road, which is what a bar ditch is supposed to prevent, but once a year a drainage flood backs up toward my house, washes a channel out my driveway, spills over its grade, and turns my septic field into a wading pool. That’s when you’ll find me standing ankle deep in a brown sea, praying my shovel was a biblical staff.

The county has graciously scraped my bar ditch free of all its habitat so the water will flow better. Eventually it might install a shiny new, larger-capacity culvert, one that will help handle the flow at these infrequent but peak runoff periods. What the county can’t do, of course, is move massive quantities of dirt until my house is situated on an engineered plateau, so it overlooks my driveway from a vantage that gives me enough perspective to understand why any sane person would have located the house here in the first place.

Speaking of perspective, now that the gulley has been scraped clean, temporarily eliminating the cattails, the willow, the asparagus, and the weeds, I am suddenly able to notice every beer bottle or can that gets tossed overnight from the window of a moving vehicle, and I’m beginning to reassess my initial interpretation about why it’s called a bar ditch.

David Feela is a retired high-school teacher in Montezuma County, Colo.