Pioneers were always thirsty

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Erastus Snow would be stunned at how adept his little desert community has become at capturing water.

Snow was an early leader of the small Mormon colony of St. George, Utah, in 1861. The colonists struggled for decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to deliver sufficient water to meet even the minimum needs of their people.

The hardships they endured provide insights into 21st century attitudes about the use of water and its conservation in modern St. George.

The annual precipitation in St. George is only 8.3 inches, and capturing water from the Virgin River proved so difficult that the pioneers endured severe food shortages.

Brigham Young tasked the colony of St. George with the cultivation of cotton to supply other Mormon colonies in case the Civil War disrupted supplies. The theory was that the farmers in and around St. George would be able to trade cotton for grain and other food crops to make up for the food they weren't growing. It didn't always work out.

Floods on the Virgin River destroyed pioneer efforts at diverting water into irrigation ditches.

Many of the colonists were originally from the Deep South and showed their affection for "Dixie" by applying the name liberally. Today, the college in St. George is called Dixie State College of Utah, and the surrounding national forest also bears the name.

Author Andrew Karl Larson documented the trials faced by the pioneers in his book, "I Was Called to Dixie."

In 1861, floods slowed progress on the Virgin Ditch and Dam. Erastus Snow reassured the colonists there was still time to plant wheat and sugar cane. He gamely predicted that corn planted on July 1 would still have time to mature. But there was insufficient water to keep the crops alive, and the colonists struggled to get by.

Snow served on a committee that investigated digging a deep artesian well to irrigate lands that couldn't be served by the Virgin Ditch.

The drilling was arduous, but G.G.R. Sangiovanni, editor of the local newspaper The Cactus, urged perseverance to his readers.

"The artesian well has reached a depth of nearly three-quarters of a mile and the boring is still progressing. Why should we give up?" Sangiovanni wrote.

But the well drilling was abandoned short of its goal.

By 1864, the pioneers were facing a desperate food shortage. Thousands of fruit trees and grape vines were damaged by drought.

The term for domestic water in Utah is "culinary water." The pioneers relied on water that was channeled through St. George from irrigation ditches and ran in front of their homes in a similar ditch.

"A common institution in all the villages was the morning hour for dipping water from the ditch to fill the barrel that supplied the family by day," Larson wrote.

The dipping hour was from 6 to 7 a.m., and it was a necessity of domestic life. To fail to fill the family barrel meant pioneer families might have to endure water that was cloudy with silt and had a higher-than-usual content of cow manure.

During the late 1800s, the town government undertook several efforts to build canals and flumes from Pine Valley Mountain, 18 miles away. They invested as much as $10,000 in the plans. Ultimately, they also failed.

Finally, in 1897, a man named Brigham Jarvis, together with surveyor Isaac MacFarlane, proposed building a daring new canal of stone masonry high along a canyon wall. The Washington Canal Company formed to build the Hurricane Canal. The improbable engineering feat paid off. By 1909, St. George borrowed and taxed to develop a municipal water system. At last, in 1912, the dipping hour was discontinued and all of the homes in St. George enjoyed water piped into their kitchens.

Longtime residents of St. George haven't forgotten how precious water was to their ancestors.

Ron Thompson is the district manager of the Washington County Water Conservation District in St. George.

He grew up to the north in Cedar City, where the climate is milder. But his grandparents reminded him of how difficult water has always been to come by in St. George.

"I had grandparents here in the 1950s who were on water rationing every summer," Thompson said. "Back then, you could get a ticket for washing your car or watering your lawn."

The quest for water in St. George continues.

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