Pintura Ditch

Prepared by Lindsey M. Evenson, Jennifer Bannick, and Everett Bassett of Transcon Environmental, Inc. for Washington County Water Conservancy District.

This discussion of the Pintura Ditch and Washington County irrigation, located within northeastern Washington County, is condensed from an archaeological study: Washington County Water Conservancy District’s Ash Creek Project—Historic Context for Four Historic Properties, Washington County, Utah (Project) (Evenson et al. 2021). This report was produced by Transcon Environmental, Inc.

Pintura, Utah, first settled in 1858, was among the smallest of a number of irrigation-based communities within Washington County. The Mormons, in an attempt to establish an overland route to southern California coastal ports, founded a string of settlements running southwest from the Salt Lake Valley; this has been referred to as the “Mormon Corridor.” As early as 1852, Brigham Young sent small groups farther into southwestern Utah to test the agricultural potential of the warm climate there (Alder and Brooks 1996; Carter 1948; Jenson and Bradshaw 1950; Larson 1946, 1960).

The first of these southern communities were Fort Harmony, established in 1852; Santa Clara in 1854; Washington in 1857; Toquerville in 1858; Grafton in 1859; and Rockville in 1860. In 1861, with the commencement of the Civil War, national cotton prices skyrocketed. As a result, Brigham Young established the “Cotton Mission” to take advantage of this market, and settlement of Washington County increased more rapidly than previously. St. George, settled in 1861, became the center of an area nicknamed Dixie because of its southern location, climate, and agricultural produce such as sizable amounts of cotton, wine, and sorghum molasses, which were exported to California and other parts of the United States. In addition, the small Washington County farms produced locally consumed commodities such as alfalfa for animal feed, wheat, barley, oats, and potatoes, as well as hot weather crops such as figs, olives, sugar, and almonds. The national demand for cotton lasted until after the Civil War. The Dixie wine industry stayed strong through the 1880s, supported by the region’s mining camps. All these agricultural pursuits required irrigation systems that were unique in the West due to Washington County’s climate, topography, and the influence of the Mormon religion and culture (Alder and Brooks 1996; Carter 1948, Jenson and Bradshaw 1950; Larson 1946, 1960).

Irrigation in Washington County

The most useful resource for understanding historic irrigation and water rights regulations in Washington County is a series of reports conducted in 1902 to 1903 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Experiment Stations titled “Report of Irrigation Investigations in Utah” (Mead 1903). A large portion of this analysis was dedicated to Washington County.

This report acknowledged the unique situation of, and challenges resulting from, traditional Mormon traditions and regulations regarding water use. The report suggested a need to bring Utah’s water regulations more in line with “American” practices: “The farmers of Utah have originated certain methods of cooperative control of quasi-public utilities which seem to be worthy of a wider field of usefulness. The problem now is to provide the measure of public control which is necessary to safeguard and give the best results from this cooperation. It is believed that the report submitted herewith will supply much data which will be of value in settling controversies over rights to water” (Mead 1903).

The report went on to note that the new economic and societal changes observed in the first years of the twentieth century indicated a need for greater government oversight and control. Mead (1903) noted that:

During the early years of settlement in the Virgin Basin there was no provision for acquiring legal titles to either land or water, and without the supervision of the church authorities, acting as arbiters and advisers, there would have been no rule except that of force. With few exceptions, controversies were settled as they arose. In recent years, however, the lack of clearly defined, and legally established titles to water has had many disadvantages and is at present a positive menace to the future of the State. The growing value of water for power purposes, the greater demands of cities and towns for domestic supplies, the lack of unity in religious faith, make it no longer possible to secure a settlement of water-right questions by voluntary agreements or by arbitration under the direction of the authorities of the Mormon Church. The urgent need of Utah is some simple, final method of establishing titles to water and the protection of those titles in times of scarcity.

The enactment of laws to insure this has been delayed because of a fear among the farmers of the State that any system of public control will involve a sacrifice of some of their rights, but an analysis of existing conditions does not show this to be well founded. No system of public control can go farther in defining or limiting rights than the courts have gone in the litigation of the past ten years. The question which the irrigators of Utah must decide is whether the present system of adjudicating rights can be improved upon and how these rights are to be protected when established.

The very early Utah territorial legislature had assigned the selectmen of the various counties as guardians of the streams. Much as they did for range and milling privileges, farmers needed to appear before the selectmen for certificates of water. The county court also appointed water masters as it did tax collectors (Mead 1903). Water titles had received no serious consideration by the turn of the century because development had not reached the point to make it necessary. Mead (1903) noted that the farmers’ practical sense instructed them on how much land the small streams could effectively water. Although this land was immediately irrigated, if another Mormon family wished to share the water or land, they would be allowed to do so. As a result, the watered areas were gradually increased and the available water for each acre lessened, until some of the smaller springs and tributaries came to support populations that severely taxed them. Some misunderstandings of land or water use might have occurred, but if the community members could not resolve these, church authorities often would. Rights to the waters of the Virgin River and its tributaries were granted to individuals beginning in 1856. These grants were filed by the clerks of Washington County and also of Kane County, of which the area around Harmony was part of prior to 1870. Water could be withdrawn for “domestic, irrigation, machinery [milling] and mining purposes.” These grants are wholly tabulated in Mead (1903).

Unlike other parts of the country, the transfers of water rights between individuals in Washington County were rarely recorded. One notable exception was at Quail Creek because of the use made of its water for mining purposes at the Silver Reef and Leeds mining districts. The Mormons of Washington County were more likely to transfer water rights using just a verbal agreement and handshake. Mead (1903) noted that many farmers had neither deed to land nor water or else just an informal record of transfer in the time book of the water master. Because potential conflicts would have been with individuals who shared fields, values, and religion, these were usually worked out without litigation (Mead 1903).

An act passed by the Utah territorial legislature and approved January 20, 1865, provided for the incorporation of irrigation companies. Under this act county courts were authorized to organize irrigation districts, upon petition of a majority of the citizens. The act required that the board of trustees of the company should make annual reports of the progress and condition of the company to the county court (Compiled Laws of Utah, 1S76, Chap. III, sees. 505-528). However, few irrigation companies or districts were established in Washington County during the early years, especially at the smaller systems. Where irrigation companies were established, they provided another mechanism for resolving disputes. This is not to say there was no discord. For example, there was great dissatisfaction caused by the refusal of the directors of the Santa Clara irrigation district to grant water for garden purposes. The citizens of Gunlock and Pine Valley became suspicious of the water users in the lower reaches of the drainage, a situation made worse when it was discovered in 1898 that important pages had been torn out of the record book (Mead 1903).

One advantage to establishing irrigation districts was that some portions of Washington County required capital expenditures well beyond the means of small communities. Typically, the greater the water flow, the larger the canals that needed to be built and the more robust they needed to be to withstand episodic flooding events. The largest of these irrigation projects were at Hurricane and Washington Fields on the Virgin River (Alder and Brooks 1996; Carter 1948; Jenson and Bradshaw 1950; Larson 1946, 1960). Both projects required the construction of large diversion dams, canals, headgates, and flumes

Successful irrigation required both level, irrigable soils and a dependable water source. At Pintura and at these other upper headwater settlements, water was more abundant relative to the small amounts of land available. In these small settlements, land and water together were considered worth from $25 to $60 per acre, but little changed hands and the lack of land appeared to be the limiting factor to an increase in irrigation. In the St. George and Washington Field land, the reverse was the case, with land being relatively abundant but water less dependable (Mead 1903).

Successful irrigation farming in Washington County required strategic decision-making at both the individual and community level, considering nutritional needs, commodity prices, food or forage storage potential, weather, and water and land availability. Irrigation required both level, irrigable soils and a dependable water source (Morgan 1993). Water was more dependable in the Pintura area than in the St. George and Washington Fields areas, but available land was less in Pintura compared to the other areas (Mead 1903).

The economy of Washington County was essentially a cooperative one. The farmers were poor and of modest wants and just 5 acres of alfalfa could be a family’s fortune. If water for irrigation was to be distributed, communities needed to work together until each man had his rightful share. In such an arid environment, this allowed communities to succeed where individual effort would have failed (Alder and Brooks 1996; Mead 1903). In addition, the cost of living in Washington County in 1903 was excessively high. Common labor cost $3 per day. One hundred dollars per thousand feet was paid for lumber freighted from mills 50 or 75 miles away. Provisions of other kinds were freighted by mule teams from San Bernardino or Los Angeles at 10 cents per pound. Exchange was practically all by barter, and cash was seldom in circulation. Prices of produce to pay for work on irrigation ditches and dams were determined in mass meetings of the owners of the land watered. The annual assessment for care and maintenance of facilities similar in size to the Pintura Ditch was from 75 cents to $1 per acre, of which one-fourth was paid in cash and three-fourths in labor (Mead 1903). Given that the land watered by the Pintura Ditch was approximately 75 acres during this period, annual assessment costs at Pintura would have totaled approximately $65. This maintenance included constantly clearing out the ditch, repairing diversion dams and headgates, and the periodic sluicing of the ditch to remove accumulated sand; this would have caused considerable waste of water in the dry season (Mead 1903). The ditches often filled up with silt and vegetation during the winter, and spring ditch cleaning was done by hand by hired labor to ensure the ditch ran clear, especially during the critical spring and summer months (WCWCD 2017).

Figure 1. Diesel pump pumping water into an irrigation ditch, Washington County, 1917 (WCHS 2021).

In addition to diverting natural water flow, irrigation water could be augmented by pumping groundwater. This became possible after the turn of the century when small diesel-powered pumps became easily available (Figure 1). However, the costs of the pumps; digging water wells; and purchasing, transporting, and storing fuel was beyond the means of most small farmers.

The principal products grown in the Virgin River Basin were alfalfa (lucerne) (Figure 2), wheat, and barley. Produce, such as wine grapes, fruits, potatoes and other vegetables, and sorghum, were usually peddled in the adjoining counties as far north as the Sevier Valley, in the mining camps around Silver Reef, and in Lincoln County, Nevada. Sorghum had been commonly cultivated in the early years of the county but, by the turn of the century, its price had been undercut by imported molasses (Mead 1903).

Mead (1903) noted that Utah’s farmers tended to live clustered in villages made up of their neighbors. This compact village type, with the fields at some distance, resulted in the farms being less diversified than was common. There was little opportunity for growing fruit or vegetables except in the small yards where they could receive the requisite care and attention. In a delightful account titled “The Water’s In!” (Brooks 1941), historian Juanita Brooks described how the town irrigation ditch impacted all aspects of life. Although her experiences were in Bunkerville in the early 1900s, they are applicable to Pintura and the other small communities of the Virgin River Basin.

Brooks (1941) noted that:

All who live in the arid lands of the West will appreciate the significance of the words, “The water’s in!” In my childhood that shout was the most welcome news we ever heard. We children would gather on the banks of the town canal to watch the water’s arrival and to throw in sticks and boards. Some of the most daring would get into the ditch and wait until the first little waves, darting into the low places, licked at their bare toes, then run on again. A few would stand still until it came up above their ankles before they clambered out over the high bank. The water, which meant life to us, seemed almost like a living thing as it crawled down the big ditch, nosing its way along with the slithering motion of a snake.

Figure 2. Irrigated Washington County alfalfa cultivation, circa 1917 (UDSH 2008).

Even the routine of chores was determined by whether water was in the ditch. When it was, barrels had to be filled from the ditch, swathed in burlap, and set under a tree to keep cool. Other barrels, including the lye barrel for washing clothes, had to be kept filled to keep them from drying out and falling apart. The ditch water was muddy, and it would take hours for the sediment to settle out; a tablespoon of milk or else the inner pulp of the cactus would settle it more quickly without affecting the taste. However, in the Virgin River communities the water retained a peculiar mineral taste known as the “Virgin Bloat.” Even so, the water was precious, especially in the summer months: “Water was literally measured by the drop; you must never dip a full cup from the barrel; you should take only a little bit, just what you could drink. If you were handed a full cup, you drank what you wanted and gave the rest back for the host to dispose of. Usually, he handed it to the next person, or poured it carefully into a bucket kept for wastewater, to be given later to the chickens” (Brooks 1941). The Saturday bathwater had to serve more than one person, after which it was used to wash out socks or overalls, wash the floor, and, finally, water the roses.

Brooks recalled how sudden storms sent flash floods down every arroyo and draw: “The water would hurry along, covered with a yellow foam which we called ‘Indian soap,’ into the ditch, over it, through the streets, across the fields. In less than an hour it would all be over and nothing to show except gullies washed out, mud and rocks in the streets, and strips through the fields covered with silt. But the ditch! It would be riddled and the places between breaks filled.” When this happened, the whole community needed to unite in an effort to get the water in, repair the ditch, or rebuild the diversion dam. The community watermaster assigned jobs and instructed how much brush, rock, logs, etc. would be required. Time was of the necessity since, until the ditch was repaired, gardens and fields would remain dry and the entire year’s profits could be lost.

Pintura Ditch

The location of what would later become Pintura is a relatively level area of approximately 175 acres at an elevation of 4090 feet above mean sea level on the west side of Ash Creek. This is near to where South Ash Creek and Dry Wash drain the Pine Valley Mountains to the west, debouching into Ash Creek. The soils present are approximately 85 acres of Red Bank Fine Sandy Loam (RAC) on 1 to 5 percent slopes, rated as “prime farmland if irrigated,” and another 86 acres of Nehar Very Stony Sandy Loam (NEF) on 3 to 30 precent slopes, rated as “not prime farmland.” Both soil types have been historically cultivated at Pintura, although the Red Bank Fine Sandy Loam, located on the upstream side of the creek terrace, was utilized more extensively. Pintura was also uniquely sited at the southern margin of the “Black Ridge,” a two-million-year-old volcanic basalt flow that formed a significant barrier to the best route between Washington County and the remainder of the Utah Territory. Beginning in 1852, a series of crude pack trails and, later, wagons road snaked down Ash Creek from the north. After crossing the treacherous Black Ridge from the north, exhausted travelers would stop at the future location of Pintura. In later years, so many wagons stopped at Pintura it became known as the “Great Camp Ground” (WCWCD 2017).

Pintura was first settled by a Mr. Morrill in 1858. Morrill cleared rocks and brush there and established a small ranch (WCHS 2011; WCWCD 2017). Other settlers soon began trickled in, including Thomas Adair and Joseph Birch in 1863 and Joel Johnson in 1866. By 1869 the families of James Sylvester, Jacob Gates, James Snow, Peter Anderson, Andrew Gregerson, Ebenezer Hanks, Chris Tuftt, John Allen, and Edward and Brigham Lamb had moved into the settlement. Johnson “bought out” Morrill in 1866 (WCHS 2011; WCWCD 2017). This probably means he purchased Morrill’s constructed improvements since Morrill never had ownership to his land. In fact, the entire Pintura area was transferred from federal (General Land Office [GLO]) jurisdiction to private ownership as a result of just four transactions, although these were later subdivided and sold by their new, legal owners. Morrill had originally called the community “Ashton” after its location on Ash Creek. In 1868 the name was changed to “Bellevue.” The community was (and is) a branch of the Toquerville Ward of the St. George Latter-day Saints Stake (WCHS 2011; WCWCD 2017).

The population of Pintura fluctuated dramatically over time based on flooding (especially in 1862, 1863 through 1864, 1889, and 1932) which destroyed ditches and other infrastructure. Droughts also caused crops to wither, with the drought of 1881 to 1883 being especially bad. The flood of 1862 was devastating, destroying Old Fort Harmony just upstream as well as Santa Clara and other communities. Due to the lack of dependable water, many families were forced to move on to other Washington County communities or elsewhere within the Mormon sphere of occupation. The 1870 GLO map shows just eight homes in Pintura. At its peak during the 1880s the community had a population of 150, but by 1900, there were just 3 or 4 families; in 1978 12 families were living in Pintura (WCHS 2011; WCWCD 2017).

The Pintura Ditch, which has provided water to the community since 1868, is similar to many other small irrigation systems that diverted water from Virgin River tributaries. Because of the slope of the land uphill from Pintura and the presence of large boulders, the route of the ditch had to meander a bit to keep a consistent slope over a drop of 310 feet (WCWCD 2017). The main ditch alignment is oriented from west-northwest to east-southeast and is 1.56 miles long over a straight-line distance of 1.3 miles. The ditch bifurcates near the end, and a secondary ditch oriented west-southwest to north-northeast runs for 0.45 mile.

The early settlers of Pintura had begun digging ditches by at least 1863. It is not clear if these early efforts were to divert water from Ash Creek or from South Ash Creek. It should be noted that while the community had sole control over the waters of South Ash Creek, some of the upstream waters of Ash Creek were already being diverted at Kanarravile and Harmony. Several years of drought, especially in 1863 and 1864, caused Pintura to be temporarily abandoned. In 1868, increased attention to irrigation facilities occurred, and it is possible the current Pintura Ditch running from South Ash Creek and bifurcated to the fields at the north and south ends of town was completed at that time. Several small ponds serving as culinary cisterns were excavated in town to ensure water was available in late summer when the creeks dried up. The Pintura Ditch was fairly reliable, although severe drought in the years 1881 to 1883 caused many of the settlers to abandon the town (WCWCD 2017).

The original basis of title of water rights around Pintura are fairly well understood. The settlers of Bellevue (Pintura) were given uncontested control of South Ash Creek and of Ash Creek south of the narrows below Black Ridge. This control was based on an award of water for 100 acres by the selectmen of Kane County in 1870 (Mead 1903). It was on the basis of this grant that the citizens of Pintura had the right to build the Pintura Ditch and tap into South Ash Creek. There is no evidence they ever diverted water directly from Ash Creek at this location. By 1903, within the vicinity of Pintura, a number of water companies or communities derived water from either Ash, Kanarra, or Quail creeks or from local springs. Usually, all the water of Ash Creek and the other tributary creeks was diverted into irrigation ditches before it reached the Virgin River (Mead 1903).

The Pintura Ditch was originally unlined. In 1870, a study had been done of developed irrigation on Santa Clara Creek. Thirty-four miles of community canals and ditches had been built at a cost of $55,993, or $1,646.85 per mile (Mead 1903). If similar construction costs were applied to the Pintura Ditch, the 2.01 miles of ditch would have cost approximately $3,310. Water was delivered to Pintura’s fields by way of open ditches and small wooden flumes. However, the flumes were susceptible to rot and, as a result, often collapsed during floods (WCWCD 2017).

During the Great Depression, the Works Project Administration was very active in Washington County. Among other projects, they constructed a windmill for pumping groundwater at Pintura as well as a 16,000-gallon-capacity tank to hold the water. This provided culinary water for humans, a healthier alternative to the ditch water, as well as providing water for cattle and orchards during periods of drought. The tank has been refurbished twice since 1941 (WCWCD 2017).

In April 1941, the Pintura Irrigation Company was incorporated with a capital stock valued at $15,960. This was divided into 90 shares of primary stock of a par value of $120 per share and 129 shares of secondary stock of a par value of $40 per share. The Pintura Irrigation Company had rights to 1.64 cubic feet per second (cfs) and was later assigned an additional 1.87 cfs. These rights were probably limited to South Ash Creek. Costs were assigned to each shareholder for the maintenance and improvement of the ditch and other facilities. These costs were assessed to each shareholder according to the par value of the stock held and could be paid in part by working to maintain the ditch (WCWCD 2017).

Since 1941, efforts to maintain the ditch have been inconsistent, based mainly on the number of families living in Pintura and on the number of shareholders. At times, the ditch was very well maintained and at other times it was neglected (Jesse Smith, Pintura resident since 1969, quoted in WCWCD 2017).

The capitalization of the Pintura Irrigation Company allowed improvements to the system to be made that were not possible previously. These have mostly been made within the last 30 years. These included diverting most of the water from ditches into buried steel pipes. In addition, a pipe was hung over Ash Creek to irrigate approximately 35 acres on the south side. In 2010, the Utah Division of Water Rights noted that the system included 11 “reservoirs” (small ponds) totaling 18 acre-feet and irrigating 133 acres (UDWR 2021). The community continues to supplement its water supply with the community well and water tank (WCWCD 2017).  


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Evenson, Lindsey M., Everett J. Bassett, and Jennifer L. Bannick. 2021. Washington County Water     Conservancy District’s Ash Creek Project—Historic Context for Four Historic Properties, Washington County, Utah. Prepared by Transcon Environmental, Inc. On file at the Utah Division of State History.

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____________. 2021. “Photo of one of the first water pumps in the Enterprise area.” Washington County Historical Society, Photo WCHS-01259. Contributed on January 12, 2012 by the Dixie State College. Accessed March 06, 2021, at:

Washington County Water Conservation District (WCWCD). 2017. Ditches, Diversions and Dam Determination: A History of Water Development in Washington County, Utah. Washington County Water Conservation District, St. George, Utah.