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An important lesson in terminology

May 21, 2010

Imagine you’re driving down a west Nebraska highway with a friend.

Suddenly, they holler, “deer in the borrow pit!”

You think, “Borrow pit? What the heck’s a borrow pit?”

And BLAMO! Your car collides with a deer that has just run up out of the ditch.

I am from Illinois. In Illinois, we call this portion of the roadside a “ditch”:

In an Illinois winter, your car slides into the ditch. In a west Nebraska winter, your car slides into the borrow pit.

Maybe not everyone here uses the term “borrow pit”, but I’ve heard it often enough that I feel the need to explain.

Actually, it makes sense not to use the word “ditch” for the roadside structure around here. While in wetter places the roadside ditch may actually carry water, here in drier western Nebraska, if there’s a low spot next to the road, it may have been more of a byproduct of road construction. When building up the roadbed, a “pit” may have been created where soil was “borrowed”.

Yes, ditches carry irrigation water here, and a ditchbank often refers to the (often dirt, often puncturevine-covered) road adjacent to an irrigation structure, which is driven regularly during irrigation season to check water flow.

But the terminology isn’t quite that simple.

I asked about the difference between a “canal” and a “ditch”. While generally a canal is bigger than a ditch, people use the terms interchangeably. And there was a whole new term: “lateral”.

I let Dean Yonts, engineer with the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center, take this explanation:

Lateral describes those smaller “ditches” that carry water from the main canal and distribute the water further and finally to farmers fields where the water empties into their field ditch. But size of the canal or ditch can vary. For example, a big irrigation district may have a main canal and several smaller laterals that feed other laterals before getting to a farmers field. On the other hand, a small irrigation district may have a main canal that is smaller than the big irrigation districts laterals.


I’d like to learn more about how this all works. UNL sponsors a water tour every year, but the registration fee is $600! (Eeep again!) Perhaps I’ll just continue on my little self-study program . . .

And now for the photos:

Ummm . . . I’m guessing lateral? Or is it a canal?

Are we at ditch-level yet? Or is this still a lateral?

This one’s easy! It’s a canal. The sign says so.

And now, if you recall my previous post on tumbleweeds, and how they can be a problem with irrigation structures, I present to you “canal (I think) with tumbleweed clot”:

At every bend in the canal, tumbleweeds were piled up six feet high. How’s the water gonna get through? Boo, hiss, tumbleweeds!

It’s now coming up on irrigation season in western Nebraska. (Though we sure seem to be getting a lot of rain/snow lately!) The irrigation water should soon be released along the canals/laterals/ditches.

Happy irrigating!

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2010 11:27 pm


  2. June 6, 2010 9:30 am

    LOL…when I first heard someone talk about the ditches along the highways, I thought they were saying “bar pit” and it was years before I figured out the word they meant was “barrow” 🙂

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