Utilitarian architecture has long provided photographers with artistic opportunity. From cooling towers to power lines, functional structures with no intended aesthetic mission dot the landscape and become a banal background to the everyday scene. However, when images of these structures are collected together, their unique forms assert interesting visual possibilities.
My goal with these photographs is to bring attention to an overlooked form of modern utilitarian architecture that is central to the commoditization of nature. Gage houses (or 'chart houses' to others) are simple, often hand built structures for housing water flow measuring equipment. They are central to water management as they are sited near the headgates of ditches where unmanaged nature and cultural practices meet. Each structure is unique and expresses a frugal functionality of the builder. I see a certain beauty in these structures that anonymously enable our use of water in the west.
During the nineteenth century, European-American's scrambled to accumulate wealth and resources by taking pelts, minerals, land, and of course water as they moved westward across the continent. Converting public domain natural resources into private wealth was the unstated mandate of the times. Simultaneously as Colorado emerged as a political entity, the doctrine of prior appropriation developed to reward those who first diverted water with legal title to its use. The prior appropriation doctrine made water a tradable commodity. With the right to divert came the right to buy and sell water. However, one big problem quickly became apparent: like all salable commodities, one needed accurate measurement of quantity in order to trade water.
All of us have heard about bushels of wheat and even pork bellies as units of commodity exchange. For water, it is the acre-foot. Easily said, but water's fluid nature poses a special challenge for measurement. For more than 60 years, starting in the mid nineteenth century, engineers struggled invent reliable structures that could accurately measure flowing water. Out of these efforts came devices called "measurement weirs" which provided estimates of water flow. It wasn't until the 1920's that Ralph Parshall, a professor at Colorado State University, perfected a simple and accurate water measurement device that now bears his name: the Parshall flume. Parshall flumes are shaped to allow a person to take just one measurement, water depth, to get an accurate flow reading. These flumes use simple instrumentation to record flow, and the instruments are protected in sturdy weatherproof gage houses. Today, Parshall flumes and their gage houses are found all around the American west.
Gage houses are small buildings about the size of old fashioned out-houses and are found almost everywhere people record water flow. Gage houses come in many rugged shapes, and are an integral, if underappreciated feature of water management in the west. These photographs document a sample of these structures found at historic ditches in and around Boulder, Colorado.
Bob Crifasi is Water Resource Specialist for the City of Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks.