Paul Evans stands in a lush corn field on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch and marvels at the changes on this ground over the past 20 years. A couple of decades ago, when he came to the 597,000-acre reservation in the southwest Colorado desert near the New Mexico border, this land near the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain produced nothing. Zip. Nada.

The place was filled with life as only the desert can, but it was brown, sandy, rocky and nothing of economic value grew between here and Shiprock, the famed geologic formation in the distance. So how does the farm, managed by Evans, manage to coax 300-bu. corn out of this parched land that averages 5-7 in. of rainfall yearly?

Irrigation. This 7,700-acre farm is less Story County, Iowa than Al-Fayoum Oasis, an island of green in the Egyptian desert brought to life by ditches filled with Nile River water. In the Utes’ case, the water arrives via a wide canal 41 miles long, pumped south from McPhee reservoir on the Delores River, bringing a wealth of water from the slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

The Utes won a water-rights lawsuit in 1988 that recognized their historic right to the water. About 24,000 acre-feet gravity flows to the farm each year and through 110 center pivots.

Soon after the tribe won the lawsuit, Evans got the job as farm manager. That entailed making a farm from bare desert. He had worked for Servi-Tech, a Kansas-based crop consulting company, dealing with farmers in Ft. Morgan, Colo., Pratt, Kan., and Mt. Hope, Kan.

Just when machines started rolling hard on the project, they encountered Anasazi ruins dating back 700 years in an area known as Cowboy Wash. The Utes consider Anasazi ruins holy places, and current laws require bringing in experts when encountering ruins. The archeologists soon arrived and spent the next three years and about $3 million excavating. Meanwhile, construction continued on the rest of the farm.

Starting from scratch perhaps gave the farm some advantages. Evans and his co-workers had no mistakes by previous managers to correct. They could begin with the latest technology. Soon, he realized the soil was highly productive when irrigated. In those early days, the farm’s irrigation manager, the late Bill Cone, worked out methods for efficiently applying water.

“Bill was a genius. That’s the only way to put it,” says Allen Phelps, the current manager of the high-tech computer-operated irrigation system. “A lot of what we’re doing now is his design. He walked me through it and showed me what to do. We developed a very cost-effective high-pressure system by decreasing pipe size and using a dual-valve combination. It’s pretty elaborate. We run 110 pivots with a three-man crew, including myself.”

Just how the entire project runs still enthuses Evans, all these years later.

“It’s all gravity flow. No pumps. We had to redesign valves and came up with these dual valves we’re now using. It was necessary to ‘farmer-ize’ things, you could say, to tailor things to what we needed. Engineers helped us some. We’ve been fortunate to have smart people working here. That’s the key thing, building a good team of people,” he says.