The Los Angeles Times had an interesting story this weekend about zanjeros, the men who work in the Imperial Irrigation District manually managing the flow of water through canals to the fields there.

The job faces a dim future, the Times says, particularly as San Diego increases the amount of water it gets from the irrigation district. More attention is being paid to each drop of water — and zanjeros still use yardsticks to measure water flows.

The story says:

With the Colorado River basin locked in an extended drought that threatens to empty Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Imperial Valley faces changes that will alter the rhythm of life along canals named Pear and Plum, Dogwood and Daffodil, Eucalyptus and Elder.

Under a 2003 agreement, the irrigation district must eventually transfer 9% of its river allotment to San Diego and the Coachella Valley. Limitations and the sudden need to conserve have shaken an area where water was once considered inexhaustible.

Signs of change already abound. Fields lie fallow. Giant earthmovers march across the desert, replacing a 23-mile segment of the All-American Canal — the valley’s link with the Colorado River — with a concrete-lined channel that will prevent seepage.

With each drop of water needing to be accounted for, an irrigation system that hasn’t changed much since the 1950s will increasingly move to remote sensors and automation. For the zanjeros — who still calculate water flows using a yardstick and were just recently issued mobile phones — the changes will be profound.

“Zanjeros,” according to the story, is Spanish for “overseer of the mother ditch.”


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