By Antoine Abou-Diwan
Manuel Escobar has, arguably, one of the most important jobs in the Imperial Valley, but not many people know what he does.
Bankers are oftentimes left scratching their heads when they see his credit card application. “They say, ‘what is a zanjero?’” he says with a laugh and a shake of his head.
Escobar is a zanjero. He delivers water to farm fields by opening and closing the Imperial Irrigation District’s water canal gates by hand, one at a time.
Escobar’s day starts early. He checks his water delivery schedule at the IID’s office in Holtville before driving to the field in his pickup with some rudimentary tools in the back. Forty-two acre-feet of water need to be delivered to six farms during a 24-hour period on this chilly January morning.
His job appears easy enough: raise a canal gate, leave it open long enough for the right amount of water to flow through, and close it when done.
The IID’s water delivery system is gravity fed, and water, once in it, does not sit still. It needs a place to go.
“Water is like fire,” Escobar explained. “Once it starts going you can’t control it.”
He starts his run at the Oasis Heading. He unlocks the padlock that keeps the gate locked, cranks the wheel to pull the gate up several inches, and water rushes into the lateral canal from the East Highline Canal.
“Now we start working,” he said as he jumped in his truck and raced west away down a dirt road.
Escobar has very little time to get to the next gate to open it. If he’s too late, the canal overflows.
“Everything I do out here is by timing and my map,” he said, tapping a sheet of paper covered with numbers. Indeed, his “map” is a series of numbers that he checks off as he operates the gates throughout his day. He starts with 42 acre-feet of water. His first delivery is 4.5 acre-feet of water to a farm just outside Holtville.
He holds a yard stick against the gate with one hand and uses a lever to pry the gate up with his other hand.
“If I open it about 3.5 inches, that should give you 4.5 acre-feet for 24 hours,” Escobar said.
He does some quick math, subtracting 4.5 acre-feet of water from the 42 acre-feet he started with, leaving 37.5 acre-feet of water to work with for the remainder of this 24-hour run.
The next field is due 6 acre-feet of water, and there is no time to waste.
The IID delivers more than 3.1 million acre-feet of water every year over 1,600 miles of canals, and relies on just 125 zanjeros to keep the system running smoothly. Most of the gates are hand-operated. Water from the IID’s canals is used to irrigate thousands of acres of crops, and the way zanjeros make it flow has changed little during the past 100 years.
“I do this every day, but I love it,” Escobar said. “I work like this,” he added, illustrating how quickly he works by snapping his fingers rapidly.
Escobar has been a zanjero for 15 years, but knew the locations of the IID’s gates before he joined the IID.His work for a fertilizer company took him out to the fields, where he got to know the land and the irrigators that depend on him.
However, his job is not easy, he said, and there was a learning curve that was all-consuming.
“The first two to three months — all you dream about is water. It’s uncomfortable,” he said.
Because he’s racing against the water in the canals, he needs to know where he is at all times, and where the next gate at the next field is. The dirt roads are not marked, he starts his shift in the dark, and it’s easy to get disoriented. Accidents happen.
“You become a good zanjero when you crash your truck, leave your gate high and run a canal over,” he joked.
But what if he does crash his truck or has a flat tire?
“Then I’m in trouble,” he said.
But that’s when the relationships he has with irrigators make all the difference for Escobar as well as the farmers who depend on his work.
He said he finds an irrigator to drive him out to the next gate.
Mechanical breakdowns are not the only things that make a zanjero’s job difficult.
He can’t take a day off when it rains.
“It gets muddier than heck,” he said. “You can’t say ‘I don’t want to go out.’ You have to go out there,” he said, and sometimes that means leaving his truck behind and walking to the gate.
Typically, it’s the little things that make Escobar’s job uncomfortable, things that people who have conventional jobs may take for granted.
“There are times you feel you need to (go to the restroom), but you can’t,” he said, noting that water in the canal doesn’t wait for anybody.
Despite the long hours outdoors, Escobar said he enjoys his work, and takes it seriously.
“Look around,” he said. “Nobody is after me. That’s why I’m responsible.”
This story first appeared in the Imperial Valley Press, February 16, 2013.