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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Desert Water Keeper

Air Date: Week of October 2, 2009

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Photo: Ingrid Lobet

In the desert southwest, water travels all the way from the Colorado River to farmers' fields through a massive and ingenious system of irrigation canals. To make sure the right amount of water flows to each field at the desired time is the job of the "zanjero" or ditch-tender. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet spent a day with José Romo, a zanjero who’s been delivering water to farmers in California's Imperial Valley for more than three decades.

Transcript

YOUNG: When irrigation water eventually does reach the agricultural areas of America’s West, it still needs to be channeled into farmers’ fields. And that’s the task of a zanjero, a person who controls the irrigation canals to bring the vital water to croplands. In southern California, manmade rivers carry the water all the way from the snowmelt-filled Colorado River…. to the hottest, windiest fields of the Imperial Valley desert. Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet drove with one zanjero along the concrete channels, as he sprang in and out of his truck opening and closing gates, fulfilling farmers' daily orders for water.

[SOUND OF GATE BAR; OPENING GATE]

ROMO: My name is Jose Romo, and I'm a zanjero.

[WATER FLOWING INTO IRRIGATION CANAL]

ROMO: Zanjeros, ditch-tender… it depends on what part of the country you're from. But everybody has a zanjero. Anywhere you run water; there’s somebody that has to actually control it, because the water doesn't deliver itself.

[SPLASHING WATER; CLANKING METAL; TRUCK DOOR CLOSES; DRIVING SOUNDS]


Photo: Ingrid Lobet

ROMO: I love the work. Tradition, yes there is a lot of tradition to it. When they first started to do this, they used to do it on horseback.

[TRUCK RUMBLING]

ROMO: You rarely every see a farmer, the owner himself out here. You're dealing with the employees, the foremen, the irrigators, the tractor drivers.

ROMO: Let's see, I gotta make a delivery right here.

[DOOR OPEN; CAR BEEPING]

ROMO: ¡Buenos dias! Cinco pies, doce horas!… ¿Ud. la abre o yo la abro? Ud. la abre por favor.

[METAL CLANKING; OPENING GATE; LOUD, FLOWING WATER]


Photo: Ingrid Lobet

ROMO: They're going to be watering germination broccoli with a pump. They are priming it right now; they’re starting to prime the pump.

[TRACTOR SOUNDS]

ROMO: This is what the whole purpose of our job is - to make sure that the water comes down here, that he can water confidently for 24 hour period, 12 hour period, whatever he needs in order to get that crop germination going.

[ENGINE IDLING]

[AGUSTIN SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: It's crucial, since we're doing broccoli seedlings. If the water comes up just one day late, these seedlings would wither. Fortunately, we're never short of water. And today we're running at full bore.


Photo: Ingrid Lobet

ROMO: They want to hit that window when they plant that crop and harvest that crop, when there is not that much of that particular crop being offered. If they hit that window, they can make a lot more money than let's just say if everybody's crop matures at the same point.

ROMO: Here in the Imperial Valley, it varies but it can get to 117, 118 at times. And it's intense heat. On the average in the winters, the 70s, occasionally you'll go down to freezing at night. But that's kind of rare now. Now, the winters are not as severe.

[GATE CLOSES; CLANKING METAL; TRUCK DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES; DRIVING SOUNDS]

ROMO: You deal with a lot of issues out here.


Photo: Ingrid Lobet

ROMO: They'll take the diesel fuel that powers the motor… that's been stolen before. They'll take the anhydrous ammonia that you use to fertilize your crops. They'll use that for manufacturing of crystal. There is a lot of things going on here. Just in my area alone, I have found four or five labs, you know the residue anyway, what you're left with.

ROMO: The first time I ran into a lab I didn’t even know what I was dealing with. But then you start putting things together. You're talking about ether, you're talking about batteries, you’re talking about different types of acid. Then they come out here; it's an isolated area, usually no one around, and they manufacture a batch and then dump the residue right here where it's at.

[CAR PASSING]

ROMO: I have found so many different things in these canals. It would amaze you. I have found washing machines, driers, bowling balls, briefcases, vehicles, of course, animals. I found a 20 foot old wooden boat [laughing] that somebody threw in the canal because they didn't want take it to the dump. Everyday, you just don't know what you are going to find.

ROMO: Lately, what we’re starting to find, or have found recently in the last five years, are backpacks that illegal aliens either drop or lose. And then you find all their clothes or basically everything they had on their back…

[TRUCK STOPS; DOOR BEEPING WHILE OPEN; HOWLING DOG; RUSHING WATER]


Photo: Ingrid Lobet

ROMO: I' m going to turn this pond loose – I’m gonna use this water down below for another order for today. This guy is finished. He got started at 9 a.m. yesterday and he's finishing up at 8, so basically he only ran 23 hours. But he is done with his water.

[SQUEAKING AND RATCHETING METAL; WATER SOUNDS STOP; TRUCK DOOR CLOSES; DRIVING SOUNDS]

ROMO: I like oldies, heavy metal, hard rock, country western, old style ranchera music from the Spanish stations… Here is the one out of Mexicali, they play the old rock, there is the heavy rock out of Palms Springs, that is 97.7 KPBS, that is my country western out of Yuma, and that is another station out of Yuma.

[COUNTRY ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC]

ROMO: When I was hired, the majority of the people were from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri. Very few Mexicans, Mexican-Americans worked as Zanjeros. Racism? To a certain extent, yes. The Imperial Valley you have to remember is farming; it is close to the border, I mean it is not, "hey, you know, you screwed me up," it is, "you dumb Mexican, you screwed me up." It doesn’t happen as often because you're dealing with a different generation nowadays, but it still exists.

ROMO: Used to be a lot of Japanese down here. I didn't hear that from most of the history books, but my Dad told me there was a lot of Japanese that had a lot of ground, a lot of orchard. And when they got interned in the internment camps, their ground was taken away and sold. But the Valley has a lot of makeup of a lot of people.

[TRUCK AND ROAD SOUNDS]

ROMO: The district still has a plenty of water right now, but down the road I think we are going to see situations like in LA where you are going to be limited to the amount of water you can apply to your fields. It just hasn't reached that level yet here in the Imperial Valley, but it is around the corner.

[TRUCK STOPS; DOORS OPEN; SOUND OF MOVING WATER]

ROMO: The sound of the water is very relaxing. At times when I'm stressed out, I'll just stop and I’ll listen to the water: the different sound levels, different pitches. I like it. I enjoy my job.

[SOUND OF WATER SPLASHING AND BOUNCING IN CANAL]

CURWOOD: Jose Romo has delivered water to farmers in California’s Imperial Irrigation District for 34 years. This profile was produced by Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet.

 

 

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