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Meet the ditch riders who keep the Phoenix area irrigation water system flowing

Phoenix was built on the remains of an ancient Hohokam city. When the first settlers arrived, they built their farms around irrigation canals the Hohokam left behind. But they were at the mercy of the river. In the early 1900s, the farmers got together, and, with the help of the government, built a dam to harness the Salt River.

The canals soon had a system of irrigation ditches called laterals, which linked farms and homes to the main canals.

For a time, they were such a vital part of life in the Valley that people gave their lateral number rather than their street address. Today, about 24,000 people still irrigate their lawns and gardens. Although gravity does a lot of the work, it takes a person to operate the gates and valves in the system. They’re called zanjeros.

“Another word for it would be ditch rider, or irrigator,” said Patrick Krause, a zanjero for Salt River Project.

In the old days, the ditch riders made their rounds on horseback. Now they drive SRP trucks and keep track of deliveries on a computer. The days are long.

“I’m up about 2:20 in the morning. At work by 4:15. My actual start time is 5. End time is 5,” Krause said.

It’s important to make sure that things run smoothly and that everyone gets enough water. Or, that they don’t get too much.

“You can’t be late,” he said.

Occasionally his role is to keep the peace. Because as residents open or close gates on their property during deliveries, it’s possible to get too much, even steal your neighbor’s water.

“All day long every day. Happens all day every day. We are putting out those type of fires,” Krause said.

SRP’s Water Delivery Services Director Erica Trapp says it’s more common for the deliveries to bring people together.

“Water’s delivered 365 days a year,” Trapp said.

Irrigation also saves customers money.

“It’s much less expensive to irrigate your property with raw, flood irrigation than it would be to install a sprinkler system and use domestic potable water to sprinkle,” she said.

The only thing that customers pay for is the delivery system – things like canals, maintenance.

“Flood irrigation is a really great way for a community to stay together. It encourages neighbors to talk together to meet each other, it encourages them to work together.”

Dori DiPietro and Scott Butler, of Phoenix, agree.

It’s a great way to get to know your neighbors and to create a sense of community, right?” DiPietro said.

The couple says they have been able to grow trees and have a thriving garden. That helps offset the heat island effect. Heat islands are urban areas with lots of concrete and not much shade.

“We have an ecosystem on our block because of the vegetation that irrigation has allowed us to have that’s about 10 degrees cooler than other places in the Valley,” DiPietro said.

So, although zanjeros no longer ride on horseback, irrigation goes back to a vital part of the Valley’s history.

“It is a sense of like we’re all in this together, and a sense of community that develops from irrigating,” DiPietro said.

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Ron Dungan has lived in Arizona for more than 35 years. He has worked as a reporter, construction worker, copy editor, designer and freelance writer. He's a graduate of the University of Iowa, where he was a member of the undergraduate Writers’ Workshop, and has a master’s in history from Arizona State University.Dungan was an outdoors reporter and member of the storyteller team at the Arizona Republic, where he won several awards, and was a contributor on a border project that won the 2018 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.When not working, Dungan enjoys books, gardening, hanging out with his German shorthaired pointer, backpacking and fly-fishing. He's a fan of the Arizona Cardinals and Iowa Hawkeyes.