html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Mostly right on.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Mostly right on.

This is a pretty good article about zanjeros. I liked the slideshow a lot as well. I'm a trifle surprised I didn't know the word 'zanjero'. I've always heard them called ditchriders or ditchtenders. Guess that's what you get for never visiting districts south of the Tehachapis.

On ditchriders:
Oh man. Ditchriders are the men who make water districts work. Like the men profiled in the article, they drive their canals every shift, controlling water levels in the canal and opening or closing turnouts to growers. Being a ditchrider is a career. They do it for decades and they know their terrain. They are the people responsible getting water to every grower in time for their irrigation event while keeping a several miles long canal from emptying or overtopping as turnouts open and close. It takes years to get good at running a canal; a retiring ditchrider has to train the incoming kid for months or more. I was surprised that zanjero Curiel said that his dreams of flooding out a field went away after a year. The ditchriders I've talked to say they still get them after doing it for twenty years.

I asked my professor if he knew of any woman ditchriders. He said he'd never met one, although there are a few woman water district general managers. I applied to be a ditchrider at Arvn-Ed*son Water District, but they didn't think I was going to stick around for three decades. I would have taken that job too, so I don't think it was very nice of my father to refer to Arvn, Weed Patch and Pumpkin Center as the "tri-city area" and inquire how I was going to choose between them.

Safety and canal design:

Oooh. This picture from the article makes me hurt. No hand rail? No guard? Who designed that? Was he trying to kill the operators? They lean out over those check structures, pulling heavy flashboards out of the water, cranking gates, clearing trash. I have lots of faith in their strength and balance but I would sure like the engineers to give them some advantages.

I was also surprised to read that they collect so many drowned people from their canals. We were taught to put hand rails on both sides of our canals every couple panels. The very good slide show shows mostly unlined clay canals, so I guess there isn't anything to fix hand rails to.

On automation:
Today, the zanjero is an endangered species, his craft too imprecise, his tools too crude to look after water in a region ravaged by drought.

I wouldn't go so far as "endangered species". In California, I'd say that automation is far more rare than manually-run canals. They are right that water districts are moving toward automation. In an ideal, elegant system, you build your canals with weirs that hold water level very steady and you use undershot gates, and your system is inherently stable. This requires less tending by a person and less automation. But you'll still need ways to control gates throughout the system, and a lot of districts will put in some automation.

So they put in SCADA systems (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), which I think were developed to control assembly lines in factories. You put water level sensors along your canal, which talk to your computer in the district office (or call you at night, if the levels change too fast) or tell gates to open or close. Talking to people about their SCADA systems usually ends up being a long conversation about which media they use for telemetry. You'd think they'd want to talk about exciting things like their displays and data manipulation, or their fancy new concrete, but I have listened to hours of comparing phone lines, lines of sight for radio, and getting in on some satellite time. I don't have an opinion about these, so I sorta let the jargon wash over me and watch the crops grow.

My irrigation professor is not one to reflexively promote automation. His main complaint about developing countries is that their water projects are overautomated. He says the canals never work like they were modeled, but operators are given very precise instructions about how to move the gates for every flow rate they measure. He thinks it should be way simpler. 'Paint a white line on the side of the canal.' he says. 'Tell your operator to keep the water level within the width of that white line by opening or shutting the gate as needed.' He says he's never met an operator who couldn't do that. If labor is cheap, put a person at every major structure and they can run that sucker tight as anything.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is awesome, Megan. More, please. -K.

2:47 PM  
Anonymous SwissarmyD said...

hopefully our 150% snowpack will help this year... as for automation... if they are staling parts off of headgates to sell for scrap, what will they do with some fancy automated system?

3:48 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Hah! I forgot! The big huge problem with all that communications gear is that locals shoot them. Yes! There it is, not moving, out in the ag fields, an elevated structure with electronics in it. IT MUST BE SHOT AT!!!

Yeah. So whatever telemetry option they choose, and god knows they want to tell you how they arrived at that decision, it all comes in Very Strong metal boxs. Those are often still pockmarked with bullet marks.

WHY? Why do you stalk and kill the radio boxes? Why? What is the challenge of hunting electronics mounted on a pole? What?

(As long as you are asking the eternal questions of irrigation, you might as well through in:
Why do squirrels eat drip emitters? They do, and so do coyotes. Why? (Not 'cause they are drinking from them. They eat plastic emitters even when the water is off.))

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

Hah! I forgot! The big huge problem with all that communications gear is that locals shoot them. Yes! There it is, not moving, out in the ag fields, an elevated structure with electronics in it. IT MUST BE SHOT AT!!!

As someone who thinks about the user experience, and also someone who does reflexively promote automation, I wonder if there isn't a physical/design solution to this problem.

Maybe instead of (or in addition to) a very strong metal box, the gear could be wrapped in LCD displays that show porn? There has to be some way of giving the locals a stake.

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that taking potshots at landmarks is done from the back of a moving truck. So it's not quite the super-challenging moving target/moving platform shot, but it's not quite fish-in-a-barrel. -K.

6:13 PM  
Anonymous SwissArmyD said...

ah, yes mynocks chewing on the power couplings...

there is something vaguely sweet about plasticisers in electronics and wiring maybe hoses also, my understanding... this is why occasionally a vehicle that is stored will be discovered to have it's wiring and hoses chewed on by critters. Naturally they also usually croak soon after, so then scavengers come, repeat until the unit isn't working.

also? the stealing of scrap is getting way out of hand... over the friday night the catalytic converter from my mom's 1989 fourunner was stolen. according to the police, it had like $15 worth of platinum in it... Toyota wants $800 to replace it, on a vehicle only worth $2k...

so I can see them going out in the fields at night, when nobody is around and cutting off headgates and such. Once they have figured out that the automated systems are worth taking, you can expect a rash of that.

I blame the 18v Sawzall... 'cuz they will cut anything, and are very portable.

On the other hand, you could make it so the radio boxes shoot back...

9:56 AM  
Blogger Megan said...


My sister checked out a Sawzall from the tool lending library and by the end of the weekend it was our BEST FRIEND. Holy crap was that useful. We loved it SO MUCH and we are totally going to marry it and live in incestuous bigamy with the Sawzall.

So no one speaks poorly of the Sawzall around us, OK?

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Ennis said...

Maybe the solution is the ag version of afterschool programs - you know, have basketball so that kids stay off the streets and don't get into trouble? Well, maybe you just need to set up challenging targets places for people to shoot at while they drive, and they'll stop shooting at the big telecom boxes.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Francis said...

Megan, a buddy of mine is going to be the new GM of I I D. You want a tour of how zanjeros do it old school south of the Tehachapis, that's where you want to go.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Dubin said...

The sawzall is my least favorite tool because it is uniquely terrifying to me - that and the chainsaw. I don't really like hand-held tools with blades in general. I prefer their cousins, the ones mounted to a table with a guard. But I'm girly like that.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous doctorpat said...

Over automation in the 3rd world.

Reminds me on when I was in India and the car washes all advertised how they were proudly automatic systems.

This in in a country where the basic wage was $1/day. You could have a team of people with buckets and spounges for the price of the electricity that the automated car wash used.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, people will happily pay extra for a hand wash, because it is better. But you'd never convince the average Indian of that.

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Eric H said...

Sawzall - awesome. Must have pneumatic tools, though.

Shooting at TM gear - I worked with a senior project group at NM Tech for the last few years. I was surprised, but pleased, that one group working a water monitoring project realized that anti-rednecking was a requirement. Pleased that they thought of it ahead of time. They decided to put their gear in the ground. My personal suspicion is that off-duty deputies are to blame.

Finally, back to ditch riding. There is a movement afoot locally to turn the irrigation canals into bike paths. I had always assumed that the district was against it to minimize the liability, but it turns out that they see bike riders as allies. "More eyeballs means more security" seems to be the philosophy. Interesting that, dontcha think? Definitely, props for ditchriders.

5:50 PM  

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