Water Career Spotlight - Zanjeros from Maricopa Water District

Head Gate at Lateral Canal
Using a Weir Stick
Gate in an empty lateral
gate in empty lateral
Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Congregate on Twitter at: 


There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different types of professionals ensuring our daily water needs are met. One virtually unknown, but very important career for many Arizona water delivery systems are zanjeros, which is Spanish for “ditch rider.”

Zanjeros have been functioning to move water from one canal system to another for hundreds of years. As the Salt River Project (SRP) website states: “For as long as there have been canals, there has been the zanjero”.

Over the next couple of months, we will be focusing in on the role of the zanjero in Arizona’s water delivery systems. We will start by showcasing zanjeros who work for the Maricopa Water District (MWD), which has the notoriety of being “the only privately financed reclamation project of its kind” and was a pivotal water project for the Phoenix West Valley area. (Click link to learn more about the Beardsley Family and early MWD project history.)

Historically, the MWD system was a private water delivery project initiated by George Beardsley and taken over by his brother, William, after his death.  The original vision for the project was to use the Aqua Fria River to create a reservoir, a diversion dam, and a series of distribution canals to deliver water to the West Valley area. Although the project started in 1892, the multiple-arch dam wasn’t completed until 1928. Initially, it was named the Carl Pleasant Dam after the engineer who designed it. The resulting reservoir was called Lake Pleasant. The dam would be renamed the Waddell Dam in 1964 after an investor from New York who had a financial interest in the project.

When the Central Arizona Project (CAP) was being planned in the 1970s, the CAP needed a storage reservoir along its 336-mile route through central Arizona. Lake Pleasant proved to be the ideal location to store the vast amount of water which would be pumped in from the Colorado River. Successful negotiations between the Bureau of Reclamation, the Maricopa Water District, the State of Arizona, and the CAP allowed MWD to maintain its original water right of 157,600 Acre-feet.  A new earthen dam, the “New Waddell Dam”, would replace the “old” multi-arch Waddell dam and increase water storage capacity over 7-fold.

According to the George Cairo Engineering Inc. website, the MWD was formally organized in 1925 “as a political subdivision and an irrigation and water conservation district.” Today the MWD provides water and power to a service area of approximately 60 miles. Its main water storage and delivery system begins below Lake Pleasant, where the Hank Raymond Lake becomes the MWD’s “regulatory storage” area. From there, water flows through the 33 mile long Beardsley Canal to approximately 100 miles of laterals, sub-laterals, and pipelines throughout  the MWD Service Area, serving the needs of farms, businesses, and residents in the West Valley.

While MWD is much smaller than the CAP and the SRP, it is no less important. It serves some of the Valley’s newer developments, an area ranging from Sun City Grand, off Route 60, and heading south to the Perryville State Prison complex in Goodyear, just north of I-10. An area this size is big enough to keep MWD’s zanjeros very busy.

Zanjeros Bradley Bowers and Joe Morales from Maricopa Water District share their knowledge and experiences as zanjeros below. Let’s take a closer look at what they do for our community.

APW: What are your daily activities as a zanjero?

Bradley: Each day I’m given orders for water that must be filled. The water orders come in from farmers here in Surprise, irrigators, and from construction companies. Construction companies often create temporary holding ponds and use water for dust suppression. For example, off Waddell Road and the 303, there is a construction site for a new Costco that is being built. We deliver them water for dust control.

Other water orders go to water treatment plants, which are located at multiple sites, from Lake Pleasant all the way down towards Cactus Ave. The water going to some of these treatment plants gets filtered and put back into the canals to help clean it up a bit before ultimate delivery.

Joe: About 24 hours before our workday starts, we get our water orders for the next day. All the farmers, and anyone who wants water, orders it through our Water Master at the Main Office. Knowing the water orders the day prior to delivery helps us pre-plan our water deliveries for the next day. We usually start work at 5:00 AM, but a water delivery could be needed at 5:00 AM. The advance orders help us plan for delivery.  If we have a 5:00 AM delivery order, we may need to start a little earlier. It gives us an idea of what needs to be set up for the water to get where it’s going. We have to make sure there is enough room in the lateral canals to hold the volume of water ordered. We use basic math and conversion sheets to make sure our water volumes are correct. (Note: lateral canals are essentially ditches or smaller canals that move water from the main water supply canal – Beardsley Canal in the case of MWD – and move water into the farm irrigation system.)

APW: How do you measure flowing water in the canals to know how much to deliver?

Bradley: We use a “weir stick” which is essentially a measuring stick marked in inches. One weir stick goes up to about 30-45 inches and we have another one that extends from about 6-8 feet to about 14-15 feet and can reach into deeper structures to determine water levels. So we measure the water as it flows over weirs into the lateral canals.  We can calculate the volume of water being delivered by measuring the height of the water as it flows over the weir and knowing the width of the lateral canal. For example, if we have a lateral with a width of 40 inches and the height of the water flowing over the weir is 2 inches, then we are delivering 80 miner’s inches of water. (Note: A weir is a structure which controls the flow of water to an outlet; similar to a dam. See pictures.)

APW: Can you tell us more about the math you use to determine water volumes?

Joe: We work in miner’s inches of water. For example, water flowing at 1 cubic foot per second (cfs) equals 40 miner’s inches of water. We determine the (miner’s) inches using a weir stick which is inserted into the lateral canal. A weir stick is basically a big ruler (see pictures). The flow and arc of the water off the weir stick tells us how many inches of water are being delivered. 
To measure the flow with the weir stick, we use wooden boards to hold back the water in the lateral to create a waterfall. Once we have a waterfall, we use the weir stick to attach to the board while the water is flowing over it. We can determine the amount of water flowing through the canal by the height of the water flowing over the board. The weir stick rests on the top of the board and then we can take a reading of the water flow.

The amount of water being delivered also depends upon the width of the canal. We have canals that are 30, 40, and up to 60 inches wide.  The height in inches on the weir stick multiplied by the width of the lateral gives us the volume of water that is being delivered. For example, if a customer is supposed to get 120 inches of water, and the width of the canal is 60 inches, then you’d want to see a height of 2 inches of water on your weir stick.

APW: What is a miner’s inch of water?

Bradley: A miner’s inch is a flow rate for water. It’s 11.22 gallons of water per minute or 1 cubic feet per second. The Water Master determines the actual volume needed to meet customer demands. In the field, we have conversion sheets we use. Sometimes we may be asked by customers how long it might take to fill their pond area and we have field resources to help us determine that.
APW: How do the water orders get processed?

Joe: The orders go through our office and are processed by our Water Master. The Water Masters are really the central hub of information for everything going on in the canals. They order the water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP) at Lake Pleasant and MWD stores its allocation of water in the Hank Raymond Lake right below the Waddell Dam on Lake Pleasant. All the water orders from every customer get entered into a computer system. The Waste Master must balance all the water orders, as well as possible storm events, to make sure the canals are properly allocated and won’t overflow. The Waster Master creates a duty list of water deliveries for each zanjero to fill throughout the day at different customer locations.

APW: How does the water get distributed to the fields?

Joe: It depends upon how the lateral or sub-lateral canals are set up to interconnect to the main canal. The laterals have a pipe or a box-like area where we can remove boards to allow the water to flow from the main canal to the smaller lateral or sub-lateral canals. Once the water begins flowing, we can measure its flowrate to ensure the customer’s needs are being met.

APW: What happens during a large storm event? Can the canals over fill?

Joe: We have contingency plans in place in case of large, sudden storm events which could occur during monsoon season. There are locations along the canal system where we can safely release water if we need to prevent the canals from overfilling. For example, there is a spot along Grand Avenue and the 303 where the water can be released into a dry wash area. We have numerous locations like that to “flush out” water and prevent flooding
APW: How is your role as a zanjero important to supplying water?

Bradley: Zanjeros are the front-line people to make sure the proper amount of water is diverted from the main canal and into the lateral canals for farm/customer use. We’re supplying all the water they need for their fruits and vegetables. Really, we’re supplying water for everything they need. Water is the “bloodline” for food production; you have to have it.

We also have to make sure they always have water available whenever they need it. This may require special precautions to be taken to help protect the crops. For example, we may have to reduce the potential for really cold water that’s left overnight in the system to damage crops. We call that slug of water “freeze water” or “frost water.” Cold water problems are not a huge problem here in Maricopa County, but we do have a way to counter potential problems with cold water damaging crops. We do this by mixing warmer groundwater from MWD wells into the surface water lines to warm up the water being delivered.

APW: In addition to farmers, irrigators, and construction sites, are you also supplying water to residential areas?

Bradley: No, residential water is regulated to a differ degree than our water. Residential water must be treated by a water treatment plant to meet drinking water standards. However, we do deliver water to golf courses for their ponds and greens. On average, I deliver water to seven golf courses every day. They use a lot of water.

APW: What made you decide to become a zanjero?

Bradley: My brother used to work as a zanjero for MWD. He told me about an opening. MWD is very family oriented. They help you make sure family comes first and they have great benefits, like retirement. Really, the whole benefits package is great.

I’m in my 30’s and have already done a lot of different things. I have served in the military, I’ve run my own business, I was a bartender, but what appealed to me about this job was job security. You never know what is going on in the world and when I found out what this job entailed, I thought “this is an awesome job!” I got called in for an interview and got hired. I have never looked back since day 1. I wish I would have known about this job 15 years ago!

Joe: I have an Associate’s Degree in Maintenance and Mechanical Engineering and I am an AC Technician by trade. I found out about the zanjero position from a family friend who works at MWD and who knew a zanjero position was opening soon. I had no idea that this job existed. I never heard of it before my friend told me about it.

APW: How long have you been with MWD?

Bradley: Going on a year and six months.

Joe: I’ve been in this position since last October (2019).

APW: As a zanjero, do you have to do any physical repairs on the canals?

Bradley: There are times that we do help with maintenance.  We always work in pairs on maintenance work. For example, if there is a structure 4-6 feet deep that needs some work, we may use a ladder to go down inside and build a temporary weir using wood we cut. We stack the wood to a certain height, so we know how high to fill it with water. Once we get a good flow over the improvised wooden weir, we monitor it for about a week and then take measurements and sent the measurements to a company that will make a metal check gate for us and we will replace the temporary wooden gate we created with the customized metal check gate.

APW: How do you become a zanjero? Is there on the job training?

Joe: It’s all on the job training. MWD provides training. Once you’re comfortable with the job, you get a company vehicle and start working on your own in the field.  If we need anything, we have support from our Supervisors or other long term zanjeros.

The only coursework is related to getting your CDL (commercial driver’s license). We’re required to get a CDL so we can help with the maintenance side of things. They also offer a course of training on the job to help you get your CDL. It’s not required when you get hired but a CDL is required within 90 days of being hired. Plus it’s cool to learn how to operate a forklift and how to maintain the canals. When the canals are not running at their peak, neither are we.
Bradley: The first week you go with the trainer and observe what is happening. They run you through all the functions. The second week is your turn to go through all the functions with the trainer by your side. They make sure you have fine-tuned everything and to make sure you are ready to go in the field by yourself. The third week you get your company vehicle and then you are on your own.  They ensure that you feel confident to be on your own.

The hard part for me with this job was stepping back from my analytical nature. I wrote everything down in detail. I wanted to know every reason for everything we did.  My trainers told me I was overcomplicating things. My on-the-job-training lasted two weeks and then I was ready to go out on my own.  Typical training lasts two weeks but can vary with a person’s aptitude for the job.

APW: Are there any women zanjeros at MWD?

Bradley: We don’t have any females in the Water Department. We have a small department. We only have two shifts per week; Sunday through Wednesday and Wednesday through Saturday. We have two zanjeros and a water master per shift each day. There are two shifts per day. There are women working for MWD at the main office and at Pleasant Harbor.

AWP: What are some of the things you really enjoy about this job?

Bradley: One of the best things about this job is job security. With this job you are set for life. You get to work at your own pace. It’s a great job for anyone who is independent. You’re not micromanaged by anyone, but help is a phone call away if you need it. You also don’t need college courses or formal training. You just need to know basic math – addition, subtraction, division.

Joe: Honestly, I love my job. I can’t see myself going anywhere else in the future. I like the fact that I am self-managed; so I don’t have to worry about someone double-checking my work all the time. I’ve been micromanaged in other positions and it’s not something I enjoy. I know when I need to reach out for help and feel comfortable in asking when I need to. Plus, I think my work speaks for itself. I really enjoy the freedom this position offers.

APW: What are some of the most rewarding things about this job?

Bradley: One of the most rewarding parts of this job is seeing all the produce that is grown with our water. We get to watch the farming process from sowing the seeds to final harvest. So the positive results of our work can be seen in action as the plants grow. Knowing we’re helping produce food for Arizona’s families is a powerful feeling.

Joe: One of our biggest accounts we have is Russo farms. If you go Walmart or grocery stores here, you’ll see signs that says, “Russo Cares.” I feel like I’m helping to feed the community by providing them with water. It’s very gratifying. Plus our company has great benefits. You can’t beat having great benefits. As an Army veteran, this job helps fills my desire to be of service.

APW: What are the opportunities for advancement?

Bradley: Within the Water Department, the next step is Water Master. The Water Master responsibilities include a little bit of bookkeeping. They review how much water the client is ordering and look at the records to see the amount they are allocated (credited). They are constantly checking to make sure clients are getting the right amount of water over a given period of time. They have to make sure the water that is delivered is balanced over time; otherwise there could be flooding issues. At the same time they need to make sure there is enough water for everyone flowing through the main canal. The water we deliver is ordered from the Central Arizona Project (CAP). We have an interconnection with them at Lake Pleasant. Our storage reservoir is the Hank Raymond Lake right below the Waddell Dam on Lake Pleasant.

Joe:  The next level up is Water Master. Above that is the Operations Supervisor who oversees all the operations; maintenance and water. The Water Supervisor oversees all the Water Department. So there are three tiers in the organization. People make lateral moves to maintenance or engineering to learn new skills.

APW: What is the pay range for a zanjero?

Bradley: They start at $15 per hour. Once you get a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) you get a pay increase. They like you to get a CDL because there are times you may need to help maintenance. The CDL training is free on-the-job training too, which is another perk. CDL training can be expensive. I’m not really sure what the top pay rate is.  You also get perks such as being part of the Arizona State Retirement System (ASRS) and the company provides a matching incentive for extra retirement savings.

Joe: We start at $15 and hour and we get our own truck. I’m not exactly sure of the top pay range, but it goes in to $20s. They give you an extra $1 per hour once you get your CDL and then you get regular evaluations where you progressively move up the pay scale. They also offer compensation for your cellphone since you use it while on the job. This job is not so much about your biweekly pay but also about looking at the bigger picture. There are many opportunities for skill development and personal growth. Plus we have excellent benefits including being part of the Arizona State Retirement System.

APW: Will there be a need for zanjeros in the future?

Bradley: Absolutely. Farming is one of the core components of Arizona’s economy. As long as there are farms, irrigators, and golf courses that need large volumes of water, zanjeros will be there to support them.

Joe: It’s a forever job. They are always going to have to have someone performing this job in the field. Even if they changed to mechanical structures, someone would still need to check to make sure they are opening correctly.

APW: If you were younger and interested in a zanjero job, what would you do to prepare for this job or to set yourself apart from others?

Bradley:  Well they might be able to do a “ride-along” like the firefighters do. I’m not sure if we can do that here. That would be a decision above my pay grade, but they could watch some videos of zanjeros in action to get a better idea of what’s involved. For this job it’s easier to understand if you can actually see what we are doing.

Joe: The challenge with this job is the turnover is very minimal. No one really quits these jobs once they get them. I would suggest anyone interested in this job try to show a persistent interest an organization who has zanjero position. To set themselves apart, maybe take a couple agriculture classes to learn more about how farms work. Even though we are not directly involved in farming, it would be helpful to know how farms operate because sometimes you have to talk to the farmers or the irrigators running the farms. So it would be helpful to know what we’re doing as zanjeros helps them in the field.
APW: Anything else you would like to share about your job?

Bradley: If you like working independently this a great job. MWD also offers tuition assistance as well so if you’d like to go to college, they can help you take courses. It’s a really rewarding job – not only for what you are doing for other but the growth you see in yourself. Plus there are amazing benefits that many places don’t offer.

Joe: If you’re looking for a long-term job, this is a great career path. In Arizona, water is essential. I would encourage students to get as much education as they can. If education is not for you, then this job is a great option.

APW: Thanks so much for sharing your time and talents. I can really tell you really enjoy what you do.

Bradley: You’re so welcome. Always happy to help.

Joe: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Arizona Project WET Sponsors