Water Career Spotlight - Zanjeros from the Salt River Project

Zanjero Chad Barnes reviewing his water orders.
Zanjero Chad Barnes operating a gate.
Randall Lopez operating a water delivery gate.
Randall Lopez cleaning a grate
Head gate along an SRP canal.
goncho tool
SRP canal grate
Wednesday, July 29, 2020

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Last month, we began our water career discussion 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. This month, we are focusing on the Salt River Project, which is one of the largest water providers in the State. SRP supplies water to most of the East Valley area and SRP zanjeros drive over a million miles a year to help keep water flowing to their customers!

Check out these detailed maps of the SRP System!

As a refresher, zanjeros move water from one canal system to another. The term is Spanish for “ditch Rider” because they move along the canals, opening head gates and allowing water to flow from larger canals to smaller lateral canals. They are critically important in diverting water to customers of all types in the Phoenix metropolitan area. As the Salt River Project (SRP) website states: “For as long as there have been canals, there has been the zanjero”.

Zanjeros, Chad Barnes and Randall Lopez, from the Salt River Project share their knowledge and experiences as zanjeros below. Let’s take a closer look at what they do for our community.

Want to see SRP Zanjeros in action? - Check out this cool PBS Video!!

APW: What are your daily activities as a zanjero?

Chad: Basically, our day to day role as a zanjero is being a steward of water. We are tasked with taking water from our dam systems up upstream and moving it through canals throughout the valley and directing it to our customers. We have open ditch laterals and pipe laterals that go all across the valley that we use to direct and divert water, moving it from point A to point B to ensure delivery to our customers. Our customers use the water for a variety of purposes, but a lot of it is for irrigation. The water is used to irrigate farms, schools, golf courses, and parks. We even irrigate some residential homes that use flood irrigation in the east valley. Basically our role is to be the deliverer of water. We move around our canal system throughout the day making sure that we're delivering a quality product and making sure our customers are happy with the water they're receiving. (Note: Irrigation is the supply of water to land or crops, usually by means of canals. Flood irrigation is a form of crop watering where farmers allow water to flow down furrow or small trenches running through their crops.)

APW: How do you deliver water?

Randall: My office is my work truck. I have a laptop inside my truck that's on a docking station. On the laptop we have a zanjero field application. We log into the Zanjero field app and it tells me my schedule for my day. I come in at 5:00 AM and get off at 5:00 PM - we do 12-hour shifts. The zanjero field application tells me where I need to be and at what time I need to be there. So the app will tell me at 9:00 AM I have to deliver 50 inches of water at this particular gate. I’ll open that gate and it may need to stay open from 9:00 AM and until 1:00 or 2:00 PM. It just depends on how long the water needs to run.

After I open a specific gate, I make my way to the next one. I have several different laterals I must visit to direct water from the canals. For example, I may have to be at a certain lateral at 9:00 AM that needs water and then I may need to be at another lateral towards the east end of my area and only have 30 minutes to travel to it. So, being a zanjero, it's you and your truck versus time and the schedule.  Over time, you start to learn what you can do a little bit early to give yourself more time to get from place to place.

APW: How is the water metered or measured as it goes through the open ditch and pipe laterals? We learned how MWD zanjeros use weir sticks last month. Do you use weir sticks or does SRP have the canals mechanically controlled?

Chad: We have a little bit of everything. We use weir sticks to measure over the weirs. This gives us a reading of how much water we currently have flowing through our lateral and it helps us deliver it to other places. We also have what we call a Hatcher calculator. Using this device we're able to measure the actual flow rate going into the gate. We use our Hatcher calculator to calculate how high the gate needs to be opened to deliver a set amount of water. We also use rebar as a sort of weir stick.  We insert the rebar into a probe hole and get a flow reading for upstream and another flow reading for downstream. (Note: Rebar is steel rod used to reinforce concrete and masonry structures.)

APW: How do you use the rebar to gauge water flow?

Chad: Basically we insert the rebar into a probe hole which gives us a flow reading based upon the height of the water mark on our rebar. Then we can calculate the volume of water flowing based upon the difference in the water mark on the rebar for the upstream flow when compared to the water mark on the rebar for the water that is being diverted downstream. We use this information, along with the gate size and gate opening, to determine how much water we're delivering through that gate.

For piped lateral systems and for an open ditch systems, we use calipers to take water readings. Calipers basically function the same way, but with an open ditch it's a little bit easier to measure the water because you can physically see both the upstream and downstream sides. We use calipers to take water readings and then we can enter those values into our Hatcher calculator to give us the flow rate of the water we're delivering.(Note: A caliper is a tool used to measure the distance between the opposite sides of an object, in this case the opposite sides of a canal.)

APW: What values are you putting into the Hatcher calculator to get the flow rate? Are you including the width of the ditch and then the height of the water on the rebar?

Chad: It depends on what kind of gate system you're delivering to. We have “free flow” and “submerged” gates, which offer us two different measurements, or two different ways of determining the volume of water that is being delivered.  Using rebar, we can measure the water height. We call that value our upstream head. Then we position the rebar in the downstream side on the other side of the gate. The difference in water height as measured using the rebar tells us how many inches of water are flowing. So we basically subtract the downstream head from the upstream head and that gives us what we call our differential.  Then we relate our differential to the gate size and then also to the gate opening. We plug all those values into our Hatcher calculator and get the reading for how much water we're delivering at that time. (Note: Head or Hydraulic Head  is the measurement of height of a column of water above an arbitrary point.)

APW: What happens to the water once it starts flowing into the lateral (delivery) canals?

Randall: After the water that flows through the lateral canals and into the delivery gates, it goes into the private water system.  At that point, the private users take over distribution of their own water. It could be used by people who live in the neighborhood to water their lawns.  Residential customers have their own private system boxes and they move the water to their yards when it's their time.

So once it goes through our delivery gate and into the private system, the people in the neighborhood all know what time to pick up their water and how long they are allowed to let the water run. Once they're done taking their water allotment, they close their valves and the water bypasses them and goes to the next customer down the canal. Delivery timing is important for all users because all our water moves by gravity. We don't pump water from location to location.

APW: So once it goes through the delivery gate, it's up to whoever is getting the water to take care of it from there?

Randall: Correct. Generally, the water is either going to an irrigator or to people who have lived in these neighborhoods for many, many years and who understand how to move the water through the neighborhood. So, my job is to get it through our different delivery gates and to make sure it is the correct amount going through the gate and into the neighborhood.

Sometimes you'll get calls from customer service and they'll say “Randall, check delivery gate X, the customer’s feel like they're running a little bit too high”, or “they feel like they're running a little bit short. Can you go grab a measurement on that gate?” So, I have to maneuver throughout my schedule and make time to get back to that gate and take a flow reading.

APW: So in SRP’s delivery system, water delivery timing is critical. What happens if a resident forgets to take their water delivery? Does the water just keeping flowing down through the neighborhood system and they lose their turn?

Randall: Yes. If they miss their opportunity, the water will continue down the neighborhood system to the next user. You hope that doesn’t happen because then it creates what we call “run aheads”, which causes temporary disruptions to water delivery. If someone misses their turn to pick up their water, it throws off the time schedule in that subdivision or neighborhood. Zanjeros may get called out to temporarily close the gate until the water can be “picked up” and managed properly again. Once the water gets “picked up”, we will restart the gate.

APW: Last month we learned about the Maricopa Water District and what the zanjeros do over in the West Valley. I know SRP’s service area is huge. How do the zanjeros manage over 1,000 miles of canals and laterals?

Chad: We have 16 areas in our water service delivery system. There are 8 on the north side and 8 on the south side. I’m responsible for Area 15, which is on the north side.  The home base for the north side is our west valley service center in Tolleson.  Home base for the south side is in Mesa. Each zanjero has their own meeting spot that we go to. I don't report to our home base every day. I report to my meeting spot because our trucks run 24-7. I work a 12-hour shift and then I hand the truck off to my night partner and then he works a 12-hour shift. Zanjeros are out here working 24-hours a day every day of the year, including holidays.

APW: How many zanjeros does SRP have?

Chad: 64 total. We have 8 areas on North Side and 8 areas on South Side, each area has 4 Zanjeros. We also have what we call zanjero trades helpers in our department.  They are entry level positions.  They come out to learn the trade and to help us cover some areas when staff take vacation or sick days. We usually have 32 zanjeros on north side with 6 zanjero trades helpers and the same numbers on the south side.

APW: Could you tell us more about the zanjero trades helpers and what they do?

Chad: Zanjero trades helpers are kind of in training to become zanjeros, but it’s not really an apprenticeship program. They train with the zanjeros and then they get their own truck. They support us based upon business need. Sometimes areas are busier than others so the zanjeros trades helpers will come over and assist with the zanjeros whenever a busy schedule comes up, or sometimes they even fill in for the zanjeros when there's vacation requests or things like that. They're essentially zanjeros, but they don't physically run the areas full time as we do.

APW:  When you're directing water into the laterals, do you manually open up a gate or do you have electronic gates that open automatically?

Chad: We have a mixture of both. There are locations that have gatekeepers on them, and they can be electronically controlled by our Transmission Department. They control them and direct water from one of the main canals through the laterals. Most gates are hand controlled and the zanjeros physically open the gates to draw the water from the canal.

The gates that are automated tend to be for directing water to the larger size laterals. Sometimes we have automated gates in locations that might be difficult to get to, just because of the hazards around. SRP is very safety conscious, so locations that are difficult to get in and out of are more likely to have an automatic gate.

APW: What made you decide to become a zanjero?

Chad: Honestly, when I initially applied with SRP, I was just trying to get my foot in the door. I wasn't exactly sure what kind of position I wanted. I thought about being on the line crew or maybe getting an apprenticeship with other departments. I started as a zanjero trades helper and I fell in love with what we do here. I like the zanjero job so I‘ve never changed jobs.

Randall: My dad used to be a lineman for APS for close to 30 years. He retired in the early 2000s. I played a lot of sports growing up. During my senior year, I realized I wasn’t going to be playing for the Diamondbacks. So I started to think about what I wanted to do for work. Right after high school, I started working in hotels, then I got my CDL (commercial driver's license). I knew working for utility companies provided stable, long-term employment so my goal was always to try to get hired by a utility. I used to call HR (human resources) at SRP all the time looking for work; to the point where some of them got to know me. One day, one of the HR ladies noticed I hadn’t applied for an open position as a zanjero trades helper. She called me to let me know about this position and encouraged me to apply. So students need to know that persistence does pay off. You have to let places know you are really interested and follow-up again and again.

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

Chad: At SRP, first you become a zanjero trades helper before you can become a zanjero. It’s on the job training. When you start as a zanjero trades helper, you perform a physical assessment just to make sure that you're able to do some of the job duties. It's nothing crazy. They basically test your physical strength to make sure you are capable of being out in the field. We work 24-7, regardless of the weather. The assessment is to make sure you have the stamina to perform the physical duties in all kinds of weather.The other part is kind of an aptitude test. They make sure that you're mechanically inclined and that you can kind of think on the spot. The whole test is to make sure that you're able to perform the daily job duties of a zanjero.

Randall: We start off with classroom training. We are also taken out into the field to see the water system at different locations upstream, eventually working our way down into the different zanjero areas. We learn how to measure gates as well as going over the map book on different areas. The field part of the training is really important to get a sense of how things work in the real world.

You definitely need to have basic math skills. Nothing too crazy when it comes to the math. So, someone with a high school diploma or GED can definitely pick up the math fairly quickly. We learn how to measure the delivery gates. We use different formulas to measure submerged gate versus free-flowing gates. Basically we have formulas you have to plug these values into our hatcher calculator to get accurate measurements. You have to determine if the gate is a free-flowing gate or if it's a submerged gate. For example, a submerged gate is a pipe submerged with water. A free-flowing gate is generally found on open laterals and a lot of open ditches that zanjeros use in the farm or agriculture areas. We also have a map book we use to learn our service area. 

APW: Can you tell us more about the map book?

Randall: The map book is your best friend when you're first starting off. The map book has information on all the different areas in the SRP system. When I got hired, I was working on the north side and so I got to learn the north side areas. The map book shows you the actual areas. It gives you GPS coordinates and it'll give you all your different avenues, east to west, north to south. You basically get to see which laterals are in each area and which canals you're going to be drawing water from. The map legend also tells you the different capacities of the laterals.

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?

Chad: I would just try to get my foot in the door at SRP by accepting any position they offered. I know a lot of the people have made their way over to our group by coming through the call center or even as a construction laborer. They've come in that way and as positions open up, they bid on them and work there way over here. So I think the biggest piece of advice I can give to younger people is get your foot in the door and then you can move your way up. SRP is a great company to work for and there's so many different opportunities in different departments. So you can kind of find your calling here. As for me I had no intention of becoming a zanjero. I had no idea what a Zanjero was! However, once I started physically doing the zanjero job, I decided not to leave it because I enjoy what I do every day.

Randall: The advice I could give to younger people would be to not wait too long. Even though my dad worked for APS, I wish I would have done a little more research on APS and SRP.  I wish I would have just been a little more proactive on getting onboard sooner, but it's hard to know which direction you want your life to go when you're young.
AWP: What are some of the things you really enjoy about this job?

Chad: One of the biggest things for me is the sense of pride in my job. We're delivering a very important product to everybody here in the valley. Water is something obviously we need. So, I think the sense of pride for me just to be able to come in and feel I am able to help people everyday. That's one of my favorite things about the job. Another thing I love about the job is we're in a truck by ourselves all day. I'm able do my job and not have to worry about other things in other departments, unlike other SRP jobs. There’s not much hands-on supervision. The ability to do your job on your own and not have to worry about other problems is something I really like.

APW: What are the opportunities for advancement?

Chad: There are a lot of opportunities for advancement at SRP. Within our field, there are schedulers. They're the people who make our daily schedules. They schedule when we can take the water from the main canal and direct it into the laterals and continuations. There are also water masters. I was on the water master upgrade program for the last couple of years and had the opportunity working side by side with some of the supervisors and performing those job duties. So that's another chance for advancement here at SRP. Water masters have more of a supervisory function. They work with other departments to complete our common goal of delivering water and making sure everything runs smoothly.

APW: What is the pay range for a zanjero?

Randall: Entry level 
Zanjero Trades Helper start out at $22 bucks an hour. As you progress and with time and seniority, you move up the pay scale. I’m not sure what the top end of the zanjero pay scale is. 

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

Chad: I think there's always going to be a need for Zanjeros. There's a lot of hidden elements to the job. Some things I don't feel a computer could do. Don't get me wrong, the automatic gatekeepers that we have are great, but I think there's always going to be a need for Zanjeros because in this job you may have to troubleshoot issues as they come up. To do that, you have to think on your feet.  I don't think that computer technology will be there to be able to solve problems in the field as quickly as those of us out in the field.

Randall: Zanjeros have been around since the early 1900s and even with 100+ years of technology behind us, our jobs are still going and technology is still advancing. I feel like Zanjeros will definitely be around in the future. We need somebody out here physically to, to move and manage this water; especially when you have people in neighborhoods that may be experiencing some flooding issues.

APW: Anything else you would like to share about your job?

Chad: I'm very fortunate to work for SRP. I take pride in being able to deliver a quality product to our customers. It's something that I feel is very important here in the valley. For me, the overall sense of pride that I have coming in everyday is significant. I’m able to help contribute to the success of the valley and it’s a great, great feeling to have. SRP is a great company to work for and I feel very fortunate to work here. I just very thankful.

Randall: I just want to let students know that this is definitely a career they could be happy with. It's something that I really enjoy doing.  I love doing it! It's fun! It's just me, my area, and the water -that’s it! It’s very peaceful out here. When my bosses need me, they get ahold of me. There is a lot of freedom with this job. It’s a great job for someone who prefers working by themselves more than working with a big group of people.

APW:  Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. I think students will really be interested in what zanjeros do to help bring water to the valley.

Randall: Thank you so much. You have a good day too!
Chad: Thanks for the opportunity. Take care.


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