Water Career Spotlight - Zanjeros from Tucson Water

Tucson Water Zanjero Team
Zanjero Angel
Zanjero Frank
Zanjero Gabe
Thursday, September 17, 2020

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#zanjero #conservewater

In our last Water Career Spotlight, we shared how zanjeros at SRP physically move water through a complex system of canals across much of the Phoenix metropolitan area to deliver customers water. SRP zanjeros drive an impressive 1 million miles a year! WOW!

This month we're featuring zanjeros from Tucson Water who have expanded the role of zanjeros to water auditors. Tucson Water zanjeros work with customers in their homes or offices to solve water loss problems and support them with ways to conserve water.  

Zanjeros, Brian Morales and Orlando Rameriz, from Tucson Water share their unique knowledge and experiences as zanjeros below. Let’s take a closer look at what they do for our community.

APW: What is a zanjero and what do they do?

Orlando: The word “zanjero” can be traced back to the 1800s. Here in the southwest it described an elected person who was basically chosen to create a water budget for farmers and their crops.  They were basically irrigation specialists that helped ensure everyone got the water they needed. That is the history behind the term. Tucson Water began its zanjero program in 1996.
When the Central Arizona Project (CAP) delivered its first water to Tucson, we had a lot of water quality issues. The zanjero program was developed to help customers address many of their water concerns. Tucson Water hired a diverse group of individuals and set up this program which allowed zanjeros to go and share information with customers. Originally the water usage was personalized. Customers learned how they used water in comparison to how others used water.

Now our program is more expansive. We're essentially water auditors and pretty much a ‘jack of all trades.’ We deal with everything water related. We do water audits. We recently got into rainwater harvesting and green water infrastructure. Our zanjero teams are also responsible for code enforcement for water theft and water loss.

APW: Traditionally, the role of a zanjero is supplying water to customers, but your role is different. Can you tell us more about your role as a Tucson Water zanjero?

Brian: We are essentially water conservation specialists. We conduct residential and commercial water audits. Usually customers request an audit if they have high water bills or have had issues with their water systems at home. They call Tucson Water and we offer this free service.  We’ll go to their home and do a water audit. We blanket the whole property to try to figure out what’s happening. We can help them in a lot of different ways.

Prior to arriving at the property we do some research on the history of water use. We collect data from the digital water meters we use and can interpret what’s happening with water flow hourly and daily. Then we look at the water meter on the property (house or business). With that information we determine how much water is actually going to the property and then we follow the water.
We follow the system and see where people are using water. We ask questions like, “How many people are on the property?”; “What type of water using appliances do they have?”; “Do they have water softeners or water filtration systems?”; “Do they have irrigation?”; “How many toilets do they have?”, etc. We look at every that uses water on the property fountains, pools, misting systems, hot water heaters, especially the automatic things.

We use a model that tells us how much water a person uses. All of this information helps us determine where their water use should be and then compare that to where they are and to what the customer is telling us. They may tell us, “I have a problem with this toilet” and “we just recently replaced the flapper”, or “we just recently replaced the fill valve.” Or “my landscaper went out and he found some issues and he repaired that stuff for me last week.”

We compile all this information to draw a real clear picture of what’s happening and what’s happened in the past. Using this data and our own personal experience with other audits, we can determine what is the most likely reason for their water higher use. It’s a really in-depth investigation of water use at the property itself.

Orlando: We help customers learn the best ways to conserve water, as well as teach them proper ways to irrigate based on the type of soil and kinds of plants they have. We do full water investigations (audits). We don't fix any issues, but we do make sure the customer is aware of what's going on and then suggest what repairs may be necessary. We also provide basic irrigation system instructions, such as helping them understanding how to detect leaks or breaks. Essentially showing them how to how to find their own problems and know to how to troubleshoot issues. We also show them how to schedule irrigation timers.

APW: How did you decide to become a zanjero?

Brian: I started with Tucson Water as a meter reader almost eight years ago. Over the years I learned more about zanjeros and what they do. The zanjero position is kind of a specialized position, it’s not an entry level position.

I learned about their role in water conservation, customer support, and customer education, and I thought it might be a good fit for me because I enjoy helping people. It makes me happy.I spoke to the zanjero supervisor and he allowed me to ‘job shadow’ for a few years. As I gained more experience and knowledge, I eventually became eligible to apply for a zanjero job. I’ve been doing this job for three years now.

Orlando: The zanjero job is a popular position. The first zanjeros were hired 1996 and all of them stayed in their zanjero role until they retired. I started out in metering services, which does meter reading and service work.

I got to know the original zanjeros because they worked out of the building that I worked in. I was interested in what they did, so I did a ride along with them and really enjoyed what they did. I knew all of them were going to retire at the same time at that, so I tried to position myself to become eligible to become a zanjero. I applied for a position and I was lucky enough to be one of the people selected.

APW:  Is it easy to become a zanjero?

Brian:  At Tucson water, zanjeros are not an entry level position. All of our zanjeros have been with the utility for many years and we’ve gained a lot of knowledge about the workings of the water utility. Most of us have had a lot of meter reading and service experience. Once we mastered that position, we became eligible to apply for any open zanjero position.
There’s a lot to learn with this position. We’ve all become rainwater harvesting specialists and that was a long training period. The training included testing and, ultimately, we all got a certification as rainwater harvesting specialists.

Being a zanjero is a really rewarding position because you get to help people on a daily basis. Some of these people don’t really have a whole lot of other options for support. They know that their water consumption is high, and they know that there is a problem, but they don’t know what’s happening or why. We can go to their home or business and, within a couple of hours, find their issues and give them great advice on how to save water and reduce their bill. It’s a free service for our customers so they are always happy to have us come out.

Orlando: The transition to zanjero was easy for me because I was already used to doing similar work. As a meter reader, you know how to identify leaks just by watching how fast somebody's meter is turning.  Part of my responsibilities was to go out and try to troubleshoot what was causing the meter to turn so fast. That's a lot of what we do now. We go out, isolate certain areas along their water supply, and we are able to tell them if they have a stuck irrigation valve, or a solenoid issue, or a broken main line from the meter to the house, or even if something possibly going on with their foundation. We can share information like that.

APW: If you were to become a zanjero today, what actions would you take?

Brian: I believe that I would take the same actions. I’d try to get familiar with the people doing the job and the job requirements. It takes time. Becoming a zanjero is something that you have to work towards at the utility. You have to gain knowledge and expertise before you can move forward into any position.
Originally there were six zanjeros 26 years ago at Tucson Water, and of those six, the last one retired last year. He was our supervisor at the time. Then they hired five guys - I’m basically the third person hired in that round of hiring.

There’s really very little turnover in the zanjero positions. It’s very, very rare. People who typically get this job keep this job until retirement or at least for a few years. It’s a very small group of people, so when opportunity knocks you really have to go for it. The pool of people that go for the job have high skills sets. So, I’d say you need to learn as much as you can and get to know the guys that are already doing the job. Learn what the positive aspects for the job. This is a great job for anyone who enjoys customer service. If you really want to help people and you really like to work out in the field, and if you really don’t mind being outdoors in the heat/elements, then this may be a good job for you.

APW: What type of education or training do you need to have to be a zanjero?

Brian: There are some courses we’ve all taken to help us expand our zanjero duties. I believe one was called Green Infrastructure Practitioner (GIP). There was a small group of us that took that class in Santa Monica, California. That’s more of a nationwide certification that was very similar to the rainwater harvesting training that we took with Watershed Management Group here in Tucson.
California uses a lot more flood control structures than we do here in Arizona. They get more rain than we do. Their Green Infrastructure program focused more on stormwater and porous surfaces.  Both the GIP and the rainwater harvesting programs are very similar. Both talk about saving water, best ways to manage the run-off from your property, water efficient landscape and plants, and how decrease your use of municipal water.

Orlando: We all basically came from the same place, which was the servicing the metering division of Tucson Water. When we came on board as zanjeros, a lot of us were able just to hit the ground running. Our meter reader background was very helpful in transitioning to this position.

Some of us got a certification from a green infrastructure program from a group in California. We also got a certificate from the SmartScape program out of the University of Arizona’s Pima County Cooperative Extension. SmartScape teaches you how to set up irrigations controllers and how to water different plant types, and how to work with different types of soils. So if this is the type of job that you want to get into, a SmartScape class, that would be a great place to start.

We also got training in rainwater harvesting with Watershed Management Group. Yes. They teach you all the ins and outs about capturing rainwater water. We do a lot of math in this job, flow rate calculations - gallons per hour, gallons per minute, etc. We have to translate that information to customers. Most of the water meters we use have the capability of downloading flow rate data and we can show customers, down to the hour, exactly when and where they're using water.

This job does a wide range of things and you learn on the job from actual hands on experience. This is definitely a position where you learn in the field, but you also learn from your peers. If you wanted to give yourself a leg up, become knowledgeable about all the things we just talked about.

APW: What do you enjoy about being a zanjero?

Brian: I really enjoy helping people. There’s no other job within Tucson Water where employees are invited into people’s homes. Sometimes we find ourselves looking in their restrooms, looking at the fixtures in their kitchens, looking in their washrooms, and looking over their backyards. We go everywhere on their property and our customers really appreciate it. There’s no other job at Tucson Water that gets this up close and personal with people in their own space.

We also get to see their whole water picture. We see people who call us for help because they can’t afford to pay high water bills, or from people who just don’t want to waste water. Sometimes the customer is very upset and maybe they assume it’s a problem with Tucson Water. They may believe the water meter is broken or we messed up in the billing area. When we do a detailed review of their problem, we can actually show them what the problem is. At that point, they’re so receptive and so appreciative.  Being appreciated for our work offers us a great sense of encouragement. It helps us keep going and help even more people.

Orlando: For me, personally, I like the variety. Every customer’s needs are different. There are so many aspects to this job. You have to troubleshoot where water is being lost, which is fun for me. I enjoy helping out customers. In my opinion, that is the number one aspect of being a zanjero.

For instance, you can go to a home where an elderly person lives and maybe they're trending for a $300 water bill and you are lucky enough to catch it just a couple days into their billing cycle. You find their problem, which could be something as simple as running toilet, and bring it to their attention and let them know what is causing the problem. You really get to help the public and also help the community. Water is a precious resource. After all, we live in a desert. So all of that combined makes this is an ideal job for me. I love it. It’s something that brings me a lot of joy.

APW: What are the opportunities for advancement?

Brian: With any job within the City of Tucson, as you gain knowledge and experience there are many avenues you can take. This zanjero position is very specialized in the water department and there’s not a lot of positions like ours. Still, Tucson Water has a lot of opportunities in different areas.

If you are really interested in learning about another program or department, Tucson Water allows us to explore other positions by job shadowing and seeing what other positions are all about. Tucson water really wants to help employees improve themselves. They offer trainings and other opportunities to help get employees where they want to be. Up until we had this COVID-19 pandemic, Tucson Water offered tuition assistance and a lot of people were taking advantage of getting a college degree paid for by Tucson Water.

Orlando: Tucson Water is very supportive of career advancement. If you want to progress and go to different departments, TW is the place you want to be, that that's for sure! We've had people come into our Department and be in a position for a short time and then move on to other positions to work their way up you know. The water department is definitely a springboard for people that want to advance their career.  They also offer tuition reimbursement.

APW: How much do Tucson Water zanjeros get paid?

Brian: Honestly, I’m not sure. Usually everyone who gets this position is not an entry-level, so it really depends on what department you’ve came from and what history that you have working for the city or experience level. 

Orlando: The pay scale starts around $15.35 per hour and it tops out around $25.15 per hour. The longer you've been here, the more you're going to make. I've been lucky enough to be here for quite a bit of time, so I'm a little higher on the pay scale.

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

Brian: Absolutely! The zanjeros are important because in the desert we want to conserve water and use best practices for water management. Without a doubt, water is the #1 most important resource we have these days, besides air. We definitely need to have specialists like us who can continue to help out the customer while also helping the whole community be more conscious about our precious water resources.

Orlando: Definitely. As long as we live where we live, and as long as we have a resource that that needs to be protected, there will always be a need for zanjero water conservationists. I feel it's a field that may even grow in the future.  It’s definitely something I feel will always be a necessity and will always need to be there.

APW: Any other inspiring thoughts on your job or anything you’d like to add?

Brian: I would say that this job is so important, especially here in the desert. There are people around the world that don’t have easy access to water. Some people have to carry their water for long distances just for drinking, washing, and cleaning.  There’s so much value in water and we all need to be careful with our use and save some for the future.

Orlando: In terms of job opportunities, getting a position with the city offers a lot of benefits. You're not going to get rich, but it is a stable job you can count on and that’s important. Our benefits are great. Even with the current pandemic, our city managers are working hard to figure out how we can sustain our jobs and keep everyone employed without having to take furloughs or do layoffs.
If you enjoy working with the public, I believe it's definitely worthwhile to consider working with the city. It doesn’t matter if you want to become the city manager or if you want to work with Parks and Rec, there’s great value in public service. It's something that I feel is always going to be worthwhile.

I never thought that I would be working for the water department but, but here I am, and I love what I do.  I don't think I'll ever want to do anything else. Working for any department with the city is definitely a good job to have.

APW: Thanks for your time and all the great information. AND, thank you for your service!

Brian: You’re welcome. Happy to help.
Orlando: Thank you. Glad to be a part of this project.

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