Before his commute to work every morning, Sergio Lopez packs the essentials:
Cell phone, check. Calculator, check. Laptop, check. Long-iron irrigation-gate bar, check.
Lopez is a zanjero, or irrigation-ditch minder, in the Imperial Valley, an agricultural expanse that lies between the Salton Sea and the Mexican border. The Spanish word for “ditch” is zanja. Since the days of old Alta California, zanjeros have directed irrigation water where it’s needed, released exactly the right amount for crops to grow, and stopped the flow when the earth has had enough. California leads the nation in farm cash receipts—the Imperial Valley alone produced more than $2 billion in crops in 2019. Every farm in the valley needs water delivered by the Imperial Irrigation District. Lopez is their deliveryman.
When people think of the state and water, the so-called Kings of California often come up, like William Mulholland, a onetime zanjero who worked his way up to become the first supervisor of the Los Angeles Water Department and the builder of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But who really controls the irrigation canals that carry water from the state’s reservoirs and aqueducts to the people and farms that are its end users? Zanjeros, the legendary water channelers of California.
With his salt-and-pepper hair and trimmed goatee, Lopez has the bearing of a college professor. And given the wisdom he’s earned by coaxing water out of rivers and over to thirsty fields, his patient and learned demeanor is itself an essential resource, especially during a drought. When he shares his story, you hear heritage, humility, and pride—a quiet confidence refined by decades of hard work on the canals. “My parents are from Sinaloa,” he says. “When they immigrated from Mexicali to the U.S., I was nine years old. My dad was a feed-truck driver. So [when] I was a little kid, I started working cattle. I used to work for a farmer in the valley. I’ve worked in agriculture all my life.”
In this valley, water is nature’s oxymoron: it exists because it shouldn’t. It’s piped in from the Colorado River, and the district employs 143 zanjeros to manage its path. In an average year in California, approximately 9.6 million acres are irrigated with roughly 34 million acre-feet of water. It’s an amount that would cover 31 million football fields with 1 foot of water. On the Imperial Valley’s football field, Lopez is quarterback, pass receiver, and sometimes coach, all at once.
Since the 1800s, zanjeros have guided the river’s edge, metaphorically and literally, first for the old Californio haciendas and later for the cities that replaced them. In Los Angeles’s early days, the zanjero was paid more than the mayor. For generations, zanjeros have navigated the back roads along canals, first on horseback and now in rigs with computers. More than the state’s land barons, more than the subjects of Hollywood mythologizing, zanjeros have wielded the power of necessity. Without the zanjero, there would be no California oranges or grapes. No California “backyard orchard.” There would be no California as we know it at all.