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Every drop counts
Ditch riders ensure water gets to fields
Without a large network of canals to deliver water, there would be no multibillion-dollar agricultural industry in the Yuma area. And without scores of dedicated “ditch riders,” the canals would be useless.
It is the responsibility of ditch riders to patrol and inspect irrigation systems, and to distribute water to farmers when crops need to be irrigated.
“Nothing would grow if they didn't get the water,” said Beal Long, a ditch rider with Yuma County Water Users' Association. He began working with the nonprofit corporation in 1989, and is currently responsible for an area in the Yuma Valley north of Somerton.
Ditch riders regulate how much water is in the system at any time, Long said, warning that too much could cause flooding, which makes a “big mess.” Flooding can cause serious damage to the concrete lining of a canal, and damage fields. “You definitely don't want that. It is very expensive.”
To avert such disasters, and to ensure the farmers get the water they need, ditch riders drive up to 300 miles a day along canal roads during the busy autumn season.
“This time of year the produce starts and it just continually picks up,” Long said in mid-September. “Up until (now), it had been pretty slow. We were driving 40 or 50 miles a day because we weren't running near as much water.”
Long grew up in the area where he now works. He pointed out his childhood home as he drove along a nearby canal, and said he knows about “97 percent” of the farmers he delivers water to on a first-name basis. “A lot of them I have known since I was a kid.”
Long is also fluent in Spanish, which makes it easier to communicate with many of the farmworkers in the fields, he noted.
“Que pasa?” he asked a trio of farmworkers from his pickup truck as the sun began to set to the west over freshly plowed fields. The men, heavily tanned from hours of toiling under the hot sun and covered in dirt, were preparing a field for irrigation. They spoke to him for a while in a familiar manner before he continued his rounds.
Long grew up on a farm, and decided to become a ditch rider after working for a time as an irrigation foreman.
“At that time, that was basically a step up,” he said. “All the people that were working for the irrigation district ... most of them had been there for 20 or 30 years. It was the job to have. It was very secure and the pay was good.”
When Long first became a ditch rider, he was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He also drove his own vehicle and lived in a company house. “The only time we were off was when we were on vacation,” he said.
Now the ditch riders use vehicles issued by the association, and aren't required to live in a company house. They also work only four days a week in 12-hour shifts.
The technology used by ditch riders in the late 1980s and early 1990s was not as advanced as it is today, Long added.
Back then, a ditch rider had to physically get a tape measure to determine how large the opening of each gate was in order to get an estimate on how much water was passing through.
Long said that method, while old-fashioned, was accurate. “We weren't always perfect, but we were pretty close.”
Once the measurements were completed, the ditch rider wrote down the numbers on a “water card,” Long said. “Once a week we would turn it into the office, and they would take that information, and that's where they got their billing.”
But before they could take measurements or open gates to deliver water to a certain field, ditch riders had to find each gate using maps or memorization.
“You are never going to remember all the serial numbers, there are just too many, but you know where they are at,” Long said.
One way to memorize the gates and ditches was to remember their names, Long added, explaining many of the ditches in the century-old water system were named after the original families who homesteaded on each property.
The entire network of canals in the Yuma Valley, part of the “Yuma Project,” was completed in 1915 and has been in continuous use ever since.
Now the water is tracked by a wireless computer system. Each truck is equipped with a touch-screen laptop computer connected to a centralized server listing all the fields, canals and water gates in the ditch rider's jurisdiction. With the tap of a finger, the ditch rider can place a water order for a farmer, and specify how much water is needed and at what time it needs to be delivered.
“It has made it a lot easier,” Long said. “When we update it, it goes to the dispatcher. He looks at it and knows how much water I need in that canal, without me having to call him.”