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A way of life drying up

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Daybreak in the Carrot Capital of the World and the horizon is streaked with lilac clouds, the air thick with the smell of manure. Jose Romo climbs into a pickup with a steaming cup of coffee to ward off the chill and begins his daily race with water.

He speeds along dirt roads between fields of lettuce and onions that would be a desert if not for the 1,600 miles of man-made canals and ditches that crisscross the Imperial Valley, among the largest irrigation systems in the nation.

He stops and studies the water level in his canal. It's rising but still below a stain on the canal's concrete wall, a measuring point that Romo trusts implicitly through experience. In a few minutes, the water reaches the stain, meaning there is sufficient pressure for Romo to crank a rusty metal jack that opens a wooden gate.

"Can lose a finger if you're not careful," he said. With a loud swooosh, a wall of water moves down his canal. For the next several hours, Romo will repeat this ritual again and again, harnessing gravity to shepherd the day's water through his corner of the valley.

Romo is a zanjero -- pronounced sahn-HAIR-o -- Spanish for overseer of the mother ditch. His job is to deliver prescribed amounts of Colorado River water to farmers served by the Imperial Irrigation District in southeastern California. It's a job rich in tradition, one that mirrors the settlement of the West and its complicated relationship with water.

The zanjero was once the most powerful man in any community, entrusted with overseeing its most valuable resource. In early Los Angeles, he was paid more than the mayor. Long before he engineered the city's future, William Mulholland learned the nuances of water working as a zanjero.

"He is the yea and nay of the arid land, the arbiter of fate, the dispenser of good and evil, to be blessed by turns and cursed by turns, and to receive both with the utter unconcern of a small god," said the Century Magazine in New York, describing the job in 1902.

Today, the zanjero is an endangered species, his craft too imprecise, his tools too crude to look after water in a region ravaged by drought.

The Imperial Irrigation District, which provides water to nearly 500,000 acres of farmland in the valley hard against the Mexican border, is among the last to employ zanjeros working the traditional way. More than 100 men labor around the clock controlling the flow of more than a trillion gallons of water a year, largely by hand.

"You learn to appreciate and respect water," said Joe Mariscal, 53, a zanjero for 27 years. "You appreciate what it brings us in terms of food and life. But you respect it because it can do a lot of damage when it's not controlled."

With the Colorado River basin locked in an extended drought that threatens to empty Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Imperial Valley faces changes that will alter the rhythm of life along canals named Pear and Plum, Dogwood and Daffodil, Eucalyptus and Elder.

Under a 2003 agreement, the irrigation district must eventually transfer 9% of its river allotment to San Diego and the Coachella Valley. Limitations and the sudden need to conserve have shaken an area where water was once considered inexhaustible.

Signs of change already abound. Fields lie fallow. Giant earthmovers march across the desert, replacing a 23-mile segment of the All-American Canal -- the valley's link with the Colorado River -- with a concrete-lined channel that will prevent seepage.

With each drop of water needing to be accounted for, an irrigation system that hasn't changed much since the 1950s will increasingly move to remote sensors and automation. For the zanjeros -- who still calculate water flows using a yardstick and were just recently issued mobile phones -- the changes will be profound.

"I love my job. The early morning is exhilarating. The sense of freedom that we can make certain decisions and are in control of something," said Romo, 53, a zanjero for 32 years. "In the future we will act less as a zanjero and more like a technician. . . . It's inevitable."

The Imperial Valley lies below sea level in a gently sloping, ancient lake bed containing rich soils deposited over hundreds of years when the Colorado River flooded.

Without water, the valley is a wasteland. As early as the 1850s, visionaries saw an Eden beneath its crusty surface, but it would be half a century before the first ditches were built. The completion of Hoover Dam and the All-American Canal established the valley as one of the nation's most bountiful agricultural regions. Anything will grow here if it's fed enough water.

A century ago, zanjeros worked the canals on horseback. They were armed; disputes with farmers could turn ugly. A zanjero was nearly inseparable from his canals, tending them day and night and raising his family in an employer-owned ditch-front home that ensured he was never far from work.

The horses, guns and "zanjero houses" are long gone, but the job remains largely the same. It is demanding work. Cranking corroded jacks, opening gates with iron rods, shuffling heavy timbers against the force of moving water, raking out debris -- it adds up to shoulder injuries, bad backs, torn knees.

A few years ago, Andy Curiel was adjusting a gate on a concrete span when it collapsed, dropping him into the rushing water. He hurt his back and was out for a week.

"It wasn't too bad," said Curiel, 50, a zanjero for nearly 20 years. "Lots of zanjeros get injured. They don't quit. They keep going until they can't anymore. Then they go to the doctor, get therapy. But they come back."

Veterans make $26 an hour with good benefits -- a coveted job in a county with 16.5% unemployment and nearly 1 in 5 people living below the federal poverty level. Zanjero jobs rarely come open. When one does, dozens apply.

Curiel grew up locally and went to college hoping to become an architect. "I got married. Didn't finish." He shakes his head and turns the conversation inward as he drives his pickup to the next gate. "Dummy. Should've finished."

Being a zanjero requires a dexterous mind, an understanding that one mistake can cause a chain reaction of flooding that can ruin crops.

"See that water? It's so quick," Curiel said, opening a side gate and releasing a small waterfall into a farmer's ditch. He jogged back to his pickup and hurried to the next gate to keep up with the flow moving down his canal. If he doesn't release it fast enough, the water will spill over its banks. "If we wait five more minutes, we're in trouble."

From dawn to early afternoon, Curiel is responsible for the Eucalyptus Canal and its lateral ditches. He works 10 days straight, then has four off. He earned his own canal after years working overnight and filling in for others, patiently waiting for someone to retire.

"When you first start out, you have dreams about water. Not good ones," he said. "You wake up with nightmares of your canal overflowing. You wonder: Did I close that gate? After a year on the job, they go away."

Other nightmares don't. Dozens of bodies are found in the valley's canals and ditches each year. Most are illegal immigrants who find that these seemingly placid waterways are deeper and swifter than they appear, with slippery, angled banks.

"Twenty-three so far," Mariscal said of his body count. "The water may be nice and calm on top, but they can't see the current underneath. The current starts taking them. They get tired. . . ." He didn't finish the thought.

Romo routinely fishes out backpacks jammed with clothes, extra shoes, maybe a bus ticket -- the luggage of someone traveling quick and light. Was it merely lost? Or was it abandoned by someone during the last fight of his life?

"It's sad. You don't know if this person made it or not," he said.

It's one of the dark undercurrents running through the pastoral landscape of this border country that zanjeros come to know -- and hope to avoid. About two years ago, Romo said, word circulated that an irrigation district employee had a bounty placed on his head by smugglers who believed he was working with Border Patrol agents.

"They knew exactly who was costing them money," Romo said. "Sometimes this place is still like the Wild West."

He jacks up a gate, and a ribbon of water snakes toward a farmer's field like a burning fuse. Someone has stolen the rod used to keep the gate up. Thieves are increasingly stripping metal from canal fixtures and selling it for scrap. Romo searches around and uses his boot to pry loose a large rock to prop the gate open.

He drives to where a farmer's irrigator is preparing for the delivery -- a continuous 24-hour flow that he will direct through the field's rows. They speak in Spanish.

"I'm not ready," the irrigator said.

"How long you need?"

"About 15 minutes."

Romo nods. He has to get to the next gate to stay ahead of the water on the main canal. "Open it an inch and a half," he said before driving away, trusting the irrigator to handle it.

It's an indication of how much has already changed for California's last traditional zanjeros that they rarely talk to landowners. Today, they mostly deal with irrigators -- poorly paid field hands from Mexico who work brutally long shifts.

For decades, murals in the lobby of an elegant but long-gone hotel in nearby El Centro celebrated the story of water in the valley. At the center of one was a zanjero opening a gate, bringing life to the desert.

The zanjero was once the unquestioned authority here. Today he is more like a utility worker. If a landowner opens or closes a gate without permission, Romo can write him a ticket that carries a $100 fine. He rarely does anymore. He doesn't need the hassle.

"If his boss tells him to close the gate -- even though I told him not to close it -- he'll do it because the farmer pays him and he needs the job," he said of the farmhands. "I'm not the authority."

mike.anton@latimes.com

On latimes.com The life of the zanjerosFor additional photos and an audio slide show, visit latimes.com/zanjero.To see recent Column One articles, visit latimes.com/columnone

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