• By Sarah Matusek Staff writer
  • March 13, 2023|HOLTVILLE, CALIF.

In the right light, Jeff Dollente seems to make the sun rise. Standing over a canal, he cranks a wheel as the sun ascends and the sky yawns off the dark. 

Mr. Dollente doesn’t deliver the morning, but in southeastern California’s Imperial Valley, his job is just as big. He delivers Colorado River water – a vital resource at risk – to farms that feed the rest of the United States.

He’s a “zanjero,” Spanish for ditch rider, for the Imperial Irrigation District, the area’s public-water and energy agency. California is entitled to the largest share of Colorado River water among seven basin states, and within that, the agency has the single largest entitlement, almost all of which goes to agriculture. Upping the ante: The river is the Imperial Irrigation District’s only water source. 

The crisis on the Colorado River, strained by overuse and the effects of climate change, is unlikely to reverse due to recent heavy rain and snow, experts say. While critical lows along the river threaten water supplies and hydropower, California hasn’t agreed with other states this year on who should conserve how much – though the Imperial Valley is a controversial target of calls for cuts.

How ‘zanjeros’ get Colorado River water to California farms

As the federal government prepares to weigh in and high-level talks continue, so do zanjero daily duties on the ground. It takes focus and precision to safeguard each drop of liquid gold.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *