Joyce Thayer eases her pickup truck onto the dirt path beside the Highline Canal in south Phoenix, glances at the water near the top of the banks and shakes her head.
"That's just not running right," she says. "It shouldn't be that high unless something's plugging the grate up ahead."
In her 21 years as a Salt River Project zanjera -- the Spanish word for a woman who tends irrigation canals and ditches -- she's pulled enough surprises out of the Valley's waterways to know better than to predict what this one might be.
"Sometimes we get dead animals up against the grate," she says, driving along and eyeing the ditch. "They fall in and just can't get out. But mostly it's canal moss -- we call it frog moss -- bottles and cans and those plastic milk jugs. And plastic bags and tarps can do a pretty good job of damming it up, too."
At the canal gate, she plunges a rake into the water and pulls up a wet shag of brownish moss and trash that was sucked tight against the grate. The water lets out a loud thwuck as it sluices through the reclaimed opening into the dark hole of a pipe beneath the canal path.
No dead animals this time. But the stinky pile of paper, wood, bottles, cans and disintegrating plastic slopped on the ground holds some unwelcomed tea leaves about the area's future.
"With all the construction going in down here," she says, "we're starting to see more and more pieces of plywood and Sheetrock in these canals. This is really the handwriting on the wall."
With Valley farmland going urban at a rate of about six square miles a year, zanjeros are a dying breed. When alfalfa green gets plowed into stucco brown, much of the water gets diverted to municipal water treatment plants. SRP officials say that about 80 to 90 zanjeros are working today, down from 120 or so in the late 1980s.
Since 1970, the portion of Valley water flowing to urban rather than agricultural uses has jumped from about 35 percent to nearly 80 percent. SRP expects that by 2020 there won't be any large-scale agriculture operations in the Valley.
The practice of moving water hasn't changed much over the past 50 years, says Sid Friar, who started at SRP as a zanjero in 1945 and retired as head of the utility's water operations in 1989. "The idea is to deliver the right amount of water to the right location at the right time."
The job of zanjero is one of the oldest in town. The ancient Hohokams, who built and operated canals from the early days of the first millennium to about A.D. 1450 when their civilization disappeared, probably had their version of zanjeros. Modern zanjeros started when the Valley's canals were first built in the late 1800s.
Delivering water is a hands-on, archaic practice. The zanjeros open and close the small, damlike gates on canals and ditches that allow the water to flow elsewhere.
Down on the farm, those gates direct it to fields. In town, they send it through a neighborhood's network of ditches, pipes and valves -- turning lawns into shimmering ponds.
Like any historical trade, ditch riding, as it's sometimes called, has produced plenty of lore.
Stories abound about farmers taking after zanjeros with pitchforks or shotguns for allegedly shorting deliveries of water. Another tale tells of the zanjero who took water orders while making his own potable deliveries at a local bar. And some urban ditch riders -- often those working for the private irrigation companies hired by residential subdivisions -- have developed close relationships with homeowners who leave them beer or food in back-porch refrigerators in exchange for good service.
But Joyce Thayer is more concerned with the future than the past, and with what will happen to the farms of the southwest Valley.
"They say we're going to have houses for 50,000 people down in Laveen in the next five or 10 years," she says, driving past a real estate sign on Seventh Avenue south of Baseline. "A lot of the older farmers I know have sold off most of their land. But some of the them are trying to stay."
She sees her own job shrinking and her connection to the land disappearing. "When they put all those houses in there, that's thousands of inches of water that I won't be delivering anymore. None of those new subdivisions take flood irrigation. All of them are on their own systems."
Zanjeros may hang on to some jobs in the older urban subdivisions where backyards are still routinely watered by the twist of a neighborhood valve. But newcomers to the old neighborhoods are finding it easier to plug in a sprinkler than to get up in the middle of the night to open their yard's valve.
And, as the neighborhoods have decayed, their private networks of pipes and ditches have crumbled. Zanjeros and community residents say that if it weren't for the efforts of a few old-timers, the irrigation system in these and other inner-city areas would probably dry up altogether.
Ron Heckenberg, who oversees zanjeros on the south side of the Salt River for SRP, says the Laveen area, where Thayer works, and the citrus-rich Lehi Valley north of Mesa will probably be the last active farmland in the Valley.
But placards advertising zoning hearings, real estate sales and new housing subdivisions already line the roadsides through those communities.
In the past four years, water deliveries in her area, which extends roughly from 24th Street to 59th Avenue, Baseline to Broadway, have dropped by 25 percent, Thayer estimates; there's been a 50 percent decline in the past 20 years, she says.
"At this rate," says Thayer, who is 52, "I'll be pretty lucky to be able to keep delivering water to farms until I retire."
It's hard to imagine how the bucolic setting of Granite Reef Dam, 30 miles east of Phoenix, below the confluence of the Salt and Verde rivers, fits into one of the most advanced irrigation systems in the world.
Behind the dam's 1,000-foot-long, roll-top concrete wall -- called a weir -- water spreads east into a lagoon fringed by lush stands of cattails, willows and distant green. The cool, watery basin is a regular stop for bald eagles, herons and hawks.
Two canals -- which eventually run more than 100 miles through the Valley -- branch from the north and south sides. These waterways have defined the size and shape of Phoenix for most of the past century by laying out where people could settle and make a living from the land.
Phoenix is full of agricultural plumbing. The SRP system has more than 130 miles of major canals and 1,100 miles of smaller irrigation ditches. The system pushes water to 250,000 acres of land, extending through Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert to Scottsdale, Phoenix and Peoria. Several other private irrigation companies control a few hundred more miles of large and small waterways.
The first modern canals were built roughly along the lines of the ancient Hohokam system.
Todd Bostwick, the City of Phoenix archaeologist at Pueblo Grande Museum, which sits on what was once the headgate for at least four Hohokam canals, says the ancient system was dug by hand, without the benefit of metal tools, beginning in the early part of the first millennium.
It was one of the largest, "if not the largest canal system in the New World," he says. "In fact, they had perhaps as many as 16 different systems that came off the Salt River."
As with the first modern canals, the earliest ancient ones were built close to the river. Floods repeatedly washed them out. So the Hohokam discovered ways to move water beyond the flood plain, conveying it in some canals as far as 10 miles inland.
To move water that far, the main diversion canal from the river needed to be able to accommodate great quantities of fast-moving water, Bostwick says. "However, when you want to take water out of that main canal, you want it going slow, and you want it coming out in a small amount."
Mastery of the water meant controlling its velocity, says Bostwick. The Hohokam accomplished that by controlling both the grade, or slope, of the canals and the volume of water they carried.
"We know, for example, that the water the Hohokams took from the river actually wasn't deposited directly into fields," he says. "It went through a whole series of canals that were connected to each other. And they used gates."
Bostwick and others say those principles are at the core of the modern system that the zanjeros tend.
Dams, he says, are the chief difference between today's system and the Hohokam's. The dams enabled canals to carry water much farther from the river -- up to 43 miles -- opening vast new areas of arable land.
Most of the modern canals, not counting all of the dams, were installed between 1883 and 1913 by a variety of public and private dreamers -- chief among them the United States Bureau of Reclamation.
To build the dams, Valley farmers undertook what amounted to Arizona's only successful socialist real estate venture. Offering their land -- relatively worthless without reliable irrigation -- as collateral, they convinced the feds to construct Granite Reef Dam (1908), and Roosevelt Dam (1911), about 80 miles east of Phoenix at the confluence of the Salt and Tonto rivers.
Three more dams -- Horse Mesa, Mormon Flat and Stewart Mountain -- were added on the Salt in the 1920s. Two more -- Horseshoe and Bartlett -- were built on the Verde River in the 1930s and 1940s.
All told, they store runoff from a 13,000-square-mile watershed that reaches east to the Mogollon Rim, as far away as Show Low and Alpine, and north to Flagstaff and Williams.
Curtis Joiner, an SRP zanjero for the past 23 years who works the Lehi Valley, likens the canal and lateral system to the transmission of a car. The lateral gates on the canals are like clutches. He and other zanjeros spend most of their time shifting them, directing and redirecting water by adjusting metal plates and wooden boards that act as small dams and weirs inside the gates.
Standing over a cement irrigation box that sends water to a school in Lehi, he says the idea is to raise and lower the water level so the right amount of water passes from the canal into the neighborhood or farm ditch.
Joiner walks to the truck and grabs an aluminum rod -- called a weir stick -- with a sliding rule gauged in inches. He places the end of the rod on top of a submerged wooden weir and measures the depth of water spilling over the top.
Then he multiplies that depth by the width of the gate to figure the quantity of water being delivered.
"All the water orders," he says, "are based on how much time the water flows onto the property. How long that is really depends how much land there is to irrigate."
Every acre of irrigated land is entitled to an annual allotment of three acre feet of water -- the equivalent of covering an acre with three feet of water, or about 326,000 gallons. The cost: about $10 per acre foot or $30 a year. Increments of that amount are delivered every two weeks in summer and monthly in winter. Small plots of land might get 50 inches of water for 40 minutes each time. Larger acreage might receive 150 inches for hours.
Joiner says that Lehi historically has had heavy deliveries that keep zanjeros running from gate to gate.
"Some summers we're running so much water down here that it took two people to run it. Other areas in the system might have 30 changes to make in a shift. But this area would have 140 changes."
Lehi's productive citrus groves and relative isolation, tucked as it is between the Salt River and the heights of Mesa, have protected it from urbanization. But that's likely to change, Joiner says, when the San Tan freeway is finished.
Perhaps the best known image of the zanjero is an old SRP photo of a ditch rider on a horse, a rifle propped on his knee. The same photo has appeared in books and magazines over the past half-century, while the life of a zanjero has continued to change.
"When I started out in 1945," says former zanjero Sid Friar, "I rode a bicycle along the canals for the magnificent sum of 39 cents an hour. I worked six 12-hour days on, two days off."
Residential and agricultural deliveries were split in those days. Friar says he was a residential specialist, delivering water strictly to houses along the Grand and Arizona canals in Phoenix.
Zanjeros were assigned to individual geographic areas, just as they are today. But they were on call round-the-clock, seven days a week. It was a husband-and-wife operation. While the man tended the ditch, the woman was expected to take care of the paperwork, water orders and complaints. There were no vacation or sick days. So, if a zanjero was sick during the summer's peak watering season, his wife or a neighboring zanjero would have to run his water for him.
Before modern labor laws caught up with SRP, zanjeros were given a house, some land -- usually next to a canal in their area -- and a company phone so the zanjero and his wife could take the water orders.
A series of strikes and several lawsuits filed by the zanjeros claiming unfair labor practices by SRP changed the zanjeros' work schedule in the 1950s and 1960s.
Despite the Spanish name, almost all of SRP's zanjeros at the time were white men "who were demanding "a white man's schedule,'" says Friar. The strikes led to the formation of a zanjero union, an eight-hour day and 40-hour work week and centralized field offices that gathered and issued water orders. Still, it was years before Hispanics, blacks and women were able to break into the zanjero ranks.
Now zanjeros work 12-hour shifts, three days one week, four the next. They earn anywhere from $26,000 to $40,000 a year, cruising the canals and laterals in radio- and phone-equipped, air-conditioned pickup trucks, rather than on horses or bicycles.
"You have enormous freedom to get the job done," says Alex Hunt, who was a zanjero for years and now lives at Granite Reef Dam in a zanjero house. "I think the job is sort of unique in that way."
He recalls, "When my boss gave me the Kyrene area, back when it was just the steam plant and farms, he basically said, "It's yours. Take care of the farmers, keep them happy. If you can't do that, I'll find someone else who can.'"
Robert Hurley is a water enthusiast, even at 7 a.m. Standing on his front lawn in blue jeans and a white tee shirt, he is peering into a concrete box at the northeast corner of the broad green lawn of his central Phoenix home. He is waiting for the water to come.
It is a ritual repeated throughout the Valley's dozens of flood-irrigated neighborhoods. Like farmers, homeowners in irrigated areas are responsible for operating and maintaining their subdivision's pipes or ditches that connect to SRP's main lateral. They're also in charge of moving their own water. That means being there when the water arrives, day or night. SRP posts the schedules for homeowners at a sign-up board in the neighborhood.
The water is supposed to move from bermed yard to bermed yard, filling first one, then the next.
On this morning, Hurley is out a little early to make sure the downstream gate is closed and the upstream valve is wide open.
"I'm scrupulous about this," he says, checking his watch. "Now it's getting close to our time, but it's not ours yet."
The water he's waiting for comes south through an underground pipe on Seventh Street, where it turns right at a boxed SRP irrigation gate and wends its way through an old subdivision of large, well-kept homes. Averaging about a mile an hour, it takes about 20 minutes for the water to reach Hurley's yard, near Fourth Street and Missouri.
"Sometimes my neighbor will call me if she wants me to take it a little bit sooner. But she didn't call, so we'll wait."
He hustles across his lot and double-checks his gate settings. He loosens a round, metal irrigation valve that's sunk in his lawn, then scoots back across the yard and crouches over the upstream gate.
At precisely 7:15, Hurley begins cranking a squealing rusty wheel that opens the floodgate from the community's underground ditch.
"This lawn'll be full by the time this whole thing is finished," he says.
But nothing -- or maybe not enough -- happens. The water in the pipe barely trickles.
So Hurley goes in search of the problem. He grabs his weir stick -- same as the one zanjeros use -- and drives upstream through the neighborhood, checking all the gates and boxes between his house and the SRP box at Seventh Street.
The problem is with the flow of water from the SRP gate. Farmers can get on the phone directly to the zanjero. But Hurley has only SRP's customer service number. He tells them his account number and says the zanjero needs to put more water into the canal.
Within about 20 minutes, water is bubbling out of the valves in his yard, and he's a happy man.
Hurley, an attorney who has sat on SRP's board, is from an old Phoenix farming family. He says the zanjero system has been working like this for a century: "smooth as oil on glass."
Yet it takes more than pipes to keep the water flowing through the subdivisions.
"Running water in the neighborhood means having to get to know who comes before you and who comes after you," says Ronald Popko, who lives near Osborn Road and 52nd Street in Phoenix and has been helping to organize his neighborhood's irrigation since 1975. "It really requires a social network."
Popko says that when he and his family moved into the neighborhood, the irrigation was handled by a private irrigator who was botching the job.
"I went out there one day and noticed I was getting just a trickle of water. I called SRP and they basically said I was paying for, and ought to be getting, considerably more than a trickle. So I watched what he was doing the next time."
Popko found that the irrigator would open five or six gates at a time, when only one at a time should be opened. So the system had no pressure or flow.
Popko followed the irrigator one day and saw that he was simply running water through the neighborhood ditches and dumping it into the Old Cross Cut Canal, which runs down 48th Street.
"So we all banded together, fired him and started doing it ourselves," says Popko.
"The attraction wasn't so much the idea of controlling the water. It was more about the old neighborhood that I brought with me when I came from Chicago. It was one of those things where everybody helps one another. Arizona is absolutely terrible when it comes to that. Most people don't even know who lives next door. So through these little irrigation projects you get to know people."
That comes in handy when people have to irrigate at night, or aren't home during their slated gate time.
The ideal arrangement for night deliveries, says Thayer, is when neighborhoods "work it out so each person would have to get out of bed only once when their water comes in the middle of the night. The first person turns it on and goes to bed. The second person turns the other guy's off and his on, then goes to bed. And they go right on down the line."
But that's when neighbors are being friendly. Many people talk of neighbors who steal water -- a felony in Arizona -- and those who don't chip in for needed pipe repairs.
Popko can attest that the old quip "whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting" didn't die with the gun-toting guys who rode the canals on horseback.
Early on in his irrigating days, he opened the valves in his yard at his scheduled time one night. The water came out, then stopped. He checked the neighborhood's head gate, on 52nd Street, and found that someone had switched the direction of the flow. So he switched it back. The water flowed into his yard for a few minutes, then quit again. He switched the gates again and waited for the rascal who he thought was stealing his allotted water.
"A few minutes later, a Jeep pulls up," says Popko. "A guy gets out with a shotgun and points it at me. He says, "You're stealing my water.'"
But the neighborhood sign-up board proved Popko was scheduled for water at that hour, so the guy climbed back in his Jeep and drove away.
Popko says he and a few others got tired of having to ask neighbors to contribute to the subdivision's ditch-repair fund. So with the help of an attorney in the neighborhood and the approval of most of the homeowners, they registered the neighborhood as an irrigation district.
"So now, instead of going door to door with my hand out," he says, "the county takes a small amount out in taxes. So whenever we need to repair some pipes or gates, the county cuts the check to the contractor."
But Popko concedes that some of the neighborhood enthusiasm for flood irrigation is fading.
"It's completely different from the old days," he says. "There's no commitment and a lack of responsibility. There are some people here who care and are willing to help out. But mostly . . . they don't want to be bothered."
That decline is most evident in areas where poverty, crime and high numbers of rental properties have torn the neighborhood fabric.
Today, the ditches serving an old Phoenix subdivision near Vineyard and 11th Street are filled with weeds, trash and broken concrete. Roots have invaded a number of pipes. And many sections of ditch have been blocked by sediment and soil.
Joyce Thayer estimates it would take thousands of dollars to redo the subdivision's piping. "But the poverty here prevents them from making the necessary improvements," she says.
Because the pipes belong to the subdivision, the homeowners would have to come up with the money for repairs. She says the system has to be shut off from time to time for stop-gap repairs.
Thayer says that when she started out in south Phoenix 20 years ago, she felt safe to go just about anywhere. "But some parts of my area have shots fired on a regular basis," she says. "A lot of the people won't get up in the middle of the night because of the high crime. So we try to put a "daylight only' restriction on irrigating those. But often they'll just say, "I'm not taking the water' and cancel it."
Donald Bloodworth, who tries to keep the irrigation system flowing in his central Phoenix neighborhood near McDowell Road and 25th Street, says it hasn't been easy to keep the system in his neighborhood going.
"I got involved because I was at the end of the line. At the end you've got to clean up all the mess that flows downhill to you. I figured I was tired of picking up the weeds coming to me. So I began working on them 300 feet up the road."
Weeds haven't been the only things to flow his way. "I've had fish. One time a plague of water-borne frogs. Of course we've had plenty of dead animals -- usually attributable to a dissatisfied neighbor. The biggest animal I found was part of a moose. It was the hip and leg all the way down to the hoof."
Over the years, he says, the neighborhood has had a core group of residents involved in keeping the water flowing. "There were three or four old-timers when I started out, back around 1982. Most of them have passed on."
Bloodworth says he used to hire neighborhood children to help keep the ditches clean. But he stopped doing that when he learned that one of the kids was using the money for drugs.
"I'll tell you what, the next neighborhood I move into is going to be one that doesn't have irrigation. It's too much work, and all this water isn't going into anyone's livelihood. It's just going into prettying up the landscape."
Pretty landscapes were part of the reason Joyce Thayer returned to running water in the Laveen area of southwest Phoenix four years ago.
"I was here about 20 years ago, when there were a lot more farms than there are now," she says, cruising west on Baseline. "But this area has always had some of my favorite canals and ditches. This is one of them, right here," she says, motioning to the north side of the road.
Most ditches slope with the Valley's natural tilt from northeast to southwest, averaging a calm tenth-of-a-foot drop about every 100 feet. But "lateral 12," in zanjero talk, roars like a brook along Baseline, dropping every few hundred feet in small waterfalls that break its westward stride.
It's easy to control, says Thayer, and its quickness flushes away the debris and sediment that constantly threaten to clog slower waterways. Yet after reciting the zanjero reasons to like it, she pauses, then glances at the sparkling water seaming the edge of a green field and says, a bit wistfully, "I don't really know. It's an open ditch; I just love seeing that water tumbling along next to the fields."
She says that some zanjeros prefer the urban side. "But bringing water to the fields makes me feel like I'm connected to something useful -- a real part of the community."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.