Riding the ditches for Talent Irrigation District sounds like the peach of all jobs, and maybe it is.
Sam Camp spends long summer days cruising the Rogue Valley's scenic back country in his pickup, looking for problems in some 50 miles of irrigation ditches.
Job title: Ditch rider.
Job description: Drives along Talent Irrigation District ditches looking for leaks, burrowing, damage, clogged gates, etc., and fixes problems to make sure customers get their water.
Salary: $11 to $15 per hour.
Education: Graduated from high school in Anderson, Calif.
How long on the job: 10 years.
If you could have your dream job today, what would it be? "I'm completely happy doing what I do. I have cattle and hay on my own land — a lot to keep me busy."
Not a bad way to make a living.
But after listening to Camp describe his day — checking for leaks, slides and pesky, burrowing critters, clearing brush from the trash racks (screens), checking the meters, making sure all the customers get their 3 acre-inches per season — you realize there's a lot to the job and it takes a dedicated ditch rider to do it.
The job calls for a fellow who's comfortable with lots of space, lots of ridin' and few words, sort of a 21st-century cowboy.
"You keep the right amount of water going to 'em without wasting any," says Camp, leaning against his rig, stopped where the canal pulls out of Bear Creek at the bottom of Oak Street in Ashland.
Camp's ride comprises some 50 miles of ditches spiderwebbing from Valley View Road in Ashland to Barnett Road in Medford and serving 4,000 acres of agricultural, orchard, vineyard and ranching land.
"What you're doing out there is looking for any types of problems, leaks, rock slides, squirrel and muskrat holes. You start out at 5 in the morning and may think you have nothing to do for the day and be out there 10 hours fixin' things," he says.
Ditch riders learn the tell-tale signs, like a green stretch along the canal. That means the vegetation outside the ditch is getting good water — and that the ditch is too leaky and it might be time to fix it. The canals are made of earth, but have to get patched up here and there with shotcrete or gunite.
They look for aquatic growth, too — pond weeds, algae — and take it out, sometimes using a backhoe to do it.
Summer thunderstorms can push canals past capacity, and ditch riders must release the water into natural streams.
On the flip side, drought can force Camp to ration water below what his customers need and want. But they all get the same fraction of their 3 acre-inches (equivalent to an acre covered with three inches of water), he says.
Is it a gravy job?
"Nope. It's not," Camp says. "You're up at dawn and you go till it's done. You're on call 24/7. There's a lot of maintenance in the winter.
"Maybe the best part is you've got a lot of good customers. You go to their door. You get to know them over the years and become good friends with most of them."
Now the big question: Do they call them canals or just plain ol' ditches?
"They're canals," drawls Camp.
And the guys who ride the canals? What are they?
"Ditch riders," he says.