Water, Water Everywhere

Remember when I mentioned that we were about to start flood irrigation? Well, Friday night, we did just that. And hoo-boy, was it an exciting evening in the Larkin household.

Irrigation handle

What’s flood irrigation? Well, if you live in an older neighborhood in Arizona, you may already know this, but otherwise it may be news to you as it was to me. The Valley of the Sun is criss-crossed with a canal system whose origins date back to 700 AD, when the Hohokam people built the first large-scale desert canals for agriculture. Today’s canal system is built on some of the same pathways and was begun in 1878. The Grand Canal, which serves our part of central Phoenix, is one of the oldest “pioneer canals” left. Essentially, it acts as a pathway to bring water from the high country in Northern Arizona (the Salt and Verde River watersheds) to the Valley through a series of dams, lakes, and reservoirs. It’s gravity-fed and feeds Valley neighborhoods through smaller pipes or culverts called “laterals.” There’s even a special SRP employee called a Zanjero (“sahn-hair-o”) that opens gates from these laterals into the neighborhood systems.

Water sign-up board

It’s a strangely complex and somewhat antiquated system. SRP doesn’t own the water system past the end of their own gate – the neighborhood does. Each neighborhood is responsible for maintaining their own system, and there’s a neighborhood captain in change of coordinating it. Once SRP opens the main gate to our neighborhood, there are two other people ahead of us on the system that have to open additional levels of gates to get the water to different sections. SRP just tallies up how much water everyone has ordered and releases just that much. What you do with it after that is up to you.

When you want water (once you’re on the system), you simply order a number of water minutes. Our yard, at a quarter of an acre, can receive up to 45 minutes of water if we so desire. Every two weeks in the summer (and once a month in the winter, I think?) we sign up for an order of water and are assigned a time. There’s actually a physical board in the neighborhood that you can use to sign up, but you can also do it via SRP’s website, and the irrigation guy told me that within the year the old sign up boards will be gone. As much as it tickles me that there’s a neighborhood sign up board for irrigation (doesn’t that feel so small town?), we use the website. Because it’s 2012.

Kyle turning on the flood irrigation

So the kicker of this whole thing is that you can be assigned any time of day, and they rotate. For instance, our time on the previous irrigation day, which we missed, would have been at 2am. Nothing about the system is automatic – you have to make sure you sign up for water, that you check to see what time you’ve been given, and you have to turn it on and off at the set time. That means if it’s 2am, you have to get out of bed, turn it on, and then get back out of bed at 2:45 am to turn it off. You can pay someone to do this for you, but since our valve is in the back yard, and we have a dog, it’s not the easiest thing.

Flooded Yard

Luckily, this week, our time was 8:05pm. We were really excited to see how this all would work (especially since our yard looks dead and horrible and everyone else’s is nice). Of course, 8pm on a Friday does kind of limit your social life, but that’s ok. We turned it on and watched the water flow while we cooked dinner on the grill. We totally Face Timed my Mom and Don and kept walking around showing them different parts of our (dark) yard filling with water. The back yard was covered in six inches or so of water within about 15 minutes, and then it moved through the small drainage canal into the front. Both the front and back yard have berms all around the edges, so that water is contained within the yard and doesn’t flow out into the street. And yup, we definitely discovered that that low brick wall along the back of the house serves a purpose. No getting rid of that! I had ordered 35 minutes of water, as a test, but after 30 minutes the back yard began to overflow onto the patio. We may be able to clean out the back-to-front canal and get better flow to the front, which would enable us to use more of the water. The front yard, which is pretty unevenly graded, didn’t fill up the way the back yard did. The back yard was definitely a lake, with pretty even water everywhere.

Flooded Yard

When I checked back outside at 11:30, worried where the dog was going to go do her business, the water had completely soaked in. No more lake. Crazy huh? I guess that land is pretty thirsty.

I should mention somewhere that irrigation is super affordable. We paid $90 for a year of water, based on our lot size. That’s how older neighborhoods like ours have green lawns and large trees – if you had to irrigate that way with City water, you’d never do it. Eventually, when we fix up the yard down the road, we plan to get maximum use out of the flood irrigation by planting fruit trees that can serve a bigger purpose. We already have a lemon and a mulberry, but what about an orange, or a fig, or maybe a peach? Try to space out the harvest seasons so that we’re not picking everything at once. It’s an exciting prospect!

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  1. Kat Anderson April 23rd, 2012

    Angela, thanks for the info this morning! I knew about flood irigation but never knew how it worked with the system in the “old neighborhoods”. Very cool, thank you! All your hard work is paying off! Is this a new house you & Kyle bought or the one you had when we were working togething in 2006-2007? And how’s your dog? Sorry, I cannot remember her name, as I have too many of my own!

    Again, it looks great! Take care.

  2. ALarkin April 23rd, 2012

    Hi Kat! So good to hear from you and I hope you and Jay are doing well (with all your dogs) back east! This house is a new one – we still have the one we bought in 2006 and are renting it out. We knew we wanted something bigger eventually and it just seemed like a good time to take advantage of the crazy low rates and prices out there! Mini (our dog) is doing well 🙂 I’m sure she will show up in a few more pictures on here.

  3. Jim Myers May 23rd, 2013

    Just ran across your article….I have had irrigation here in Mesa for over 30 years….recently we have had trouble getting enough water in the front….I think the ground may have elevated over the years. Anyway, your mention of not getting enough in the front has me asking how did you correct that?

  4. Angela May 23rd, 2013

    Hi Jim! We ended up doing a couple of things that really helped this out. Our big issue was that the water wasn’t moving from the back yard to the front fast enough. The biggest thing that we did to fix it was dredge the canal between the back and the front. We pulled up the stone covers, cleaned it out, and scraped it so it was even a little deeper. We also made sure it was consistently going downhill toward the front, which might be something you could look at if your front is more elevated than it used to be. This allowed the water to flow a lot faster and not back up in the back before the front was full. We also experimented with not opening up the valve all the way so that the flow was slower, and we would leave the line open for a little over our allotted time (say we ordered 35 minutes, we might leave it for 45 minutes). Since we’re the last people on our water line, that was do-able for us, though it might not work for you. Lastly, a couple of times we had issues because of neighbors not closing their valves on time! Since we’re the last ones, we were left with only whatever they didn’t use, so if someone forgot to close their valve, it really affected us. That only happened a couple of times, but talking to your neighbors is also a good thing to try. Best of luck!

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