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Ditch tender gets precious water to farms
SSJID--Ditch Tender Pic 1
Ditch tender Jason Wirstlin works a gate. - photo by JASON CAMPBELL/The Bulletin

There are busy seasons.

And then there’s what Jason Wirstlin has to deal with.

For 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, Wirstlin sets up shop behind the wheel of his Chevy pickup truck and motors his way through the almond orchards and the grape vineyards of the South County.

His phone rings constantly. And he’s constantly making calls.

Four main tools are secured in the bed – a shovel, a rake, a board-lifter and a T-bar – and Wirstlin keeps his baseball cap pulled tight over his sunglasses as he steers down country roads and off onto dirt paths.

If you were to ask him what he did for a living he probably wouldn’t be able to explain it to you without actually showing you.

But he diverts water. It’s that simple.

As a “ditch tender” for the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, Wirstlin serves as the liaison between the growers and those tasked with operating the distribution network that supplies the fresh, clean water that is captured and diverted from the Stanislaus River through a series of reservoirs and choke points.

He’s the one that makes sure that everybody gets their delivery. He’s the one that makes sure that the system operates the way that it’s supposed to.

It’s not necessarily an easy task.

A six-year alum of the job, Wirstlin says that it took him the first two before he had the patterns – the paths and the levees and the faces and the names – down to where he was comfortable when he came into work every day.

During that time SSJID has moved forward with one of the most high-tech water delivery systems ever devised – a high-powered, pressurized water pipe through a portion of Ripon that allows customers to draw to micro or drip irrigation systems without ever actually having to place traditional orders. He watched as a wide-open expanse that was previously unused become a massive holding pond for the water that would be distributed along that pressurized line.

Keeping that reservoir, which can drop upwards of a foot an hour at maximum draw, full during his shift is just one of the things that Wirstlin has to do – a relatively new task added to an old job that is adapting ever so slightly with the changing technological times.

No more than 30 minutes pass before Wirstlin gets a phone call from somebody. And within an hour he gets the call that becomes commonplace during the scorching summer heat – a grower that needs water that night, six hours after making the initial call.

It’s not that easy. Wirstlin has to call the distribution center – located out on Carrolton Road – and see whether he can get the extra 10-feet of water needed to fill that particular order. It turns out that he can, and it won’t end up shaking up deliveries along the rest of the line too much throughout the rest of the afternoon.

But things don’t always work out that easily. The lines that run through some sections of the division – which can be spotted by the concrete vents that poke up along the dirt paths that split orchards all over Manteca and Ripon and Escalon – date back decades and still rely on tried-and-true methods for the measurement of water as it flows out into fields and onto orchard grounds. Moving water to one customer sometimes requires asking another if they’re ready to take theirs as well – a juggling act that requires phone calls and visits and handshakes and chats.

That’s what it’s like during the busy season.

It’s a juggling act.

Jason Wirstlin represents an entire group of dedicated folks that strike a delicate balancing act to make sure that the people that grow California’s crops have their most essential ingredient.


It’s a tough job. For tough people.

These are the unsung heroes of the agricultural world.

Too many accolades would just get in the way of the work. Not to mention the phone calls.

Because this is the busy season.