When Spanish conquerors moved into southern California, they established encomienda, hacienda, and mission systems that required much larger volumes of water for growing food and raising domestic animals than the indigenous people, with their much smaller scale irrigated plots, were accustomed to using. To channel a steady flow of water from wetlands to agricultural fields, stock tanks, and settlements, Indian people were coerced into helping develop systems of ditches—zanjas—for the distribution of water. The zanja complexes eventually passed into disuse, but not before large wetland areas had been drained and destroyed. Some abandoned zanjas have since been reclaimed by Chumash people. They’re slowly replanting native vegetation, including willows and reeds, to bring back the precontact, small-scale, zanja habitat—the life in and at the edges of the zanjas, which has been missing for so long. Today, the word zanja refers to a dry as well as a wet ditch, and the expression zanja madre, the mother or main ditch, carries with it the idea of an agriculture more suited to the landscape of southern California than the one envisioned several centuries ago by European immigrants.

Linda Hogan