TRACY, Calif. — Despite daily patrols by "ditch riders," a major Central Valley irrigation canal still ends up as a tempting water graveyard for illegal dumping of stripped stolen cars, toxic waste and even murder victims.
"We get some really weird stuff dumped in here," said Gary Dingman, assistant water master at the Bureau of Reclamation.
Sacramento River water gushes down the 117-mile-long Delta-Mendota Canal from the Tracy Pumping Plant to the Mendota Pool near Fresno, irrigating the western Central Valley along the way.
The canal also provides some drinking water.
Most of the long canal, part of the Central Valley Project, is not fenced, leaving its cold, fast-flowing waters open for illegal dumping.
Dingman is one of two "ditch riders," irrigation officers who patrol the canal every day to check on pumps and refuse. But they are trouble-shooters rather than law enforcement officers.
"We can't make arrests," Dingman said. "Enforcement of the 'no fishing' law and 'no trespassing' law is really a gray area."
Frequently found in the canal are the remains of stolen cars and trucks after they have been stripped for parts.
"Many of the vehicles are stripped at the canal and then dumped in," Dingman said. "We drive along and see an oil slick on the water and we know that another car has been dumped in.
"The oil and the gas from cars dumped in the canal is a problem. A couple of years ago, we even found a couple of cans of toxic waste someone dumped in the canal.
"Eventually we're going to have to do something," Dingman said. "Otherwise the cars are going to stick up out of the water."
The canal has even been used to dispose of murder victims. "It is rare, but not unheard of, finding bodies in the canal," Dingman said. "I found a murder victim floating in the canal a year ago."
Other items have been pulled from the canal.
"We have sheepherders in the area who drive their sheep right up to the edge and sometimes the sheep fall in," the official said. "We have also had cattle that roam from their herds, come to the canal for a drink and fall in.
"We once pulled about 16 large trash bags from the canal. They were filled with marijuana."
The canal used to be drained periodically to clean the four to six feet of mud that accumulates at the bottom. But that procedure is no longer in effect because of its high cost and other concerns.
"Not only was it expensive, but ground water would put pressure on the panels when the canal was empty, and they could pop out," Dingman said. "Now we do the maintenance without draining the canal."
Access to the canal used to be more restricted.
"For years we tried to fence it off but a lawsuit a couple of years ago prevented us from doing that," Dingman said. "The suit said that since the canal is on public land and built with public funds, it should be kept open."
Fishing in the canal is a primary attraction for many people.
"We get people here from the Bay Area," Dingman said. "People come from Oakland with their RVs and camp out near the pumping stations. It is really kind of a mixed blessing since they tend to discourage people from dumping, but if we see that someone is staying more than a couple of days we ask them to move along."
There are times when vehicles end up in the canal unintentionally.
"There is just one lane along the canal," Dingman said. "The northbound has right of way over the southbound. One time I was driving and saw a sheriff's car at the canal. A pickup truck and a car met and the pickup did not give the right of way. One passenger in the car drowned when the car went into the canal."
Anyone trapped in a vehicle would be unlikely to survive. The canal waters are cold and swift.
"Ninety to 95% of the cars that go into the canal sink front first," Dingman said. "They then flip over and wind up upside down on the bottom."