Acequias, ancient irrigation systems

by Mary Lowers

Acequias are irrigation canals designed to share water for agriculture in a dry land. The acequia system was once prevalent in the west and southwest; acequias are still used in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. There are over a thousand acequias currently in use. Over four hundred years ago the Spanish in the Americas applied their water laws to an irrigation system that had been used by native peoples for centuries prior to European arrival on the scene. The Spanish irrigation ditch system also borrowed from techniques used by the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula, modeled on systems of irrigation brought from Africa.  The word acequia can be traced back to an Arabic origin. This unique system gives equal shares of water for agriculture to users in both wet and dry years. Many acequia systems have been actively used for hundreds of years.
Acequia associations govern systems of water allocation that are communal. In acequia culture water is looked at not as a commodity to be bought and sold but as the agent of survival for people. The system fully utilizes whatever water there is in a given season. The NM acequia associations are led by ditch bosses known as mayordomos and were often the first governmental entities in a community. New Mexico state statutes make these acequia associations legal organizations which must include three commissioners and a mayordomo. The Mayordomo is responsible for organizing spring ditch cleaning. This ditch cleaning is a major community event which gives people an opportunity to discuss community issues while the ditch is cleaned, section by section, in preparation for spring planting.
A second important job of the mayordomo is to allocate the distribution of the water. Estevan Arellano in The Importance of Acequias in Northern NM says, “The mayordomo has to be a bit of a psychologist.” This skill is useful in the process of getting the community to work together around agriculture, irrigation, and who gets water and how much they get. Acequia water is distributed in a fair and balanced method relying on a rotation schedule. The water allocation is based on land use, crop type, and land parcel size. The system allows for a flexibility of need which allows adjustment of water distribution should a field need more water. Acequias are designed to support crops which produce revenue and use water management strategies as an economic tool. The mayordomo is also the protector of the water from possible use as a sewer, or from water theft; the mayordomo also acts as a mediator in water disputes.
As an economic unit, acequias support crops which produce revenue in the community. Currently the agriculture supported by the water of the acequias includes fruit orchards, white and blue corn crops, bean fields, vineyards, chilis and seed banking. Jose Rivera in his volume on Acequia Culture says, “The benefit of the acequia based farming extends well beyond the consumptive needs of the irrigators themselves. Preliminary results from this unique research indicate that acequia based agro pastoral farming increase local biodiversity, extends the riparian zones, and protects the hydraulic integrity of the watershed.”
In northern NM and southern CO watersheds in the mountains feed the Rio Grande and smaller drainages such as the Rio Chama and Rio Pecos. There is a point of divergence (POD) where the river or stream water is first taken at a presa or check dam. This dam allows the water level to be maintained which allows water to reach the acequia madre or mother ditch. Rachel Preston Prinz calls the mother ditch, “the source of sustainable community. El agua es la vida. (Water is life.)” A series of laterals or smaller ditches are constructed to bring water from the mother ditch to specific fields. A number of gates along these ditches, along with hand-held hoes, help guide the water to individual plants and trees.
Mechanically the acequia system is based on the velocity of water flow and gravity pulling water in the proper direction, toward the parcels of land that need the irrigation. Parcels are oriented to let water flow through the landscape and then the water goes into a ditch known as the desaque channel, which takes the unused water back to the acequia madre, creating a loop for the water to continue flowing downstream. The NM Acequia Association protects water and the traditional acequias. They say their purpose is “to grow healthy food for our families and communities and honor cultural heritage.”
If you take a day trip down to the Taos Farmers’ Market or to the Alamosa Farmers’ Market you will see the vendors’ stalls overflowing with gorgeous produce grown in NM and southern CO. The acequia waters irrigate fields of unique varieties of beans, chilis, apples and other regional specialties. Caring for the acequias keeps communities green although it may not have rained for months. Acequias honor the earth and community, giving us a sense of place and a place of beauty. Before sustainability was cool, acequias created a sustainable agricultural system when sustainability was necessary. Acequias have always been about community. Paula Garcia of Mora, NM speaking of the resurgence of agriculture in Mora County says, “Revitialzation of the acequia culture shows people are interested in returning to the land, using the means to grow food our ancestors used.” Acequias remind people of what is really important: honoring the water and feeding each other.

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