By Ernest Atencio
Illustration by Ed Sandoval
Originally produced as a brochure by Rivers and Birds
Acequia waters have a sound distinct from the waters of a river, different than a concrete-lined irrigation canal or corrugated culvert. It is the sound of water moving slowly, playing on the gravel bed of the ditch, flowing along its dirt banks and the roots of willows. That sound is heard throughout the world today, linking ancient irrigation traditions that reach from the other side of the planet to northern New Mexico. An adaptation for farming arid lands, Pueblo Indians in New Mexico had already developed a similar system before the Spanish arrived over 400 years ago. Modern acequias are still a thriving institution, symbolizing the blending of cultures in this region. Today they are part of what make our local communities and the local landscape so incomparably unique.
Acequias, which refers to both irrigation ditches and the community of farmers organized around them, have been called the lifeblood of northern New Mexico. Acequia waters flow gently across the land, working with the simple force of gravity, to nourish communities and fields like the blood that flows through our bodies. Predecessors of acequias, developed thousands of yers ago in the Indus Valley of South Asia, were based on the human circulatory system. Larger arteries split into smaller vessels and eventually into capillary flows to water every corner of farmland.
The word "acequia" is of Arabic origin, brought to Spain by the Moors of North Africa. The tradition had made its way from India through Persia and north Africa, filling an important niche for arid-land farming communities. Spanish settlers brought the tradition to New Mexico in 1598, inspired in part by techniques that Pueblo Indians had developed.
By the time the first Hispano acequia was constructed near the confluence of the Rio Chama and the Rio Grande, it represented centuries of intermingling cultures, spiritual traditions, and adaptations.
The technology and the cultural traditions surrounding it continue today as part of the treasury of human experience found in northern New Mexico.
Today there are 1,000 to 1,200 working acequias throughout New Mexico. Still vital systems for sustainable agriculture, they are also part of the social glue that holds together traditional rural communities. As a living institution with centuries of continuity, acequias today are a part of the rural Hispano cultural identity, as important as corn to the Pueblo Indians, or buffalo to the plains tribes. The annual ditch cleaning--a cooperative community effort
that has taken place every spring for four centuries--is a right of passage ceremony for the youth of the community. To finish a long day of hard labor is a sign of adulthood, and young people acquire a stronger sense of place and belonging and traditional knowledge of natural systems.
As a friend once said about traditional farming at a Hopi village, "It's not just about growing food, it's also about growing kids."
A Land-Based Environmental Ethic
Acequia systems work within basic geographical and ecological limits of watersheds. Following contours of the land, a traditional acequia will water a variety of locally-adapted crops (including organic farms), support the biodiversity of riparian vegetation, birds, and other wildlife and recharge local groundwater and natural streamflow. There is no more water for irrigation than what comes from the mountain snowpack, and over many generations of living on and learning from the land, skilled acequia farmers know how to use the water with great care. This is a strong incentive for maintaining healthy watersheds, from the top of the mountain to the forests, to the last ditch in the village.
Rooted in local knowledge, long practice, and a deep respect for the land, acequia culture represents a sustainable environmental ethic that works with nature rather than against it.
Today and the Future
Acequias are both irrigation systems and democratic social institutions and formed the basis of the earliest cooperative community government in Hispano communities. They continue today and hopefully into the future as models of sustainable agriculture and of democratic community cooperation. But threats against this old and adaptive institution are mounting every day.
Acequias are communally managed through traditions that harken back to old Spanish and Mexican legal systems. Water is a community resource, a basic element like the air we breathe, but shared within a village. This view goes counter to the modern idea of water as a mere commodity, goods to be bought and sold like so much paper on the stock exchange. It also sometimes goes against the narrow grain of modern legalities. Genuine custom and
tradition, if agreed upon by all irrigators, are officially recognized by both state and federal governments. But the basic doctrine of prior appropriation--meaning those who used the water first have priority rights--also holds true between one village and the next.
Acequias water rights are a form of wealth in poor rural communities and the incentive to sell can be strong. But transferring one or two water rights out of an acequia can negatively impact the entire system. Sprawling downstream cities and water-guzzling industries look to acequias to quench their growing thirst. A complex legal process called adjudication adds another expensive burden, forcing parciantes to defend ancestral water rights.
In the modern world of water right transfers, interstate water compacts, and pumping water from one side of the continental divide to the other, we forget about the simple value of keeping water connected to the land and local watersheds, where it belongs. What will happen to the ancient legacy of the acequia tradition, the distinctive village culture it nourishes, and our rural communities if we sell our water rights down the river?
The acequia tradition also helps sustain the environment. Healthy rural communities and healthy ecosystems go hand in hand. "You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land," says Wendell Berry. "To save either, you must save both." Today acequia waters serve a vital role for both communities and ecosystems.