Acequias are living monuments
The ethic of upholding the simple but profound rules of the ditch
By Sylvia Rodríquez
Originally posted Oct 23, 2020 Updated Oct 24, 2020 by The Taos News
Katharine Egli/Taos News file photo
Jose Deluvino Casias Jr. decides where he will dig next in a thicket of willow on the Acequia de Atalaya in Arroyo Hondo, as seen in a Taos News photo published in 2015.
Why do we have monuments and what should they stand for?
What values can sustain people through world-transforming upheaval? What kind of monument would embody cooperation, reciprocity, mutual aid, scarce resource sharing, the common good and a constantly negotiated balance between individual and collective interest?
What constitutes the sight and sound of civilization in the desert? What conveyed irrigation water to Kit Carson and Padre Martínez alike? Must someone or something be dead to merit a monument? Must it always be a man associated with some form of authority, domination or violence? Why an individual at all?
What are all but dead inside the town of Don Fernando de Taos but struggling to survive beyond its municipal boundaries? What greened and grew biodiversity in the Taos Valley and became the sustainable, resilient cornerstone of economic survival and social connectivity?
The infrastructure for the agropastoral-trade economy that made Taos a dynamic, often volatile contact zone between diverse linguistic and ethnic groups endures in a latticework of acequias that still operate outside the town boundaries but are now all but extinct inside the town.
Exactly how did this network, or system made up of multiple, interconnected smaller systems, come into being? No one really knows. Every colonial settlement began with the digging of ditches, but no record exists of precisely how, when or by whom any particular acequia madre was dug.
Looking at the overall hydroscape of the Taos Valley, one geohydrologist suggests that the oldest acequias off the Río Lucero, Río Fernando, Río Pueblo and Río Grande del Rancho were dug more or less concurrently in an integrated effort. Integrated in the sense that acequias diverting from the same stream share common drainage ditches or desagües, which return tail waters back into the stream. If they had been dug in piecemeal fashion, he reasons, each acequia madre and its laterals would have their own separate desagüe.
How did a farmer-organized and managed gravity-fed irrigation system come into being in any given watershed? How did parciantes organize themselves? Who was in charge?
The cultural template or rules and technology came from Islamic Iberia, but vecinos had to adapt this knowledge to a new environment where Indigenous forms of water management had previously emerged. What does this have to do with monuments, or with the state of acequias today?
Acequias may symbolize an ideal of mutualism, reciprocity and cooperative resource sharing, but any modern parciante will paint a far less rosy picture of how things are actually going on her/his own ditch.
Just as cada cabeza es un mundo, so is every acequia a world. Each of these little worlds struggles to survive against enormous odds coming from outside as well as within. Despite the myriad forces of disintegration that engulf them, acequias still manage to survive in 2020, out of sheer parciante tenacity.
Acequieros are a stubborn, devoted, resourceful, vigilant and defensive lot. Just about everyone on an acequia has plenty of complaints about how little water she or he gets, the condition of the ditch, neighbors who steal water, a flawed mayordomo or commissioners, the weather, drought, gophers, delincuentes, newcomers, lack of participation, the highway department, the Forest Service, the State Engineer, the Taos Valley Acequia Association, the water adjudication, developers and a predatory real estate and water market.
But even though almost every acequia and almost every parciante may fall short of the ideal, the point is that the ideal exists in the first place. And anyone who grew up irrigating on an acequia knows what that ideal is and what it should look like and how one ought to comply with it.
The ethic of water sharing and upholding the simple but profound rules of the ditch are well known and deeply ingrained. A few hombres buenos y mujeres buenas - as they are called in Spain, are found in every community and we are still learning from their example. Acequias are living monuments to the collective struggle to survive through reciprocity, cooperation and mutual aid in an arid and changing environment. They enabled us to survive in the past, sustain us today, and if we maintain, fight for and honor them, they can prove even more important in the coming dark decades.
Sylvia Rodríguez is a Taos native, anthropologist, acequia commissioner and author of "Acequia: Water Sharing, Sanctity and Place."
Find the Spanish version of this story HERE .