The Acequia Madre and the Park
by Sylvia Rodriguez
Originally posted December 21, 2020 by The Taos News
The next time Taos citizens debate whether to change the name of Kit Carson Park, they should consider calling it Acequia Madre Park. There would be no Placita de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, or town of Don Fernando de Taos, without the Acequia Madre del Río Pueblo. There would be no park.
The Acequia Madre del Río Pueblo permitted growth that one day would threaten its very existence. Originally it conveyed only sobrante or surplus water rights to settlers of the 1796 Don Fernando de Taos land grant. These vecinos inserted their acequia madre upstream from community diversions in Ranchitos and downstream from Taos Pueblo. They received sobrantes to supplement the irrigation water they were already diverting, along with people in Cañon, from the Río Fernando.
Demand grew, generating a cycle of dispute and resolution whereby, after a century, the AMRP’s contingency rights were converted into a fixed measure of two surcos. These surcos then evolved into a temporal weekend rotation with Taos Pueblo, still practiced today in times of shortage.
The diversion or presa for the AMRP sits about a mile inside Taos Pueblo land, north of the cattle guard entrance and a nearby compuerta, below the old Sierra Vista cemetery, that splits the acequia into two branches. One arm retains the title and curls around the east side of town, following the Las Cruces Arroyo or drainage past La Loma and toward Lower Ranchitos. It flows past or through lands including the Mabel Dodge Luhan estate and Kit Carson Park. It crosses the Río Fernando and receives some of its water. The other branch flows southwest through Placita and La Loma toward Upper Ranchitos.
An intricate network of laterals and sublaterals sprouted off these two arms to irrigate fields and orchards that gradually modernized into town neighborhoods with fences, yards and gardens. This network still operated in the late 1950s when I was a child. It included a ditch that ran through the park and down Bent Street, past the Loretto convent to La Loma. I grew up on one that ran down Placita road and divided into east and west sublaterals at Lund Street. A major lateral flowed underground down North Pueblo Road to the plaza.
During the 1960s the system began to unravel as townspeople gradually stopped irrigating their gardens, milpas, and fruit trees, and let their laterals fall into disuse. Many abandoned, forfeited, or signed over their water rights in exchange for hook-ups to a new municipal water system. Ditches were extinguished through attrition and surrender to a universal pressure to become modern citizens in a modern city. Venitas and linderos were illegally filled in, paved over, obstructed, buried, overgrown. Their names were forgotten.
But remarkably the AMRP has managed to survive, and its commission and mayordomo still operate today, cooperating with Taos Pueblo to divert water for distribution among a few tenacious but endangered parciantes.
In 2011, after decades of abuse and neglect, acequias appeared on the radar screen of municipal government as more than a bygone sacrifice to the god of progress. The town commissioned a study that identified downtown laterals for potential restoration as tourist sites. Gradually it dawned that acequias are a vital and endangered natural-social-cultural resource in their own right; to be protected, maintained and if possible, regenerated.
This new awareness has resulted in a series of innovative restoration projects and protective policies. Water can now flow through restored Kit Carson and La Loma laterals for the first time in decades. As a traditional but newly awakened parciante on both Río Pueblo and Río Fernando acequias, the town of Taos participates in cooperative restoration projects with acequia commissions, the Rocky Mountain Youth Corp, the Taos Valley Acequia Association, the LOR Foundation, Taos Land Trust and the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District.
Finally, back to the park: a 20-acre property including some part of Padre Martínez’s irrigated landholdings, deeded to his house keeper Teodora Romero. In 1847, she donated a piece for the burial of Americans killed in the bloody Taos Revolt. The American cemetery became the kernel around which the park would accrete, as well as the final resting place of elites including Carson, Padre Martínez, Don Juan Santistevan, and Mabel Dodge Luhan. It is unlike any other cemetery in Taos.
Like the Acequia Madre, the park arose out of contingency to become a key feature of the town. Like the Acequia Madre, the park became a dynamic contact zone between different social and cultural worlds. Both meet the needs of distinct and divided local populations. Acequia Madre is a universal term that nevertheless always refers to a specific structure, place and association which connects people, requires cooperation and sustains life.
Who can object to that?
Sylvia Rodríguez is a Taos native, anthropologist, acequia commissioner and author of Acequia: Water Sharing, Sanctity, and Place.