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Agricultura, sociedad y desarrollo

versión impresa ISSN 1870-5472

agric. soc. desarro vol.6 no.3 Texcoco sep./dic. 2009


Acequia culture: historic irrigated landscapes of New Mexico


La cultura de las acequias, paisajes históricamente irrigados de Nuevo México


José A. Rivera1, Luis Pablo Martínez2


1 Center for Regional Studies, University of New Mexico, Estados Unidos. (

2 Dirección General de Patrimonio Cultural Valenciano, Consellería de Cultura y Deporte, Generalitat Valenciana, España. (



The first Europeans who entered the upper Rio del Norte (current Rio Grande or Rio Bravo) of northern Nueva España (New Spain) in the sixteenth century, encountered Pueblo Indians whose  Anasazi ancestors were the first horticulturalists of the region by their use of rainwater harvesting and other water control systems. Due to Spanish colonization policies, new and more expansive settlements were to be located throughout the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro from El Paso del Norte to Santa Fe in the old  Provincia del Nuevo México. Water from snowmelt was essential to the establishment of communities in downstream valleys where pockets of arable land were located. Here the Spanish-Mexican settlers diverted and conducted water from rivers through acequia irrigation canal systems transforming the semi-arid landscape  into agrosystems that have survived in to modern times as sustainable examples of the millennial culture of water of Arab,  Iranian and Saharan origin that reached the New World.

Economic change and State-driven hydraulic policies removed acequia diversions along the Middle Rio Grande Valley ending  much of the acequia legacy in the 1930s with the establishment of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. In recent decades the pressures of development threaten to destabilize the surviving  acequia communities in Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado as they confront increased demand from municipalities, industry, recreational, and environmental uses of water. For more than four centuries the acequias have overcome other forces of change due to the solidarity of the irrigators in defense of their agrarian traditions. This article outlines the historic roots of the acequia culture and how the traditional irrigators plan to protect their traditional way of life into future generations. Sharing of knowledge and the interchange of experiences and human values with other traditional irrigation cultures around the world may offer strategies for collective action to counter the common threats.

Key words: Acequia culture, New México, landscapes.



Los primeros europeos que arribaron al alto Río del Norte (hoy Río Grande o Río Bravo) procedentes del norte de la Nueva España en el siglo XVI, encontraron Pueblos Indios cuyos ancestros Anasazi fueron los primeros horticultores de la región por su uso de la  cosecha de agua de lluvia y otros sistemas de control del agua. Debido a las políticas españolas de colonización, asentamientos nuevos y más expansivos se fundaron a lo largo del Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, desde El Paso del Norte hasta Santa Fe en la vieja Provincia del Nuevo México. El agua de deshielo fue esencial para el establecimiento de comunidades en los valles agua abajo, donde se localizaban áreas de tierra arable. Aquí los pobladores hispano-mexicanos derivaron y condujeron agua de los ríos a través de sistemas de irrigación de canales acequia, transformando el paisaje semiárido en agrosistemas que han sobrevivido hasta hoy como ejemplos sustentables de la cultura milenaria del agua de origen árabe, Iraní y sahariano que llegaron al nuevo mundo.

El cambio económico y las políticas hidráulicas estatales eliminaron las desviaciones de las acequias a lo largo del Valle Medio del Río Grande, acabando con mucho del legado de las acequias en la década de los años treinta del siglo pasado, con el establecimiento del Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. En décadas recientes, las presiones del desarrollo amenazan con desestabilizar las comunidades-acequia sobrevivientes en el norte de Nuevo México y sur de Colorado, en la medida en que enfrentan demandas crecientes de uso de agua por municipalidades y  para usos industriales, recreativos y de conservación del ambiente. Durante más de cuatro siglos las acequias han resistido otras fuerzas de cambio debido a la solidaridad de los regantes en defensa de sus tradiciones agrarias. En este artículo se delinean las raíces históricas de la cultura de la acequia y cómo los regantes tradicionales planifican proyectar su modo de vida tradicional a las futuras generaciones. Compartir el conocimiento e intercambiar experiencias y valores humanos con otras culturas tradicionales de irrigación puede generar estrategias de acción colectivas para enfrentar las amenazas comunes.

Palabras clave: Cultura de las acequias, Nuevo México, paisajes.



The community acequias in the State of New Mexico are the oldest water management institutions of European origin in the United States. These irrigated agrosystems date to the time of first settlement by mexican spaniards in the northern borderlands of Nueva España during the late sixteenth century with the first Juan de Oñate colony in 1598 and expanded after the Don Diego de Vargas reconquista of 1692. At the time, the frontier provinces encompassed a vast semi-arid territory rich in natural and mineral resources but short on water supply. When Spanish conquistadores conducted the first entradas into the Rio del Norte (now the Rio Grande or Rio Bravo), they realized that the construction of irrigation works would be critical for the establishment of communities, whether presidios, missions, or towns and settlements.

Here, the Rocky Mountain province of Colorado joins the great Chihuahuan desert from the south and the Llano Estacado from the plains of Texas on the east. Due to conditions of aridity, already familiar to Mediterranean dwellers, Spanish colonization policies required that officials of the crown, and settlers from the central valley of Mexico who accompanied them, must locate their communities in the vicinity of water resources essential to permanent occupation. Early exploration maps of the region designated the locations of and named not only perennial rivers, creeks and lakes, but also minute water features such as "tiny ponds, dry arroyos, muddy watering holes, and miniscule springs."(Meyer, 1984:77). The irrigation technology employed by the waves of settlers was gravity flow by way of earthen canals or acequias. The pobladores constructed acequias in all of the current southwestern United States: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California. However, it was in La Provincia del Nuevo México that Spanish colonization policies were most effective, particularly with regard to the establishment of civilian towns and agricultural colonies.

Like their Spanish counterparts, the acequia irrigators continue to function as comunidades de regantes that can be described as "water democracies." This means they are autonomous, and they operate mostly outside of government in terms of their internal affairs: they elect their own officers, establish rules, enforce them, and settle water disputes. Similar to the herederos (proprietors) in the Spanish huertas, the irrigators of the New Mexico acequias all own lands irrigated by a principal canal. As a community based institution, they are in charge of their day-to-day governance, and collectively they maintain their irrigation works and finance repairs to their diversion structure when necessary.

Similar to the aboriginal peoples before them, the hispano irrigators revere water and treasure it as the lifeblood of the community, and from inception they have utilized water as the main structural factor inin spatial and landscape modification. Without the aid of survey instruments or modern tools, centuries ago they engineered irrigation works superimposing zanjas or earthen ditches on the desert landscape, all by collective human labor. The first step, as instructed by the Laws of the Indies, was to locate a bend in the river or another suitable feature to build the diversion structure from which to capture water and turn it into ditches on one or sometimes both banks of the natural watercourse (Laws of the Indies, 1573). Constructed of locally available materials such as forest timbers, brush and rocks at the diversion point, these irrigation works defined the landscape and demarked the boundaries for irrigation off the main canal and its laterals for several miles downstream, extending the riparian zone beyond the narrow confines of the natural channels. These technologies of construction and irrigation methods were replicated by the successive waves of settlers into the upper reaches of the Rio Grande Basin, fostering the growth of agrarian communities along the Camino Real from El Paso del Norte to Santa Fe, and later the Taos Basin, the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, and eventually the San Juan Basin to the west and tributaries of the Canadian River on the east.

These new watercourses were made from human action, but the fluidity of water followed the contours and topography of the natural landscape imposing curved trajectories that permit gravity flow to deliver water onto the irrigable parcels of land. The result is an impressive mosaic in the paisaje de la acequia, a constructed artifact where water is the principal tool of landscape modification for human use and benefit, a process described more vividly as la domesticación del agua por la mano del hombre. This modification produces a greenbelt extending the riparian zone of the river, creating an oasis that sustains habitats for plant biodiversity and wildlife native to the region, while recharging the aquifer and returning surplus water to a desagüe channel for reutilization by other stakeholders downstream. The acequia landscape, in the context of New Mexico's agrosystem landscapes, includes the presa (dam), aceaquia madre (mother canal, main irrigation ditch); partidores (water divisors); compuertas (sluice gates); sangrías (lateral to the fields); canoas (aqueducts); flumes, pipes, culverts, and in some communities ojitos (springs), tanques (storage ponds), molinos (gristmills), and terraces. In addition, there are structures or landmarks in the built environment associated with the irrigation history of acequia settlements: fences, corrals, barns and sheds, bridges, foot paths or caminos along the acequia, churches, moradas de penitentes (penitent chapels), as well as homesteads of vernacular architecture (Wilson and Kammer, 1989).

The acequia greenbelts of the upper Rio Grande look different from the Saharan oasis of northern Africa, and the Arabian deserts of the Middle East where date palms and desert gardens flourish in juxtaposition to the sea of dunes, rocks and arid lands surrounding the oasis islands. Nevertheless they share the same constitutive principles as acequia irrigation landscapes. The acequias of New Mexico are agroecosystems typical of semi-arid environments where rainfall is sparse and human control and domestication of watercourses are essential to make crops grow by means of irrigation, perhaps closer in similarity to the inner cold oases of Central Eurasia (The Oasis Project, 2003). As in the cold desert oasis, water in the high altitudes of northern New Mexico sustains life for human, plant and animal species alike. The acequia watercourse itself creates micro-climates that humidify the landscape and temper the heat of the mid-day sun, conserve moisture in the soils for use by native and cultivated plants, and make the arid lands bloom (Lamadrid, 2006). Within the riparian zone, the shaded oasis underneath the giant cottonwoods attracts and nourishes thickets of coyote willows along the lines of the zanja following the trajectory of the water in the ditch. Wild plums or ciruelas (Prunus domestica) and capulín (chokecherries) (Prunus serotina) also flourish serving as habitats for bird species such as the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and the more common juncos (Scirpus lacustris). Alongside the ditch bank are wild asparagus plants and tree shrubs of membrillo (Cydonia oblonga) or other fruit varieties. In stark contrast with the diversity of the man shaped irrigated landscapes, the sandy dry arroyos (creeks) above the acequia maintain only the hardiest of desert sagebrush plants such as the chamisas and cholla cactus, and still higher the juniper (Juniperus communis) and piñón (Araucaria araucana) trees slope up into the foothills of the nearby forests (Lamadrid, 2006).

In the higher elevations at around 7 000 to 8 000 feet, from the Taos Valley in New Mexico to the expansive San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, acequia farms and ranchos often consist of extensiones, or riparian long lots. This upper region of the Rio Grande is representative of high mountain snowmelt basins in other parts of the world where snowpack accumulations during the winter season contribute substantially to streamflows months later for irrigation purposes in the valley bottomlands. As compared by Peña the topography and climate of these lands are similar to the high steppes and cold desert environments of central Asia (Peña, 1998:243). Rainfall precipitation in the spring and summer months is sporadic, but agrosystems are possible due to the run-off of additional precipitation as snow melt that originates in the alpine forests following seven months of winter. As land usepatterns, the long lots are also akin to the upland Franco-Iberian agricultural traditions where each farmer owns a ribbon-like strip of narrow width lot with access to the natural resources in every biotic zone within a five to twenty miles distance in length. From the Taos Valley to San Luis, this biogeographical landscape described by Peña includes piñón-juniper woodlands on the mesa tops and foothills for the gathering of fuel wood and building materials, along with dry land grass prairies for the pasturing of livestock. For the irrigation of fields in the riparian bottomlands, each parcel has a headgate to access and divert water from the local acequia system for the cultivation of row crops, orchards and gardens (Peña, 1998:252).

The acequia watercourse remains as the most distinguishing feature of the typical village and its relationship to the surrounding landscape ecology: the artificial paths of the water shape the edges of the varied terrain; it defines the natural and human-made boundaries in a mosaic of gradual transitions; it sets the limits to growth and allocates space for community development and the built environment; and it nourishes the plant and animal ecologic life within the spatial corridor. Increasingly, conservation biologists and other watershed scientists have been confirming the value of local knowledge and practices of acequia farmers. For example, a field study by Fernald and his associates reports that the earthen acequias perform valuable hydrologic, riparian and agroecosystem functions: seepage from the ditch bed and banks maintain wetted soil profiles that support riparian vegetation habitats for plant and wildlife diversity; the acequias recharge shallow groundwater along the floodplain corridor and affect return flows to the river source as subsurface flows; and flood irrigation is similar to overbank flooding by providing functions that resemble those of meandering and braided channels. Plants and trees that benefit from the "ecosystem services" of acequias include sedges, rushes and perennial grasses at the ground-level, willows and alder and other shrubs at midstory, and boxelders and tall cottonwoods in the overstory. When viewed adjacent to the cropping patterns of fruit trees and irrigated fields of alfalfa and vegetable gardens nearby, the expanded riparian corridor transforms the desert into a garden-like landscape for human, livestock and wildlife uses (Fernald et al., 2007).

During the twentieth century, water reclamation projects expanded the supply of available water for distribution across the myriad of stakeholders in New Mexico, Colorado and other western States. The era of large-scale water development, meant to harvest and channel water destined for urbanizing regions or to reclaim desert lands for agricultural production, isessentially over, but population growth continues at unprecedented rates in the region, placing stress on the land and the limited sources of water in terms of both quantity and quality. Water resources are now fully appropriated and beyond—to the point that "paper water" exceeds the real or otherwise existing "wet water."

In these new times of increased water demand, coupled with the occurrence of cyclical droughts evidenced once again in the last few years, concepts of repartimientos (water sharing agreements) and auxilio (emergency water) practiced by the community acequia irrigators provide examples of the sustainable use of water resources for adoption as models by other water user associations or entities. The permanency of these traditional methods, however, depends on how and if the solidarity of the irrigators can overcome the challenges of the water markets and the complex factors of accelerated development. The other stakeholders in the region believe they too have, either historic claims, or higher value needs for the scarce supply of water:

• Pueblo Indian Tribes claim, and in fact hold, aboriginal rights that are paramount and federally reserved

• Municipalities face increased demands from growing populations at a time of reduced snowmelt and precipitation, and for the first time are diverting Rio Grande surface water for domestic uses such as in the metropolitan area of Albuquerque;

• The industrial sector, for example Intel's world renowned Rio Rancho plant, asserts a priority for higher use values in order to fuel the economy and increase job growth in the metropolitan area;

• Commercial agriculture is the largest consumer of surface and ground water and, thus, farmers dependent on water delivery by irrigation and conservancy districts resist the transfer of agricultural water for other purposes such as urban development.

• Recreational users want to be included in regional water allocation and management decisions to insure their continued access to streams and lakes for fishing, rafting, boating, and other water-based sports

• Environmentalists advocate for minimum in-stream flows supplemented with water rights acquisitions for the protection of endangered fish and wildlife species such as the silvery minnow and the willow flycatcher.

Together, these very diverse and often competing values present the community acequias along the upper Rio Grande and its tributaries with formidable challenges. The long term survival of the acequia culture may well depend on how the stakeholders, elected officials, policymakers and the public recognize the eco-cultural and heritage values of the acequia irrigation systems, and in particular how the acequia communities contribute to cultural tourism and economic development for the benefit of the State and all of its citizens. The campaign has already begun, as the acequia associations locally, in watershed regions, and statewide pursue strategies to increase social knowledge about the acequia culture while they also consolidate their powers as political subdivisions of the State and preserve their customary practices of local control and discretionary authority (Rivera and Glick, 2003).


Origins of irrigation in New Mexico

The history of irrigation in New Mexico is rooted in the prehispanic times of the upper Rio Grande; agriculture and small-scale irrigation of farmlands by indigenous peoples existed prior to the arrival of Spanish-Mexican settlers, but were based primarily on the natural cycles of floodwater farming and the control of water resources in the tributary creeks or arroyos, alluvial fans, and streams. By contrast, the irrigation practices imported by the colonizers were more widely extended and incorporated into the society, as exemplified by the larger number of permanent diversions of stream flows, including the larger ones. Thus, anthropologists distinguish between the use of "water control systems" as practiced by the Indians and "irrigation" in the strict sense, amplified and intensified by the Hispanic colonists (Cordell, 1984:190; Vivian, 1970:69-74). The systematic transformation of valley bottomlands through irrigation by these European settlers established a culture of water as the dominant feature in the traditional irrigation practices in rural New Mexico, as documented in the terminology and institutions of irrigation.


Indigenous agricultural systems— prehispanic era, 1500 B.C. to 1540 A.D

The first agriculturalists who employed water control systems were the Anasazis, a culture associated with the archeological sites at Mesa Verde (southwest Colorado) and Chaco Canyon (northwest New Mexico). Prior to 1500 B.C., the Anasazis were hunter-gatherers, but when confronted with population growth during the next millennium they needed a permanent source of food supply and in quantities sufficient for storage during times of drought. Gradually, as detailed by Vlasich, they began cultivating corn, squash and beans, transforming into horticulturalists by the first century A.D. (Vlasich, 2005:4). Using digging sticks, theyplanted these crops on contoured terraces, grid-bordered gardens, and the canyon floors of the high desert landscape mostly as soil and water conservation strategies. Their water supply depended on natural precipitation and runoff from the mesa tops which they channeled to their small garden plots and fields by way of intricate systems of masonry check dams, canals, and diversion headgates (Cordell, 1984:190; Vivian, 1970:69-72; Wozniak, 1996:34).

Despite several centuries of agricultural subsistence, the Anasazis had to contend with a series of droughts starting in 1090 A.D. that along with other factors threatened their sedentary way of life. After the peak population period of 1100-1300 A.D., they began to abandon the Four Corners region and by 1400 A.D. had relocated to approximately thirty villages along the Rio Grande Valley and some of its tributaries (Vlasich, 2005:6). Here, the lower altitudes and the presence of more reliable sources of water made possible new settlements by the descendants of the Anasazis, the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico made up of ewa, Tiwa and Keresan tribes. The Pueblos continued the ak-chin or floodwater farming practices of the Anasazis, but due to the availability of permanent streams, they were able to utilize a combination of dry farming and some irrigation from creeks and minor tributaries such as the Rio San José, Jemez River, Rio Puerco, Zuni River, Rio Pescado, and on a limited scale along the more substantial Rio Chama and Rio Grande (Vlasich, 2005:5-7; Scurlok, 1998:93).

Prior to the entrada of the Spanish conquistadores in 1540, the Tewa, Tiwa and Keresan tribes had already developed a variety of complex agricultural strategies in some of the valleys of the upper Rio Grande. Field studies indicate that these Pueblo farmers invested a large amount of time and energy in the development of extensive networks of water harvesting and control in dispersed localities. As had been the case with the Anasazis, they captured flows during rainfall events by way of check dams for the periodic flooding of fields. The Pueblo Indians also built communal systems of irrigation by diverting flows along arroyos, creeks and tributaries and channeling water by way of wide and shallow canals to cultivated fields of cotton, tobacco, melons, chiles, and large quantities of maize, beans and squash (Vlasich, 2005:14-16; Clark, 1987:71). When the conquistadores encountered these ditches, they marveled at the complexity of some of these systems while noting their resemblance to Spanish irrigation canals. In his account of the Antonio de Espejo expedition of 1582-1583, for example, Luxàn wrote: "We found many irrigated cornfields with canals and dams, built as if by Spaniards." (Hammond and Rey, 1966:182).


Hispanic Amplification of Irrigation: 1598-1821

As a point of departure from the Anasazi and Puebloan experiences, the first European farmers did not limit their settlements to areas primarily dependent on floodwater farming or other strategies of soil and water conservation. The objectives of Spanish colonization—implemented by land concessions granted to successive waves of immigrants—required the diversion of much larger quantities of water and the establishment of intensive systems of irrigated agriculture. For the plowing and cultivation of valley bottomlands, the colonists constructed diversion dams along scores of existing watercourses, minor and large, notably the works built for the domestication of irrigation water from the upper Rio Grande and its western tributaries and then over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east to the Rio de Mora, the Gallinas River, the upper Rio Pecos, and others. The survival of the settlements depended on a strong agricultural base and economy aided by the introduction of new varieties of crops and domesticated livestock (Wozniak, 1996:34-35).

The pobladores constructed waterworks for the diversion, channeling and distribution of water from rivers and streams: presas or tomas de agua (dams), equivalents of the azudes known in the Iberian peninsula; tanques or reservoirs equivalent to the balsas or albercas of Spain; compuertas or headgates; partidores or partition structures on the bed of the ditch; acequias madre and sangrías, these latter ones equivalent to the Iberian brazales; desagües or drains, equivalent to the Spanish escorredores or azarbes; and in some arroyo locations, canoas or aqueducts hand hewn from forest tree logs. Water circulating through the irrigation systems also permitted other uses, such as the use of acequia flows to power molinos or gristmills with horizontal waterwheels for flour production, a clear legacy of Iberian hydraulic culture.

Those colonists who arrived from Spanish regions that were recipients of a rich and diverse culture of water with Islamic roots, such as Andalusia, Extremadura, the Castillas, Murcia, Aragón and Valencia, applied their knowledge to the development of New Mexican irrigation. As noted by Martínez (who cites Glick and others), it was through the Spanish conquistadores and missionaries, descendants of the Christian conquerors of Islamic Al-Andalus of the Middle Ages, that the millennial culture of water of Arab, Iranian and Saharan origins reached the New World and transferred ancient irrigation technologies in water management (Martínez, 2004; Martínez, 2008). For establishment of Santa Fe, Nuevo Mexico in 1610, the Spanish officials were also accompanied by a band of Tlaxcalteca Indians from central Mexico, themselves expert irrigators and horticulturalists who doubled as farmer soldiers in alliance with the colonizers. Here the Tlaxcaltecas quickly built "la iglesia de San Miguel" mission church, dwellings, and may also have constructed the "acequia para regadío" (irrigation ditch) on the south bank of the Rio de Santa Fe to irrigate fields and grow crops needed for the fledgling capital city (Martínez Saldaña, 1998).

In the outlying rural jurisdictions, the acequias de común (community acequia) were constructed with equal speed and deliberation by the use of mancomunidades (voluntary associations of land grant petitioners, extended families, and other small groups of landowners who banded together to hand build the irrigation works). Together they developed arreglos or informal agreements for the allocation, management and delivery of water in a manner that would be fair and equitable to all irrigators (Meyer, 1999). This process became the basis of hispano customary water law and was replicated throughout hundreds of Spanish agricultural colonies into the nineteenth century. At each locality, members within the community of landowners, beneficiaries of royal land grants, continued to maintain their hydraulic systems through communal labor from one generation to the next, without much outside help or interference. Yearly, they collaborated in the limpia or cleaning of the acequia and in the repair of any damages, especially in the presa structure, and the cooperative work for operational decision-making and the enforcement of water laws.

By custom, the opening of the acequia madre signaled the start of a new irrigation season and an occasion for celebration by the entire community. More than two centuries after the construction of the first Spanish ditch at the Oñate colony in 1598, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike of the United States Army observed this practice when he led an expedition into New Mexico in 1807. In his diary for March 7, he marveled at the communal labor and festivities associated with the spring cleaning and opening of the canal in Albuquerque, then a farming village along the banks of the Rio Grande:

"Both above and below Albuquerque the citizens were beginning to open the canals to let in the water of the river to fertilize the plains and fields... where we saw men, women and children of all ages and sexes at the joyful labor which was to crown with rich abundance their future harvest and insure them plenty for the ensuing year. Those scenes brought to my recollection the bright descriptions given by Savary of the opening of the canals of Egypt" (Pike, in Quaife, 1925:152-153).

Participation in the maintenance and upkeep of the local ditch was proportional to the size of land area under irrigation owned by the proprietors, locally known as parciantes. These landowner irrigators of Hispanic New Mexico still follow the nearly universal rule that governs many common property regimes, wherein each property owner must contribute to the maintenance of the communal system in direct proportion to the benefits he or she receives. The irrigators in these systems, significantly known as acequias de común (meaning the same as "commons irrigation ditches") agree to their mutual set of rules and regulations for the management of water supplies, elect their own officials, and implement their own justice in the resolution of conflicts that result from the distribution of water (in some cases, by mediation of hombres buenos or good men in colonial times, such as those employed in the middle and lower Segura River of Murcia and Orihuela, Spain). The Hispanic roots of the ancient alcaldes de aguas (water managers), currently known in New Mexico as mayordomos, is clear, as is their kinship to the acequieros of Islamic Spain, as described by Glick (Glick, 1970).


Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The nineteenth century was a period of major political changes. In 1821, New Mexico became a part of an independent Republic of Mexico, only to be annexed by the United States in 1846-48 by military intervention and conquest. But these changes did not pose an immediate threat to the community acequias because of their central role in agricultural production. For example, the first water laws adopted by the Territorial Assembly of New Mexico in 1851-52 under United States jurisdiction were contained in article 1, chapter 1, "Acequias of Laws of the Territory of New Mexico" (Leyes del Territorio de Nuevo Méjico), published in Spanish, guaranteeing the priority of water use for irrigation and the application of existing arreglos or customary ditch rules for the operations and maintenance of the acequias de común:

Que ningún habitante de dicho Territorio tendrá derecho a construir finca alguna con perjuicio del regadío de las labores o siembras, como son molinos, u otras que impidan el curso de las aguas, pues el regadío de las siembras debe preferir a todos los demás...

Que todos los asociados en una acequia de común, ya sean propietarios o arrendatarios de tierras, contribuyan a trabajar según la proporción de sus labores...

Que de las acequias ya establecidas no se embaraze su curso...

El arreglo de las acequias que ya están trabajadas quedará establecido tal como se hizo y permanece hasta hoy, y las prevenciones de este acto, serán vigentes y en observancia desde el día de su publicación (Studley, 1865).

Until 1907, the community acequias maintained their hegemony in the control and utilization of surface waters. But in this particular year, the Territorial Assembly of New Mexico adopted a Water Code that declared surface water as of public domain, centralized the system of water administration, and diminished the sovereignty of the acequias. The Territorial Engineer took over the control of issuing permits for the diversion and use of surface waters. In 1912 the territory was granted statehood, paving the way for state and federal government intervention in the allocation and distribution of water supply through public agencies that sponsor water development projects: the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency, and Water Conservancy Districts, authorized in state statutes. Thus, between 1928 and 1936, the seventy-two acequias that existed within the Middle Rio Grande Valley (north and south of Albuquerque), the majority of them with their own diversion structures, were reduced by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) to depend on only three large dams outside the control of the acequias. The project—justified on the grounds that it would control flooding and also result in improved irrigation for commercial and small farms alike— trampled the historic rights of the acequias de común and instead granted vast administrative and taxation powers to the MRGCD to include responsibility for the distribution of water and canal maintenance (Rivera, 1998:215).

Nonetheless, the traditional, self-governed acequias continued to function in watersheds outside of the Middle Rio Grande Valley. In modern times, however, they are confronted with major threats: the urbanization of acequia landscapes and pressures brought to bear on water, a limited resource, by other interests different from those of traditional irrigation. Recent decades have evidenced an increase in demand for water to support not only urban growth but also industrial uses, tourism, recreation, and the protection of endangered animal species. The value of water that is invested in agriculture cannot compete with productivity earned when water is used for some of these other purposes. In the context of growth, the acequias de común are viewed by competing stakeholders as strategic reserves for water transfers. The legal framework, in fact, favors the interference by stakeholders outside of local acequias. Current laws considers water, or water rights, as property that can be bought and sold in the market; atthe same time, these laws do not recognize the collective rights to water of the communities (a constitutive principle of the communities of irrigators), but instead those of the individual members who comprise it. The clash between the community value of water, versus the commodity value permeates the discourse over the future of New Mexico's scarce water supply and in the case of acequias, survival of the land based culture is at risk.


The future of irrigation communities in New Mexico

As a group, the acequias are united in their stand against the unfettered water markets that threaten to increase transfers to "higher economic values" in the urban and industrial sectors. They fear that water markets, if left unchecked, will dispossess rural communities of their water resources and limit their options for local economic development (New Mexico Acequia Association, 2000:2). Despite the gravity of the situation, there are still about one thousand community acequias in New Mexico and southern Colorado. And their resistance is not passive. The parciantes organize; they mobilize and protest against transfers. In their view, that they share with the indian communities, to sever water rights from the land is tantamount to extinguishing all life forms in the ecosystem: "sin agua, la tierra no vale nada" (without water, land is of no value). This conclusion helps to explain why applications to transfer water to uses outside the acequia communities are often protested with fierce intensity by the acequia irrigators. From the time of first settlement, and intrinsic to the community value of water in the contemporary period, land, place and identity are interdependent and not severable one from another.

To accomplish their goals, the communities replicate the structure of the state agencies, and they confederate in "acequia associations" at the watershed level, which permits them to negotiate on an equal footing. Currently, regional associations are active in numerous watersheds such as the Rio Chama, Rio Santa Cruz, Rio Gallinas, Rio de Mora, Rio Embudo, and in the Taos Valley, among others. The organizational strategy culminates in the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) that convenes annually in a Congreso de las Acequias (Acequia Congress), where delegates from local acequias and regional associations meet to deliberate on statewide issues. A statewide acequia association has also been organized in Colorado, the Colorado Acequia Association (Hicks and Peña, 2003).

The purposes of the NMAA, and regional associations at the watershed level, include the provision of legal (lawyers) and technical assistance (historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and specialists in regional planning) to the affiliated acequias, helping them to defend their ancestral water rights during water adjudication suits in the courts. The NMAA also reviews pending legislation, represents the member associations in meetings with state and federal agencies, advocates for the acequias at the state legislature, monitors public expenditures for water projects, and participates in the regional and state water planning processes. Under the protection of collective organization, the parciantes initiate public campaigns defending their agrarian traditions, while promoting their farm products such as organic crops and fruits irrigated with the pristine waters from the high sierras. Organic farming and the production of heirloom crops continue on the rise as the parciantes demonstrate the cultivation of locally grown food as a way of preserving a land-based culture and heritage, while at the same time promoting sustainability of resources and local food security. Recently, a consortium of acequia farmers of the Chimayó Valley have revitalized the production of a native chile variety long known for its singular flavor and appeal, and marketed as "Chile de Chimayó." The founders of the Chimayó Chile Project intend to make the growing of this traditional chile profitable once again in direct competition with the commercial and hybrid varieties produced in the Hatch Valley of southern New Mexico and in more far away places such as China (Ross, 2006).

The hispano agrosystems continue to produce a wide range of crops of diverse origins from both the Old and New Worlds: Pueblo Indian, Mexican and native land races for diverse field crops, and orchard fruits, vegetables, and some grains from Mediterranean Europe (Peña, 1998:242). These acequia products include: wheat, barley, oats, alfalfa and pasture grasses for livestock; and for human consumption, apples, pears, peaches, cherries, plums, apricots, nectarines, melons, chile, corn, white corn chicos, beans, bolita beans, squash, peas, chickpeas, haba beans, lentils, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumber, calabacita Mexicana, garlic, onion, cilantro, asparagus, potatoes, turnips, radish, carrots and more recently, artichokes (Peña, 1998:256; Santistevan, 2003:54).

To maintain their advantage in marketing of diverse agricultural products, the acequias actively support the maintenance of healthy watersheds in the forests and downstream valleys in order to maximize the supply of clean water, food fiber, forage, and biodiversity for plant and wildlife habitats (New Mexico Acequia Association, 2000:7). In many watersheds, the acequias are the first diverters of snowmelt water, making them aware of the stewardship responsibilities they hold on behalf of downstream users, whether other acequia communities, Pueblo Indian Tribes, or the cities and towns. Their gravity flow system of irrigation, with no fossil fuel inputs, helps to maintain water and enviromental quality. The San Antonio de Padua village outside of Albuquerque on the eastern slope of the Sandia Mountains, for example, boasts that its ojito de agua (spring) produces the "cleanest water in New Mexico." Water from two natural springs has fed the acequia madre of the community since 1819 and still flows through an heirloom apple orchard on terraced land and into a wetlands pond for release further downstream past the old plaza into grassy fields where remnants of agricultural activity are evident. Today, this pure water is used to irrigate household garden plots and for domestic purposes; the acequia streams have been incorporated into an Open Space Preserve that serves as a wildlife sanctuary and a place for cultural and environmental education (Monk, 1998:6-7; Bernalillo County, 2005:8-9). The acequias are more than aware of the environmental benefits of gravity flow irrigation systems, and in line with this belief, they have promoted and inspired research projects to study the ecosystem services of acequia farmland and how these goods and services can be evaluated to guide land use policies and decision-making. Their current and future plans include the careful management of their land and water resources to enhance the ecology and the biodiversity values of the acequia landscape within their function as stewards of the watershed resources (New Mexico Acequia Association, 2002:10).

Organizational activities are fueled at the local level with informational bulletins, promotional flyers, meetings and special reunions, as well as community celebrations such as the ritual blessing of the ojito at San Antonio de Padua that includes a mass and matachines procession from the parish church to the spring well location. For capacity building purposes, the statewide NMAA organizes workshops in acequia governance and management. In recent years, they have conducted training of mayordomos and parciantes regarding: the powers of acequias; by-law changes to enhance local control over applications for water transfers; water sharing and pooling agreements across acequias; dispute settlements by use of hombres buenos adapted from earlier times; recording of easement and property rights; record keeping and financial management; conserving food traditions and seed banking for heirloom crops; the role of indigenous and local knowledge; organic farming techniques and marketing strategies; water banking, and a growing list of other educational topics. More recently, the NMAA initiated Sembrando Semillas, where youth of the acequia villages learn about the seasonal agricultural practices and farming traditions passed on to them by a select group of parciante mentors: the youth clean ditches, plant gardens and document the local knowledge of the communities where they live. Traditional knowledge is more widely shared with the public in radio broadcasts called \Que Vivan las Acequias! These series of radio programs are archived at the NMAA website where general information aboud the acequias, events, court cases, pending legislation, and other posting can be found (New Mexico Acequia Association, El Parciante, 2006).

The future of the acequias may well reside in the manner and degree to which they are capable of maintaining their solidarity and collective action, and in the establishment of strategic alliances with the environmental movement, historical preservation associations, foundations, private corporations with a sense of social responsibility, the scientific community, ecotourism industries, local planning boards, and tribal governments. As an example, in August of 1999 the Board of County Commissioners of Rio Arriba County imposed a moratorium on the subdivision of irrigated agricultural land. This provided the county planning department time to develop a comprehensive study of cultivated lands (in practice, mostly lands irrigated by acequias), and to consider policy changes for the protection of acequias, irrigated agricultural land, and the quality of life in Rio Arriba. Planners did not limit their input sessions to public hearings for at-large interests, but they visited the micro watersheds in the county where they convened workshops with the local residents. Their goal was to empower the communities to plan for their agricultural resources in terms of recommended land use regulations. After nine months of public meetings and special workshops, coupled with the gathering and analysis of agricultural conditions data, the county amended land use regulations and adopted new subdivision and zoning ordinances for the protection of acequia farmlands while allowing some sustainable residential development in the form of cluster housing for family members (Rio Arriba Agricultural Conservation Study, 2000).

The acequias support local and county ordinances to preserve agricultural lands. At the state level, they have succeeded in the lobbying for the adoption of other favorable legislation to enhance their powers and local control of acequia waters. In recent years, state statutes have been enacted following campaigns orchestrated by the regional and statewide acequia associations. One law passed by the state legislature in 2003 allows local acequias to form water banks where parciante water rights can be deposited and reallocated temporarily to other acequia members while permitting the original parciante to retain the individual water rights. This water bank allows the acequia and the irrigator to avoid forfeiture for non-use or abandonment and also facilitates the leasing of water rights for beneficial uses to augment water supplies for places of use served by the ditch. Pooling of these rights reinstates the customary practice of earlier times when acequia officials had the power to retain water rights in the local system and allocate to members for repartimiento or auxilio in times of scarcity or emergency aid. The modern statute grants authority to the community ditch to hold and distribute any water deposited in the water bank without formal proceedings before the State Engineer (New Mexico Statutes Annotated 1978/2003 Section 73-2-55-1).

A second new law (2003) also returns powers once held by local acequias and their officers. Since after the enactment of the New Mexico Water Code in 1907, only the State Engineer has held authority to allocate surface waters under a permit issue system, to include the review and approval of any proposals to change the point of diversion or place or purpose of use based on water transfer applications submitted by individual holders of water rights. Under this centralized application system, the acequias were limited to either support or oppose the transfer in public hearings with testimony to support their positions. The State Engineer made the ultimate decision, and in the majority of cases approved the transfers, including transfers from the acequias for uses outside of the system such as for snowmaking at ski resorts. The new water transfer law adopted by the state legislature in 2003 returns local control to the acequia commissioners. If local acequias adopt a by-law specifying criteria and a process for transfer applications submitted to them by any of their members for changes in the use of a water right served by the acequia, they can now either approve or deny the transfers. Changes can be denied if the acequia commission concludes that the proposed application would be detrimental to the acequia or its members (New Mexico Statutes Annotated 1978/2003, Sections 73-2-21.E and 73-3-4.1).



The acequias de común of New Mexico have survived as transplanted civil and social institutions since Spanish colonial times maintaining continuity of a water culture despite changes over three sovereigns, Spain, Mexico, and the United States. The cohesion of the community of parciantes, a critical factor to survival of the acequias, has many cultural and political factors in its favor beyond the economic rationale as a commons system. The acequia culture is based on a reciprocal relationship between irrigation and community. The roots of the hispano irrigators in the lands of their ancestors motivate them to defend their water and acequias, and maintain their sense of place in the world. Their proverbial attachment to the land has been captured to perfection in the novel by John Nichols, The Milagro Beanfield War. By promoting their agrarian traditions, the hispanos of New Mexico and their neighbors in Colorado defend their país, or homeland, and thus preserve their way of life and cultural identity.

In global terms, these Iberian origin systems share a common past with the water cultures of other continents. The word acequia, derived from the phonetic transcription of the Arabic al-saqiya (water lifting device or irrigation canal), represents an ancient tradition of water circulated in ditches by gravity flow, and in the larger context of world irrigation these community acequias embody a monument to the history of cultural transfer dating to pre-Muslim civilizations. In the harsh climates of the desert in North Africa, the Middle East, and in many other semi-arid regions, irrigated agrosystems were developed by mutual labor that domesticated flowing rivers with diversion structures built to capture water without compromising the environment. Over the millennia of time, hand crafted ditches were constructed out of the earth in order to store, transport and distribute water to the gardens and fields for food production and human sustenance. In regard to governance, the intangible side of cultural heritage, the acequias have relied on autonomous, democratic, and local institutional arrangements to operate and maintain the physical design of the canals and laterals (Martínez, 1999).

The interchange of heritage with other agrarian communities around the world likely will promote the recognition of these unique hydraulic landscapes. Intercultural dialogue, collective action, and the sharing of social knowledge across the oceans once again may prove the critical factor for continuity of the culture of water. Like the Palmeral of Elche in southeastern Spain, a UNESCO designated World Heritage cultural landscape, the traditional irrigation communities of New Mexico are unique agroecosystems with universal significance and should be protected for their tangible and intangible values as common property resources. The Palmeral of Elche offers a model on how to harmonize economic development and increase social welfare by preserving a superb and impressive cultural landscape, a valuable lesson for the rediscovery and future preservation of our human World Heritage (Martínez, 1999; Martínez, 2004).

Historian Thomas F. Glick has researched and compared the community irrigation systems at Elche, Murcia, and Valencia with those of the American Southwest. In his own summation, he makes a case for the protection of the acequia culture of New Mexico and southern Colorado as a viable development policy important to the indigenous rights of traditional peoples around the world and how this direction also recognizes their role as repositories of local knowledge about the environment and agricultural sustainability:

El caso de las acequias de Nuevo México y Colorado ofrece asimismo lecciones de gran valía a escala mundial... La lucha por los derechos de los pueblos aborígenes debe dar cobertura a los pueblos que practican estilos de vida tradicionales, fundamentados en economías y tecnologías de base preindustrial. Las acequias nuevomexicanas y los campos por ellas regados constituyen un modelo admirable de agricultura sostenible —sobre la cual mucho se habla y poco se ha hecho—, cuyos practicantes son depositarios un legado de conocimiento intensivo acerca del medio local, que puede ser aplicado en beneficio de políticas de desarrollo verdaderamente sostenibles (Glick, "Presentación", in Rivera, 2009:11).

We share his vision.


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