Derived from the Arabic as-saqiya (“that which gives water”), acequias are gravity-ﬂow irrigation ditches that evolved over 10,000 years in the arid regions of the Middle East. Especially from the ninth through the 16th century, control of the movement of water—hydrology—was one of the most important technologies developed from Mesopotamia and Persia to Arabia, North Africa and Spain. When the Spanish colonized the New World, they brought with them their acequia technology. (Acequias have subterranean cousins from the same regions, known variously as qanats or falajs.)
My own visit to New Mexico started in Albuquerque with a tutorial on acequias in bravura style by José A. Rivera of the University of New Mexico and author in 1998 of Acequia Culture: Water, Land and Community in the Southwest. Acequias, he explained, have not just history, but also culture, governance and issues of sustainability. He pointed me to the nearby Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, where a recent exhibit featured artworks and 130 objects relating to digging and maintaining the waterways. One painting in the exhibition showed water from an acequia seeping through the ground to recharge the aquifer below. Other exhibits included a wooden headgate to open and shut the acequia’s ﬂow (perhaps of a type Nichols had imagined for Mondragón); a pair of overalls and rubber boots worn by a mayordomo, or water master; and the rusted back end of an early 1950s Dodge pickup, displayed as a typical mode of transportation to and from acequias. A bumper sticker proclaimed, “Our Acequias: Life, Culture, Tradition”—ﬁghting words in a region where it’s not just The Milagro Beanﬁeld War but real communities, government authorities and property developers that are cooperating and contesting the water rights that mean the difference between feast and famine, endurance and eviction.
Three days later I was driving north out of Santa Fe following the Rio Grande through the Espanola Valley on New Mexico State Road 68, also known as the “River Road to Taos.” Soon I was in real “Milagro Beanﬁeld” territory, for the ﬁlm was shot at Truchas, just 30 kilometers east. This road began as the northern leg of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road to the Interior Lands), Spain’s 2,400-kilometer route of conquest from Mexico City that reached north to Taos. On this road in July 1598, Capitan General Don Juan de Oñate brought the ﬁrst Spanish settlers to New Mexico and established one of the earliest European settlements in what is now the United States.
Four hundred colonists and soldiers, and several hundred Indians from what is now Mexico, came with 83 creaking wagons, 1,000 horses and 7,000 head of livestock in a procession six kilometers long that moved as fast as the cattle walked. Oñate settled his headquarters about 50 kilometers north of present-day Santa Fe in a town he called San Gabriel (today’s Chamita). Water was so essential he ordered construction of acequias even before the town’s houses, public buildings and churches were ﬁnished. It was easy to understand why: Settlers were carrying buckets of water hanging from yokes across their shoulders. In Acequia Culture, Rivera described how the settlers diverted water on one of the might-iest stretches of the Rio Grande and built an acequia:
[They built] dams made of logs, brush, rocks and other natural materials…. Using wooden hand tools, the digging of earthen ditches and laterals would follow the construction of the main diversion dam…. [T]hese irrigation works included the acequia madre (mother ditch or main canal), compuertas (headgates), canoas (log ﬂumes for arroyo crossings), sangrias (lateral ditches cut perpendicular from the main canal to irrigate individual parcels of land) and a desague channel, which drains sur-plus water back to the stream source.
The acequia network channeled the swollen ﬂow of springtime mountain snowmelt into community ﬁelds and gardens that blossomed with jalapeño peppers, blue corn, squash, lettuce, cabbage, peas, garbanzos, cumin seed, carrots, turnips, garlic, onions, artichokes, radishes and cucumbers. More than 400 years later, these same crops are grown in the Espanola Valley, some still watered by acequias.
In 1610 Oñate’s successor, Pedro de Peralta, moved the capital to Santa Fe. Once again, building acequias was the ﬁrst order of business. On each side of the Santa Fe River, an acequia madre was dug, and eventually dozens of ace-quias sustained the growing population. Today, although the city’s acequias no longer serve primarily for agriculture, they are a treasured part of the urban scene: One of Santa Fe’s prettiest streets is the narrow, winding street named Acequia Madre.
In following years, acequias were built also across much of the Southwest in lands that became Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California, but it is in New Mexico that the system proved most durable. Today New Mexico boasts some 800 active acequias, all survivors of political, legal and administrative changes through the Spanish (1598-1821), Mexican (1821-1848) and Territorial (1848-1912) periods, as well as us statehood, to the present day. After New Mexico, Colorado comes next with an estimated 150 active acequias in the four southern counties of Costilla, Conejos, Huerfano and Las Animas.
By contrast, in the other states, most colonial-era acequias were abandoned or supplanted by private mutual ditch companies, water-user associations, irrigation districts or conservancy districts. Few remain in Arizona, California and Texas—although San Antonio has preserved one near Espada Dam southeast of the city.
Rivera explained that the word “acequia” refers not only to the physical trench in the ground, but also, and just as importantly, to the system of community self-governance. “You don’t just have a ditch; you belong to an acequia,” he explains, emphasizing that the word also means the co-op of farmers who share the water and govern their own use of it. So important are the organizations that the state of New Mexico recognizes acequias as political subdivisions.
The acequia elects its own mayordomo, whose role has antecedents in the Moorish sahib al-saqiya, or “water giver,” who assesses how much water is available daily and prescribes times for each farmer to water his crops.
Acequia water law also requires that persons with irrigation rights in the acequia participate in an annual, springtime ditch cleanup. This is when, all along the upper Rio Grande, the sound of rakes and shovels brings a bustle to largely tranquil hills, as members scoop and scrape whatever has settled in the ditch over the winter. “It’s a tradition,” says Rivera. “The annual cleanup bonds the community.”
The renewed ﬂow of water that followed the work marked a festive time. “Kids would run ahead yelling, ‘the water is coming!’” wrote New Mexico historian and former mayordomo Juan Estevan Arellano in Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water, published just before his death in 2014.
Arellano spent much of his life as an acequias advocate. In his book he took the reader to his farm at the conﬂuence of the Embudo and Río Grande Rivers, about halfway between Santa Fe and Taos on the Camino Real, which had been in his family since 1725. He wrote that he lived on “a combination experimental farm and recreational site that I call my almunyah, from the classical Arabic word meaning ‘desire.’
In New Mexico acequia water was historically treated as a community resource that irrigators had a shared right to use and a shared responsibility to manage and protect. With statehood, however, came the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. Based on the principle that water rights are not connected to land ownership, it meant that water—from any source—could be sold or mortgaged like other property. This gave rise to the populist Southwest adage, “water ﬂows uphill to money”—or, more simply, water ends up being owned by the rich and powerful.
G. Emlen Hall, author in 2002 of High and Dry: The Texas-New Mexico Struggle for the Pecos River, explains that real- estate developers often try to secure water rights for new projects by buying irrigated land served by acequias. Then, he says, they try—often against local opposition—to transfer those rights to new, distant developments. “This, of course, would have picked the acequias apart, tract by tract, and eventually destroyed them,” he notes, “These battles over water are continuing, and they can be intense.”
Rivera agrees. “One water transfer at a time erodes the function of a community ditch. Eventually there is a tipping point if too much water is taken out of the ditch,” he says. “Beyond the tipping-point threshold, reached after many such sales and transfers, the acequia institution and governance collapse.”
Starting in the late 1980s, there was a burst of “acequia activism” in New Mexico that culminated in 1988 with the establishment of the statewide New Mexico Acequia Association (nmaa) and, around the same time, farmers formed regional acequia associations. In a major legislative victory for the groups, the New Mexico Legislature enacted a law in 2003 allowing acequias to block water transfers outside the physical acequia if detrimental to it or its members.
Although some developers disparage acequias as water-guzzlers, the claims are disproved by recent research. Studies by hydrologist Alexander “Sam” Fernald, professor of watershed man-agement at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, show that traditional earthen irrigation ditches offer hydrologic beneﬁts beyond simply delivering water to crops.
His data show that, on average, only seven percent of the water diverted from the Rio Grande into a north-central New Mexico acequia is lost to evapotranspiration—the sum of evaporation from all sources, including water vapor released by plants. The remaining 93 percent returns to the river, 60 percent as surface water from irrigation tailwater and 33 percent as groundwater. Acequias also help build healthy aquifers by ﬁltering the water that percolates underground: Aquifers are key sources of drinking water. Furthermore, they bene-ﬁt livestock, which can drink directly from acequias rather than going to the river. “Most people are unaware of these positive effects of acequias,” says Fernando.