Centuries-old irrigation system shows how to manage scarce water — @NatGeo

Selection of the 2015 native heirloom maize harvest of the seed library of The Acequia Institute in Viejo San Acacio, CO
Photo by Devon G. Peña

Here’s an in-depth look at acequia culture and administration from Robert Neuwirth writing for National Geographic. Click through to read the whole thing and to take in the illustrations and animations. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s spring again, the time of year—for the 300th time in some instances—when New Mexico communities come together to clean the acequias, irrigation channels that carry snowmelt from the mountains to newly tilled farm fields. Each annual cleaning is one more demonstration that at least here, in these close-knit communities arrayed across arid and rugged rangeland, it’s possible for people to share scarce resources to achieve a common goal—in this case, making sure everyone in the group has enough water.

Acequias are mutually managed, irrigation channels that have been in continuous operation in the arid American Southwest since before the formation of the United States. This communal water system traces its roots to the Spanish conquistadors, who brought their traditions to the territory in the 1600s, and who themselves borrowed it from the Muslims who invaded Spain in the 8th century. Indeed, the word acequia (pronounced ‘ah-seh-key-uh,’ stress on the ‘seh’) is an adaptation of the Arabic as-saqiya, meaning water carrier.

There are close to 700 functioning acequias in New Mexico, according to the state’s Acequia Commission, and a score more in Colorado. Many of these gravity-fed ditches that bring runoff from the mountains to the fields have been operating for three centuries, and some were likely dug long before that.

Most acequias are open channels and many farmers irrigate by flooding their fields, which means that lots of water leaches away or evaporates. Yet studies show that the dirt waterways provide more robust environmental benefits than concrete culverts and metal pipes, says Sam Fernald, professor of watershed management at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and the head of the school’s Water Resources Research Institute.

Seepage—which can range between one-third and one-half of the flow—replenishes groundwater while also fostering a rich wetlands around each ditch, Fernald says. A number of other studies suggest that irrigating with acequias extends the hay-growing season and so boosts the number of cattle that can be grazed. And the largest benefit, though much harder to quantify, is that the acequias create communities that serve as stewards of the environment.

Parciantes—members who own water rights in an acequia community—express this in a slightly different fashion. “Belonging to the land is what’s important,” says Joseph Padilla, a retired teacher who irrigates his family’s land with water diverted from the Gallinas River into the Acequia Madre de los Vigiles just outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Fat snowflakes float around us, falling onto his field of newly sown winter wheat. “We don’t control it. The land owns us. We’re just a small part of it.”

The acequias also protect traditional farming techniques. “I still have the same chile seed my ancestors grew and I still grow the same chile variety,” says Don Bustos, master-farmer and long-time mayordomo of the Acequia de Santa Cruz in the hills above Española.

As Bustos and I stroll the fields that once belonged to his great-grandmother, he says: “This acequia does more than distribute water. It holds the community together as a spirit enterprise.”

The history and preservation of the #Acequia del Madre del Río Pueblo, Taos, #NewMexico — The Paseo Project

Click here to read the report:

The Paseo Project is excited to present Acequia Aquí: The history and preservation of the Acequia Madre del Río Pueblo. The essay and series of maps illuminate the deteriorating acequia network at the heart of the town of Taos. Through community collaborations, The Paseo Project seeks to educate, illuminate and support this historic and culturally important public infrastructure. Through this exploration, the Paseo Project seeks to transform our community by celebrating the downtown acequia network through creative and artistic events and installations. With the help of this booklet, we hope that you will better understand the history and value the acequia system has provided to our community and imagine with us new ways that we can celebrate the gift of their presence. — The Paseo Project Team

View north from Taos Plaza toward Taos Mountain. By NASA World Wind. – NASA World Wind., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50266898

Acequia La Vida ByLaws — Greg Hobbs

Greg is a restless guy. Here’s his report from acequia country.

Acequia La Vida
ByLaws

In late fall, the ancestors
spread blankets

of leaves over the bones
of their ditches

feeding the river down
terraces they plant.

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Udall, Heinrich Announce USDA Grants to Support Acequia Associations & Traditional Communities, Hispanic Farmers and Ranchers, and Tribal Communities

An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Here’s the release from Senator Tom Udall’s office:

Nearly $525,000 in grants come from USDA’s Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers & Ranchers Program

Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich announced three grants totaling nearly $525,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to benefit New Mexico’s traditional communities and acequia associations, Hispanic farmers and ranchers, and tribal agricultural communities in the state. The grants were made through the USDA’s Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, which Udall and Heinrich have long supported to help socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and foresters in New Mexico and across the country who have historically experienced limited access to USDA loans, grants, training, and technical assistance.

“New Mexico’s traditional communities have been stewards of our state’s water and land for generations, and this new funding will support acequia farmers and ranchers as they continue to manage our resources for generations to come. These grants will empower farmers and ranchers from Hispanic and tribal communities across New Mexico to continue producing for our state and the nation,” said Udall. “As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I have worked hard to preserve the Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers & Ranchers Program and to secure additional funding for these grants – because this program provides essential support to the farmers and ranchers who help make New Mexico strong, but who too often are overlooked or left behind when it comes to federal assistance. I look forward to working with our land grants, acequias, and other traditional New Mexico farming communities to build on this progress.”

“Our farmers help drive New Mexico’s economy, especially in rural communities,” said Heinrich. “Acequia users, land grants, and tribal communities have cultivated land in New Mexico for centuries. I will continue fighting for New Mexico’s farmers and ranchers so they can continue our state’s long tradition in agriculture and promote long-term, sustainable use of our land and water.”

The USDA grants announced by Udall and Heinrich include:

Support for New Mexico Acequias and Traditional Communities: Udall and Heinrich announced a $135,964 grant for the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) for the New Mexico Acequia Farmer and Rancher Education Project, to strengthen the agricultural operations of the farmers and ranchers who use acequias or community ditches in New Mexico. According to USDA, “through a statewide membership network, NMAA will provide education and technical assistance to improve agricultural operations through irrigation efficiency, to train new and beginning farmers and youth, and to increase participation in USDA programs. NMAA will work with organizational and agency partners to ensure farmers, ranchers, and acequias meet eligibility requirements for USDA programs and to assist with USDA applications which will benefit over 300 producers. NMAA will also provide education and training through workshops and demonstration sites for new and beginning farmers and youth benefiting over 150 participants.”

Support for Native farmers and ranchers from New Mexico tribes and pueblos: Udall and Heinrich announced two grants totaling $388,492 to benefit farmers and ranchers from tribal and pueblo communities. One grant will help expand access for Northern New Mexico pueblos to key USDA programs to benefit the ownership, operation, and profitability of family farms and ranches for pueblo farmers and ranchers. The second grant will help fund agricultural workshops, training, resources, and free consultations for farmers and ranchers on the Navajo Nation.

More information can be found here.

A look at #Colorado acequias

Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, La Sierra Common, and Subdivisions. La Sierra is the 80,000-acre common land or ejido. Map courtesy of High Country News at URL: https://www.hcn.org/issues/104/3250.

Click through and read the entire article from KUNC (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:

For many people, spring is a time for deep cleaning, a time to take stock of and prepare for the year ahead. That’s also the case on farms in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, where farmers spend their weekends banding together to clean out the irrigation ditches that bring snowmelt to their fields.

The clean up, known as the limpieza, is part of an irrigation tradition unique to this region for centuries.

If you irrigate here, Quintana says, you or one of your family members is expected to be here shoveling out muck, removing trash and tree limbs. The limpieza is an annual obligation…

If not for the clean up, water would pool in places it’s not needed, caught up in makeshift dams of trash and vegetation.

Small farm towns in portions of the San Luis Valley, like San Pablo, are organized around acequias, networks of irrigation ditches and canals dug nearly 150 years ago. It’s what makes farming possible in this dry stretch of land. While most Western law views water as property – a commodity people own and trade – acequias see it as a community asset, something tied to the land and shared.

Quintana, 61, grew up on a farm in San Pablo. As an adult, he left for a career in IT, always knowing his family’s land would be here for him to return to. He participates in the annual ditch cleaning now because he always has. But Quintana says there’s a growing sense that it will be difficult to bring the next generation back to the valley to keep the acequias functional and vibrant.

Sharing water in the West

On this day, the limpieza moves fast. The ditch is cleaned, and a group of middle-aged farmers pile into the back of an old pickup truck to head to the volunteer fire station for chicken fajitas.

It’s hard to overstate how radical the idea of sharing water in the West is. Everyone outside an acequia in states like Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Nevada, uses the prior appropriation system for water. That system, where your right to water is given to you based on when you claimed it, doesn’t allow for easy sharing, but it’s the core tenant of acequia management. Distribution of water is based on equity and need, not given out because you claimed it first.

Sharing water sounds easy if snowpack is high and runoff is plentiful. But in times of scarcity everyone within an acequia feels the shortage together.

Acequias vary in their style of governance. A common form is as a civic association, with members, the people who irrigate with water from a particular ditch, a board of directors and at least one employee who runs the ditch. That person is the mayordomo.

Augustin “Roy” Esquibel is the mayordomo for the ditch cleaned today. When he arrives at the fire station for lunch, he takes the time to shake everyone’s hand, and jokes that he’ll have to walk a lot more ditches to work off these fajitas.

He motions down the street, toward the church of San Isidro, the Catholic saint of farmers. This valley is sustained by agriculture, he says. Everyone here is either currently farming or a descendent of farmers. The land today is used to mostly grow hay or other grasses for cattle and horses, with some wheat and dry beans grown as well. As a water steward, Esquibel says his faith guides his decisions.

Taos Valley Acequia Association Annual Meeting, March 3, 2018

Click here for the inside skinny.

Acequia primer

Here’s a in-depth look at acequias from Gerald Zarr writing for AramcoWorld. Click through and read the whole article and for the great photographs. Here’s an excerpt:

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.