Acequias evolved over 10,000 years ago in the Middle East and take their name from the Arabic "as-saquiya" for “water carrier.” They were introduced into southern Spain by the Moors and then Spanish colonizers brought them to the New World along with their traditions and social structure. While acequias used to be found in many parts of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, only about 900 remain mostly in Northern New Mexico and the San Luis Valley of Colorado.
We went down to the Taos area in time for the annual "La Limpia de la Acequia" or Spring cleaning of the acequias to talk to parciantes about how they think the ditches are faring in light of drought, water rights and social change.
[ Intro ] Welcome to H2O Radio where we follow water wherever it leads. We bring you stories about everything and anything to do with water. On today's show: Acequias— Wisdom in the Ditches.
Frani: It’s a partly cloudy Spring morning in a Taos, New Mexico. About 20 people stand along the side of a rural road leaning on shovels. There’s a low murmur of chatter in Spanish and English as they wait for the signal to get started.
Then, a man in a black cowboy hat gestures and the group is off. They climb over a fence and onto a pasture before jumping down into a narrow trench lined with willows and cottonwoods. There they start scooping debris and branches that have accumulated over the winter and toss it out on to the banks above. This isn’t just any ditch and it isn’t a random Saturday. Today is "La Limpia de la Acequia" — the annual spring cleaning of the communal irrigation canal that will deliver water from melting snow in adjacent mountains to famers and ranchers in the valley below— some of whom can trace their family histories to Spanish settlers who arrived here over 400 years ago.
Acequias are shared ditches with origins in the ancient Middle East. The Moors introduced them to Spain whose explorers in turn brought them to the New World as a viable way of managing water and surviving in arid regions.
If you ask some of older folks digging in the ditch today, they’d tell you acequias aren’t just about water. They’re a way of life, a social structure and a set of laws on how to live in harmony with the land— and with each other. Acequia members, or "parciantes" elect a ditch boss or "mayordomo" who oversees operations, allocation of water, and more—
Eric Perramond: Prior to the U.S. takeover, that was the system of government. That was the way that people got along. That was the only governance that people ever experienced was a mayordomo.
Frani: That’s Eric Perramond, Associate Professor of Environmental & Southwest Programs at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
Eric: That really was politics in some ways. Water was politics for centuries and democratic— to a degree. Their job was to apportion water properly and that was the general supposition of it. There was an inherent kind of justness to the system. That if you participated, were a good citizen, if you needed help the acequia and mayordomo were there— would actually respond with some help in kind. It was fundamental to the notion of what a village was in New Mexico.
Frani: This democratic manner in which water is fairly shared and distributed is referred to as “repartimiento.” Water is divided based on the amount of land each parciante has on that particular acequia. Each parciante is required to send a "peon" or worker to clean the ditch each Spring. It’s calculated by acreage. If the parciante’s land is large enough they might have to send two peones.
Peon: They just follow the ditch. Everybody gets a section. Cleans it and then they move up once they’re done, they move up to the front of the line. Then they restart over and over. It’s just a recurring process.
Frani: Some of the men cleaning today might be parciantes, but most will tell you they’re day-laborers happy for the $50 they’ll get a half day’s work. More and more ditch members need outside help because they’re getting older and their kids have left for the cities, or gone to college and not returned.
Toby Martinez: What I could remember growing up is that everybody looked forward to go cleaning ditch.
Frani: That’s Toby Martinez. He grew up in Ranchos de Taos and although he left to become the State Forester he’s back and an ardent supporter of acequia culture.
Toby: And there was this unbelievable respect for the mayordomo— that he was a master and what he said, that went. It had a certain romantic feel, tied to culture and it just happened every year at the same time. It just felt wonderful.
Frani: Does that still happen? Is there ceremony around that?
Toby: Oh yes. Not so much a ceremony but a sense of ownership in field and being neighborly with the people that are there and committing to doing something that has carried on from generation to generation to generation. I think that’s the connection, it’s the pride in doing that and sense of community.
Frani: That sense of community is what many point to as the heart of what makes acequias unique. In times of shortages all members get less water— not just those who moved in later. It’s a form of relating to nature that's in harmony with the land and one of the last vestiges of a time when people depended on each other for survival.
Now the question is, can acequias themselves survive?
Toby: It’s definitely changed. We don’t have the water we used to have. When you look at these valleys we’re very productive. But you don’t have water....
Frani: Toby pauses, shakes his head and sighs, but he is hopeful. New people are moving to Taos and embracing the culture. Many around here hope that organic farmers and proponents of local food movements might breathe new life into what was once the lifeblood of northern New Mexico's culture and economy. Toby’s brother who has been standing with us listening, weighs in with his doubts however.
Toby’s brother: It’s something that’s going to fall by the wayside eventually.
Frani and Jamie: You think so??
Toby’s brother: Well, if we run out of water it probably will.
Frani: Is this the worst you’ve seen it in terms of drought?
Toby’s brother: It’s up there. Yeah.
Frani: As bad as droughts have been, many maintain that acequias are flexible institutions — agile in times of water shortages. The larger threats they say are from the lack of interest by the youth— and TOO much interest from thirsty cities down the Rio Grande who might be eyeing the weakened system for its potential water rights. Again, Eric Perramond.
Eric: I think one of the main concerns that people have, or that has been expressed is what is their role going to be in 21st century water management. These are people who have stewarded not just diversions for agriculture, but stream banks and kept communities alive for centuries. I think one of the main concerns is just what role they will play in a state water plan. And nowhere will you see that acknowledged or phrased that way because
there's a kind of, logically, there’s now this rule of experts on all things water that has very little connection to people actually producing things on the land. That's problematic to me. If that expertise and knowledge is not just acknowledged, but actually used in state water plans, then I think we run the risk of not just alienating people, but ignoring a vital component of things that might actually help us plan for the future.
There’s wisdom in those small little ditches. Why would we ignore it? 💧
[ Music: Credit: “Le secret des fées" by Agamemnon, Creative Commons ]
CORRECTION: We stated that Eric Perramond is "Associate Professor of Environmental & Southwest Programs at Colorado College." He is Associate Professor of Environmental Science & Southwest Studies at Colorado College.